April 29 begins a three-day stretch of somber memories/anniversaries

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The Tuesday morning began with Dale Earnhardt Jr. tweeting, simply, this:

Indeed today would have been Dale Earnhardt’s 63rd birthday. This year of course marks the return of the No. 3 to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series ranks, and it was one of the biggest story lines heading into the season and the Daytona 500. Here’s a shot of Dale Sr., Dale Jr. and Kerry Earnhardt from the fall 2000 race at Michigan, as shot by Nigel Kinrade – the only race all three of them drove in together.

Earnhardt’s birthday anniversary today kicks off what is going to be a tough three-day stretch for the motorsports community, as memories of the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix occur once more as that horrific weekend is now 20 years on.

This day, April 29, 1994, saw a savage accident incurred by then-second year driver Rubens Barrichello, in the Jordan 194, at Imola. He caught too much air going over a curb on the second-to-last chicane complex and his car somersaulted into the tire barriers, nearly clearing the catch fencing. Just as scary was the way the car was taken off, with Barrichello’s helmet moving at a rapid clip when the car was turned right side up. Fortunately he escaped with only minor injuries.

Wednesday, April 30, saw the first fatality on a Grand Prix weekend in a dozen years when Roland Ratzenberger’s Simtek crashed at high speed. A 33-year-old rookie, Ratzenberger had made it to Formula One after a long climb of the racing ladder; the Austrian was also due to race in that year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans with Toyota.

And of course, sadly, Thursday May 1 will mark 20 years since Ayrton Senna’s death in the San Marino Grand Prix. Numerous tributes, commemorative and other type pieces will occur with that date. Senna’s legend, if anything, has grown in the 20 years since 1994, and he remains a global icon and one of motorsport’s all-time heroes.

This week was always going to happen simply by the calendar moving forward every day, but it’s not going to be the easiest.

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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