Ten with Townsend: Long Beach Debrief

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After NBCSN’s first Verizon IndyCar Series race of the season, we checked in once again with our NBC Sports Group IndyCar analyst Townsend Bell for MotorSportsTalk’s first 2014 installment of “Ten with Townsend.” Look for more of these to come over the course of the year. For a 2013 archive, check this link.

Without further adieu, thoughts from our ace expert on the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach:

-With St. Petersburg a relatively mild race until the one restart, were you surprised by the level of aggression we saw at Long Beach?
 
Not really.  I would say that’s the norm these days.   For good reason too, because it’s so tough to win now.  I fully expect a multitude of winners this season.  So much quality, parity etc.
 
-Mike Conway’s win owed a bit to luck, but clearly he’s had the performance on street courses to help Ed Carpenter Racing. Where do you rate him in the field in terms of how talented he is on the road and street circuits?
 
Top 5 without question.  To come in like he does part-time, bouncing between WEC commitments is hard enough already.  Detroit last year was flat out breathtaking.  I can still remember the first time he showed up for Panther Racing at a Sonoma test in 2008 (I think it was).  Straight away- stunning speed.
 
-With Will Power’s St. Pete restart and now contact with Simon Pagenaud at Long Beach, were you surprised at all by either of those? Or was it more surprising there were no penalties assessed to him? 
 
I didn’t see anything wrong with his St Pete restart.  In fact I think it was text book to what was requested by race control.  The Long Beach contact was certainly open for review but we are seeing the new ‘hands off’ stance that IndyCar announced previously – let the drivers sort it out. The flip side is the carnage the ensued after Hunter Reay’s similar move on Newgarden.  So I’m not sure what the position will be now going forward with respect to ‘avoidable contact’. (BTW I never liked that term)  I wouldn’t want that job in race control, so we’re lucky to have people who step up for the abuse!!  In the end, life without fenders is complicated but so fantastic at the same time.
 
-Also Power-related, do you think his momentum was properly able to carry over from late last year into the first two races of the year? Or just more a case of starting strong without regard to 2013 finish? 
 
I’d say St. Pete was expected and Long Beach was a disaster (by his standards) blessed with good fortune.  His race pace was no better or worse than the top 10 cars, but circumstances fell his way for sure.   The competition didn’t need that!
 
-Most impressive rookie thus far: Hawksworth, Munoz, Aleshin or Huertas?
 
Man that’s tough.  Have to pull out Munoz because he had some races last season, not a pure rookie in my book.  If you analyze their circumstances, the other 3 can all make strong cases.  Hawksworth on pace, Aleshin on consistency, Huertas on the last second nature of his program.  Flip a coin but all these guys are solid and going to cause headaches (strong competition) for the establishment for the rest of the season.
 
-Two races in – biggest surprise and biggest disappointment.
 
Surprise-  Rookies are super strong and mistake free.
Disappointment-  Seems like Rahal just can’t find the sweet spot to start the season these last few years..they certainly are putting forth the effort and resources.  But hiring Servia was a smart move.   He will help them tune things in, but he only can if he’s there full-time.
 
-Thoughts on JPM’s first two races back? 
 
Methodically coming back to old form but not there yet…
 
-How was PT to work with in the booth? From a viewer’s standpoint he really helped add to yours and Leigh’s insights. Even on the course preview lap, too.
 
He was my IndyCar idol as a teenager so I’m biased.  But the fans loved him and I certainly enjoyed the perspective and candor.  He’s one of the most successful IndyCar drivers of all time, so when he speaks, we should listen.  But with the Blue Demon mask on…his lips don’t quite work the same.
 
-You’ve seen how competitive this field is. Having the opportunity with KV for the 500 now confirmed, how much confidence does that give you to be in your usual one-off role but now with the defending champion team? 
 
I sit there in the booth, looking at the depth of talent and competition, and think ‘oh boy, I’m about to jump in this tornado.’  But I think that every year and just go for it.  Kind of like sitting at the bar, watching a mosh pit in full glory, pounding a shot and then getting it on.  Insert Miles’ advice from Risky Business here..
 
-Besides IndyCar, a very busy year planned for you with the TUDOR Championship, Red Bull GRC broadcasts and additional TV work. What challenge are you looking most forward to this year? 
The Indy 500 stands alone for me… always will.

Coyne transitioning from underdog to Indy 500 threat

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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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