Aric Almirola sets new Darlington track record, starts P3 tomorrow

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For the sixth time this season, a Sprint Cup track record was set in qualifying as Aric Almirola became the fastest man ever at venerable Darlington Raceway this evening.

Almirola logged a lap of 184.145 miles per hour in the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford Fusion during the second round of the three-round knockout qualifying for tomorrow’s Bojangles Southern 500.

That made him tops among the 12 drivers that advanced to the final round, but Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano were able to beat him in those last five minutes, putting Almirola third on the starting grid.

“We just missed it a little bit [in the final round],” Almirola said. “We made one adjustment right there before that third session and I don’t think we went far enough. We were just a little bit too tight, but that was a heck of a lap by Harvick.

“That track record lap actually didn’t feel – I felt like I was going faster in the third session than I did in the second session, and I went faster in the second session. It was a great lap for us.”

Lately, RPM has focused on its intermediate program, which has lacked so far this year in comparison to the team’s work on short tracks.

Today, it paid off with Almirola qualifying third and teammate Marcos Ambrose qualifying alongside him in fourth.

“Typically, we’ve not run really well on short tracks and our mile-and-a-half program has where we’ve been best. But the roles are kind of reversed this year, and we’ve put a lot of effort into our mile-and-a-half program, and we ran a lot better at Texas.

“[We’re] still not where we need to be, but ran a lot better and then brought a race car here this weekend…[that] has a lot of speed in it. I feel really good about it.”

Almirola also wants to do well for his crew chief, Trent Owens, who is having a homecoming weekend at the track “Too Tough To Tame.” Owens grew up just a few miles from Darlington.

“I told him before we ever got here that he was gonna have to carry me this weekend because I do not like this race track and I tend to struggle here,” Almirola said. “So far, he’s carrying me pretty good. He brought me a really good car that’s got a lot of speed in it.

“Now we’ve gotta make it last 500 miles.”

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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