Tired of questions and doubt, Tony Stewart shows he’s back and just fine at Bristol

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The best way to get Tony Stewart inspired seems to be when he’s ticked off – and the proof of that was in his fourth-place finish in Sunday’s Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway.

As the first three weeks of the 2014 season had played out, Stewart had grown weary of questions from media and fans about how he was physically and how far he’s recovered since last August’s sprint car mishap that left him with a severely fractured right leg, causing him to miss the final 15 races of the Sprint Cup season.

When he got to Bristol last Thursday, Stewart may not have wanted to be reminded – but of course, the media did so – about his overall career record at the half-mile bullring, the second-worst performing track in his personal Cup annals.

A poor qualifying performance Saturday, forcing Stewart to take a provisional to sit 37th on Sunday’s starting grid didn’t help, either.

Enough was enough for Stewart, it would appear, as on Sunday he drove like the Smoke of old and gave hope to diehard fans who were concerned about the slow and dismal start he had in the season’s first three races (35th at Daytona, 16th at Phoenix, 33rd at Las Vegas).

“It’s not a win, I know that, but it feels like a win,” Stewart said. “I think we will take that.  Come to Bristol and run 500 laps here and a top five, that is just what the doctor ordered.”

Admittedly, there still is a slight downside. For as well as he performed, because of the way he finished in the three races beforehand, Stewart only improved slightly in the Sprint Cup standings, from 27th to 23rd.

Even so, there is now hope where there was little before Bristol, where he earned his best finish since a runner-up showing in the 2010 spring race there, four years ago.

Smoke may not be totally back, but Sunday’s finish would seem to indicate that he’s at least on the right track.

“To start 37th and end up fourth today, I’m pretty excited about that,” Stewart said. “We had a long way to go from Friday, when we weren’t very good and every day we just got better and better. So, I’m really proud of this team.”

Of course, Stewart was once again asked how he felt physically after the race. Would you expect anything less from the media?

Without batting an eye, his response was vintage Stewart, bringing the house down with laughter: “I feel great! Let’s do it again!”

While Stewart will likely continue to be ticked off every now and then by the media, for at least a few days he shook off the pessimists and can look forward to next Sunday’s race at Fontana with optimism.

“It’s a step in the right direction for sure,” Stewart said. “This is a big one. If you come out of this place with a top-five you’ve had a good day.”

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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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