IndyCar Notes: Friday morning at Detroit

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I caught up with a number of drivers at Thursday’s Verizon IndyCar Series media availability at a media lunch in Detroit, ahead of the Chevrolet Indy Dual in Detroit Presented by Quicken Loans.

Some news and notes to follow:

  • Will Power in the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet was relieved, despite a penalty mid-race, to still end P8 in the Indianapolis 500. “Considering it’s double points, thank God I finished eighth,” he said.
  • Power reiterated his frustration with double points, adding he prefers the doubleheader format. “The good thing about them is that you’ve got another shot,” he explained. “Double points to me is way off. It spreads the championship out, now Dixon is 140 back, it’s insane. Where a doubleheader, at least you can come back the next day if you have a bad day.”
  • Juan Pablo Montoya continues to get more comfortable with Firestone’s red alternate tires, and reckoned he had a shot for his first pole of the season during qualifying for the Grand Prix of Indianapolis. “I felt like in the Grand Prix I had a shot at the pole to be honest,” he said. “I was fastest in my group, but we didn’t put any downforce on later and paid the price.” Montoya qualified on pole in both of his two prior Detroit appearances, on this course configuration, in 1999 and 2000.
  • Ed Carpenter and Mike Conway are stuck in a rut until Iowa, July 12, in terms of their pit positioning in the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet. Because a rule in the Verizon IndyCar Series rulebook states that any driver change ahead of the weekend requires the team to go to the back of pit lane, Conway will be at the back here in Detroit (2 races), then Carpenter will be at Texas, Conway at Houston (2 races) and Carpenter at Pocono. Carpenter told me it’s unfortunate given they’ve had their lineup planned, but he’s unsure whether INDYCAR will be able to do anything about it.
  • Although he won’t be racing at Le Mans, Conway will head to the UK on Monday before heading to Le Mans a week later where he’ll be on hand in support of the Toyota Racing team. Conway is the team’s reserve driver.
  • Conway, and fellow defending race winner Simon Pagenaud, both have had extended media work to do this week ahead of the Grand Prix weekend. “It’s a nice boost,” said Conway, who a year ago only found out on the Tuesday he’d be driving the unheralded No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda and then promptly stomped the field in Race 1 of the doubleheader weekend.

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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