Momentum continues for Stewart-Haas Racing after strong qualifying

2 Comments

Tony Stewart’s pole for tomorrow’s Duck Commander 500 at Texas Motor Speedway is another sign that the newly expanded four-car squad at Stewart-Haas Racing is finding its stride.

Stewart in particular has been earning momentum in recent weeks with two Top-5s (fourth at Bristol, fifth at Fontana) in his last three races. But overall, SHR’s performance has improved markedly and they’re now sitting as the only team with multiple drivers effectively in the Chase after Kevin Harvick’s win at Phoenix and Kurt Busch’s win at Martinsville last week.

“I don’t think it’s any one thing,” said Stewart of his team’s resurgence. “Our cars have had speed. I mean, Kurt and Kevin have been qualifying well all year and this week, [the 14 team] had a good run. The good thing is it’s not just one team, it’s the whole organization is having a really good start as far as qualifying’s concerned.

“So, I don’t know if we can really point to one thing to be truthful…It’s early in the year, the atmosphere in our shop’s really good right now – it has been ever since the end of the season last year. It’s just a lot of new faces and with that, there’s kind of a new excitement around our shop and it seems to be translating to what we’re seeing on the race track.”

As for the early-season issues that SHR had to deal with – including a notably poor run for Stewart in Las Vegas due to car issues – “Smoke” said they were just byproducts of both the expansion of SHR to a four-car franchise and working with the new rules package.

“Everything that we did last year is kinda out the window and now you’re doing things that are totally different, and you’re not doing it for one car, you’re doing it for all four cars,” Stewart said. “There’s just been a lot of changes – obviously, adding the fourth team but changing things, set-ups from last year to this year.

“What happened to us in Vegas was something that nobody would’ve predicted would happen. The good thing is they found it when they got the car back to Charlotte, found what the problem was. We’ve learned those things early, so hopefully that won’t bite us later in the year.”

Harvick set a new track record in the first round of qualifying before winding up third on the grid for tomorrow’s race, while Busch also made the final round and qualified 11th (the fourth SHR driver, Danica Patrick, will start 24th).

In his post-qualifying comments, Harvick noted that Stewart’s pole was as “good as it gets for the organization” and that it was “a huge improvement” from where SHR was just a few weeks ago.

“Honestly, I don’t think we’ve even scratched the surface as a team,” Harvick said. “We’re still trying to get all the cars built, everything organized, flowing exactly how it needs to flow in the shop with all the stuff that we’ve changed over the winter…Adding a whole new team and bringing in new crew chiefs.

“I think everybody’s getting their – as you can see with [Stewart] – just getting their feet on the ground and getting to where we’re competing for poles and competing for wins. Having speed in the car hasn’t been the issue for the 4 team as we’ve gone through the weeks, and we’ve just got a few things to clean up and things are gonna be coming together even better.”

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