NNS Notes: Regan Smith retains early points lead

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After winning the season opener at Daytona International Speedway one week ago, Regan Smith continued his solid start to 2014 by retaining the Nationwide Series points lead with an eighth-place showing today at Phoenix International Raceway.

The JR Motorsports driver now holds a five-point lead over Trevor Bayne, who finished one spot ahead of him in seventh place.

Altogether, it was another solid day for JRM, which had Kevin Harvick racing in their No. 88 car today. Harvick, always strong at Phoenix, was able to come away with a runner-up finish, while rookie driver Chase Elliott earned his first Top-10 finish in Nationwide competition with a ninth-place result.

After the race, Harvick said he was simply trying to “maintain” the second-place position due to his car being loose on restarts.

[Winner] Kyle [Busch] had the best car today,” he told the NASCAR Wire Service. “We probably finished where we should have.”

Brad Keselowski finished third from the pole position but a run-in with Daryl Harr on Lap 20 had the former Sprint Cup champion feeling some remorse.

Harr appeared to come down to the inside of Turn 1 but Keselowski was unable to slow himself down enough and tapped Harr, sending him spinning into the wall.

“It’s a lot like going down the freeway – you’re in the left lane, someone’s in the right lane and they switch lanes while you’re going a little bit faster,” Keselowski told ESPN in the first moments of the red flag that came out for rain with 32 laps to go (the race would not be restarted).

“You can’t react but it’s your fault because you’ve hit him from behind. I couldn’t slow down enough to keep from hitting him from behind and causing him to wreck. I feel bad for those guys. I know they’re trying their best to make it in this series, and it’s unfortunate.”

Keselowski suffered some front-end damage in the incident and had a long stop in the pits to tape it up. However, his pace was strong enough to make up the track position he lost.

Later in post-race, Keselowski talked about the loss of his Sprint Cup crew chief, Paul Wolfe, for tomorrow’s The Profit on CNBC 500. Wolfe has flown back to North Carolina to be with his wife for the birth of their first child.

“We were definitely prepared [for that], but that doesn’t mean we aren’t concerned,” Keselowski said. “There is always concern. There is a reason Paul is the crew chief on the 2 car. He is a great guy, knows what he is doing and is our best guy from that perspective.

“There is always a concern there but you prepare the best you can and try to understand the personal significance of what it is to go through what he is going through. Hopefully it all goes great.”

Keselowski will look to win from the pole tomorrow.

Coyne transitioning from underdog to Indy 500 threat

Photo: IndyCar
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For most of the team’s existence, Dale Coyne Racing has been the Chicago Cubs of American Open Wheel Racing – a team whose history was more defined by failures, at times comically so, than success.

The last decade, however, has seen the tide completely change. In 2007, they scored three podium finishes with Bruno Junqueira. In 2009, they won at Watkins Glen with the late Justin Wilson.

The combination won again at Texas Motor Speedway in 2012, and finished sixth in the 2013 Verizon IndyCar Series championship. That same year, Mike Conway took a shock win for them in Race 1 at the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit.

Carlos Huertas scored an upset win for them in Race 1 at the Houston double-header in 2014, and while 2015 and 2016 yielded no wins, Tristan Vautier and Conor Daly gave them several strong runs – Vautier’s best finish was fourth in Race 2 at Detroit, while Daly finished second in Race 1 at Detroit, finished fourth at Watkins Glen, and scored a trio of sixth-place finishes at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course, Race 2 at Detroit, and the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

And 2017 was set to possibly be the best year the team has ever had. Sebastien Bourdais gave the team a popular win in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, and then rookie Ed Jones scored back-to-back top tens – 10th and sixth – at St. Pete and the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach to start his career.

But, things started unraveling at the Indianapolis 500. Bourdais appeared set to be in the Fast Nine Pole Shootout during his first qualifying run – both of his first two laps were above 231 mph –  before his horrifying crash in Turn 2.

While Jones qualified an impressive 11th and finished an even more impressive third, results for the rest of the season became hard to come by – Jones only scored two more Top 10s, with a best result of seventh at Road America.

But, retooled for 2018, the Coyne team is a legitimate threat at the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500.

Bourdais, whose No. 18 Honda features new sponsorship from SealMaster and now ownership partners in Jimmy Vasser and James “Sulli” Sullivan, has a win already, again at St. Pete, and sits third in the championship.

And Bourdais may also be Honda’s best hope, given that he was the fastest Honda in qualifying – he’ll start fifth behind Ed Carpenter, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power, and Josef Newgarden.

“I think it speaks volumes about their work, their passion and their dedication to this program, Dale (Coyne), Jimmy (Vasser) and Sulli (James Sullivan) and everybody from top to bottom. I can’t thank them enough for the opportunity, for the support,” Bourdais said of the team’s effort.

Rookie Zachary Claman De Melo has been progressing nicely, and his Month of May has been very solid – he finished 12th at the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the IMS Road Course and qualified a strong 13th for the “500.”

“It’s been surreal to be here as rookie. I’m a bit at a loss for words,” Claman De Melo revealed after qualifying. “The fans, driving around this place, being with the team, everything is amazing. I have a great engineer, a great group of experienced mechanics at Dale Coyne Racing.”

While Conor Daly and Pippa Mann struggled in one-off entries, with Mann getting bumped out of the field in Saturday qualifying, Daly’s entry essentially puts three Coyne cars in the race – Daly’s No. 17 United States Air Force Honda is a Dale Coyne car that has been leased to Thom Burns Racing.

Rest assured, the days of Coyne being an “also ran” are long gone, and a Coyne car ending up in Victory Lane at the biggest race of the year would complete the Chicago Cubs analogy – the Cubs won a World Series title in 2016, and an Indy 500 triumph would be the crowning achievement in Coyne’s career.

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