Wood Brothers’ Eddie Wood remembers Junie Donlavey as friend first, competitor second

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Remembrance and mourning continues for former NASCAR team owner Junie Donlavey, who passed away Monday at the age of 90.

Among the latest to recall the impact of Donlavey upon the sport, as well as the kind of man and friend he was to many, is Wood Brothers co-owner Eddie Wood.

“Anything you needed, he’d help you,” Wood said. “He was one of the most well-liked people in the garage ever.”

Donlavey and the Woods were lifelong friends first, competitors second. Virginia natives, Donlavey was from the state capital of Richmond, while the Woods hailed from tiny Stuart in the southern part of the state.

Racing Fords was their common thread, but it was only a part of the true friendship and bond that Donlavey and the Woods shared.

“You could call his shop any hour of the night and he’d answer on the first ring,” said Wood, who ironically shared the same April 8 birthday as Donlavey.

The two would talk almost every day, Wood added.

“Sometimes we’d talk about racing, but a lot of those late-night conversations were about life in general, just friends talking,” he said.

Wood fondly recalls Donlavey’s lone Cup win as a team owner as if it were yesterday – when it actually occurred 33 years ago in 1981 at Dover International Speedway.

Short track driver Jody Ridley somehow found a way to get by Neil Bonnett, who had dominated the race, to go on and take the checkered flag for Donlavey.

“We were as happy for them as if we’d won the race,” Wood said.

In an ironic twist, the Wood Brothers’ No. 21 Ford Fusion that will compete in Sunday’s Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan International Speedway will carry a Quick Lane Blue paint scheme that had been in place prior to Donlavey’s death, but also closely resembles a similar paint scheme that used to grace Donlavey-owned cars.

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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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