NASCAR points observations through seven races

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The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series action from Texas Motor Speedway was delayed a day, but our points analysis afterwards isn’t. Here’s the latest rundown on where things stand as now seven of 26 regular season races are in the books.

THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN

There’s any number of seven-related puns we could have used here, but the winners thus far get the magnificent tag. Team Penske’s Joey Logano has gotten off to a fast start thus far, particularly at Phoenix and Las Vegas, and his Texas run was one of his best performances yet in Sprint Cup. It took a G-W-C and a last lap pass of Jeff Gordon to it, but the right guy won Sunday at TMS to make it seven winners in seven races.

Logano joins a list that also includes Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Carl Edwards, Kyle and Kurt Busch. Assuming there are more winners, it might not necessarily be a guarantee that one win gets you in to this year’s Chase.

There were 13 winners in the first 26 races last year, and that number seems likely to get hit again, if not exceeded, in 2014.

THE NEXT LIKELY ROUND OF WINNERS

Gordon and Matt Kenseth are 1-2 in the points – for Gordon, it’s something he hasn’t experienced much of the last few years. But a win would be sweet, even though the points and results have been flowing ever so nicely to get the year going.

It’s the same story for Jimmie Johnson, who fell two spots to seventh in points after a 25th-place result Monday but one that could have been worse after getting caught up in teammate Dale Jr.’s crash.

RUNNING NEARLY WELL ENOUGH TO WIN

P9-15 – Brian Vickers, Paul Menard, Ryan Newman, rookie Austin Dillon, Denny Hamlin, Tony Stewart and rookie Kyle Larson – have posted some impressive drives over the last couple weeks and it continued in Texas. Vickers and Larson, in particular, were the standouts on Monday.

NEXT LEVEL CHALLENGERS

Those from P16 on back needing a slight performance boost or a bit of luck to enter possible win contention include Greg Biffle and Clint Bowyer in P16 and 17, although “the Biff” had one of his strongest runs of 2014 Monday in Texas, Kasey Kahne in P19, Jamie McMurray in P21 and the luckless Martin Truex Jr. in P27. These are all quality drivers who haven’t yet had that one big race in 2014 to challenge for a win.

POINTS: Through 7 of 26 regular season races.

PAST WEEKS: Martinsville (Race 6), Fontana (5), Bristol (4), Las Vegas (3)

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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