What a difference a year makes for Hendrick at Michigan

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One year ago at Michigan International Speedway, the Hendrick Motorsports stable suffered through a rough afternoon across the board.

Jeff Gordon was taken out in an early wreck. Kasey Kahne was leading when a tire blew and sent him hard in the wall. Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s chances of victory ended with a blown engine, and Jimmie Johnson crashed while running second with three laps to go thanks to a flat.

All four Hendrick drivers finished outside of the Top 25 that day; it was the first time such an instance had occurred in a Sprint Cup race since 2005.

But today at MIS, HMS thrived. In addition to Jimmie Johnson finally winning there for the first time, Kahne, Gordon and Earnhardt also ran and finished toward the front.

Kahne is still seeking to join his HMS teammates on the Chase Grid with a regular season win, but showed lots of determination with his fifth-place performance.

Off of a restart on Lap 7, Kahne was unable to avoid a spinning Kyle Larson in Turn 2 and also skidded out of control. Luckily, he was able to come away with just minor damage and take the subsequent restart in 36th place.

From there, Kahne moved through the field somewhat and then took advantage of a “lucky dog” free pass around halfway to get back on the lead lap.

In hindsight, that appeared to be a critical boost as he drove himself all the way to the lead with 18 laps remaining. Kahne still had to pit two laps later, but was able to hang on for the Top-5.

“We struggled for a while, but we got it and then we were on a good strategy there at the end – I thought we were pretty competitive with the guys in front of us,” Kahne said.

“…We’ve just ran way too bad for the first 14, 15 races, and hopefully, this will get us going and we can get strong from here, make some points up, get a win, and get in the Chase. That’s all we can really shoot for at this point.”

Gordon led 36 laps before earning a sixth-place finish that allowed him to retain the Sprint Cup points lead.

“We lost some track position and when we lost track position, we knew it wasn’t going to handle as good,” he said about his day. “But we were just super loose even when we got clean air, so that probably hurt us more than anything.

“We just never could move forward, and then at the end, we came in and took two tires and boom, the thing was gone and flying again. Sixth – not really indicative of the race car or what I felt we were capable of, but we’ll certainly take it.”

As for Earnhardt, who had won the most recent race at Pocono, he and crew chief Steve Letarte tried various pit strategies. During a caution at Lap 121, Earnhardt actually made two stops – one for right side tires and then another for left sides.

That knocked him all the way to 20th, but it allowed Earnhardt stay on track and rise up to fourth while many leaders pitted during a later yellow at Lap 147. He ultimately faded to his final result after making his last stop (two tires, fuel) at Lap 167.

Today was also a good day all-around for Hendrick engines as well.

In addition to the aforementioned HMS drivers, second-place Kevin Harvick (Stewart Haas Racing) and eighth-place Kyle Larson (Chip Ganassi Racing) made for six Hendrick-powered competitors among the Top 8.

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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