Early season NASCAR stars and strugglers

Leave a comment

It’s only been three races and the mantra being trumpeted this year is that wins mean everything in NASCAR.

Points still do too, eventually at least. Here’s a look at some of the best and those who will have work to do after three races, now that a slightly larger sample size of tracks is available to draw from:

IN GREAT SHAPE

Race winners Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski are all essentially locked into this year’s Chase. They can all afford to take chances from here, and it’s why Earnhardt was so disappointed with second on Sunday, because they went for it and came up just short on fuel.

OFF AND RUNNING

Six other drivers have either two or three top-10 finishes even though they haven’t yet visited Victory Lane. But it’s likely only a matter of time for all of Jimmie Johnson, Joey Logano, Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth and Ryan Newman. Denny Hamlin, of course, took home a pair of wins at Daytona Speedweeks but has yet to match his runner-up finish in the Daytona 500 itself.

RUNNING BETTER, BUT NOT GREAT YET

From 10th on down in the points are drivers who should factor into Chase contention down the road but haven’t run in top-five or top-three contention yet through the first three races. All these drivers have just one top-10 finish in the first three races: Kyle Busch, Jamie McMurray, Greg Biffle, Austin Dillon, Kasey Kahne, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Casey Mears and Paul Menard.

SOME WORK TO DO

All these drivers rank outside the top 20 in points through three races, and have had at least one “bad” race or DNF: Clint Bowyer, rookie Kyle Larson, Martin Truex Jr., Stewart-Haas Racing’s trio of Tony Stewart, Danica Patrick and Kurt Busch, and Aric Almirola of Richard Petty Motorsports.

Combined this group ranks anywhere from 22nd to 33rd in points, and have zero top-10 finishes between them. It’s not something they can’t recover from, but they’ve already dug themselves a slight hole to climb out of.

POINTS: Through 3 of 26 regular season races.

Coyne transitioning from underdog to Indy 500 threat

Photo: IndyCar
Leave a comment

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.

Follow@KyleMLavigne