Team Penske comes up just a little short at Phoenix

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After qualifying on the front row, Team Penske’s Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano had the pace to stay toward the top of the leaderboard today at Phoenix International Raceway.

But with wins now virtually ensuring your place in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, near-misses are not good enough. Keselowski and Logano both indicated as much after finishing third and fourth respectively behind winner Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

“It feels to good to run up front and be competitive, but in this system, wins are the only thing that count,” Keselowski said. “Last year, you’d say seconds and thirds are great but this year, they’re not. They’re just so-so.

“We were close. I could see it the whole race. Some of our long-run stuff was good as anybody, and the short-run stuff was just OK. It was a good run either way, something to be proud of and hang our hat on. We just know we have to be a little bit better and go from there.”

Keselowski was able to achieve the Top-3 result despite not having his regular crew chief, Paul Wolfe, present. Wolfe flew home during the weekend to be with his wife as they welcomed their first child, Caden Paul.

Yesterday, Keselowski admitted that he was “concerned” about not having Wolfe around for today’s main event. But today, he praised Greg Erwin and Brian Wilson for doing well with filling in for Wolfe.

“They did a great job,” he said. “We still had two more spots to go but all things considered, they did really well and I’m really proud of their effort.”

As for Logano, he was able to push Harvick past Earnhardt for the lead on multiple restarts during the last 35 laps. But he wasn’t able to latch on to Harvick’s back bumper.

“With the new points structure, a win means so much to get you in the Chase,” Logano told Fox Sports in post-race. “I knew my restarts were really good all day and I was able to push [Harvick] along. I wasn’t sure I had enough to go three-wide and go for it, but on the last restart [with nine laps to go], I was like, ‘You know what? Go for it. What have you got to lose?’

“Third place doesn’t mean nothing these days. I shoved our Shell-Pennzoil Ford into a hole there and it just didn’t work out and that’s how we lost [second]. I probably wouldn’t have finished third if I didn’t do it, but you’ve got nothing to lose.”

Logano was still complementary of his team’s effort on the weekend. Nonetheless, he couldn’t help but marvel over Harvick, who led 224 of 312 laps en route to his third Phoenix triumph in his last four races there.

“On the back of his car, it says ‘Freaky Fast!’ And…they weren’t lying,” Logano said in reference to a slogan belonging to Jimmy John’s Gourmet Sandwiches, Harvick’s main backer on the No. 4 Chevy for this race.

“We’ll just have to go back and figure out what he’s doing [at Phoenix]…I went to school behind him a little bit, learned a little bit, but didn’t have enough to beat him.”

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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