NASCAR points observations through 11 races

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Taking the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season in chunks, we’re now two races away from the regular season halfway mark, with nine winners from the first 11 races. Once we hit Race 13 at Dover first weekend in June, that’s the official halfway point of the regular season.

Here’s how the points, Chase-wise, shook out post-Kansas:

AND GORDON MAKES NINE

Finally, right? The way Jeff Gordon and the Alan Gustafson-led 24 team have been running to start 2014, it was only a matter of time before they finally went to victory lane. Now it’s a likely battle between Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth to make it to 10 winners this year.

THE NINE ARE SPREAD THROUGHOUT THE TOP 30

Five of the nine race winners are in the top six, with Kenseth in second the lone interloper. But with Brad Keselowski 11th, Denny Hamlin 12th, Kevin Harvick 15th and Kurt Busch 28th, they wouldn’t necessarily be in Chase positions at the moment given their current standing – Busch in particular.

NEXT TO WIN? 

With the All-Star race this weekend, the next points-paying race is the Coca-Cola 600 in two weeks. It’s traditionally been a strong track for Johnson, Kenseth and Kasey Kahne, and you’d expect one of those three could break through.

THAT FREAKY MOMENT P27 IS DANICA AND P28 IS KURT BUSCH

For one week anyway, Danica Patrick is 27th in points and her Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Busch is 28th. Busch has run better than he’s finished; the reverse is true for Patrick, but she posted one of her best career NASCAR races Saturday night in Kansas with a career-best seventh place finish.

ROOKIE BATTLE REMAINS TIGHT

Kyle Larson in 13th and Austin Dillon in 14th in points are separated by only 12 points, a gap that increased by seven this weekend. What was a deep rookie class in terms of numbers to start the year isn’t anywhere near these two performance-wise. The other six rookies entered fall anywhere from 29th to 39th in points, and Justin Allgaier in 29th is 108 points behind Dillon.

POINTS: Through 11 of 26 regular season races.

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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