Brendan Gaughan: Why NASCAR can run races in rain on road courses, but not ovals

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ELKHART LAKE, Wisconsin – Having grown up in Las Vegas and with a father who is a titan in the hotel and gambling industry there, Brendan Gaughan knows a thing or two about sucker bets and hustling a mark.

That’s why when the rain came midway through Saturday’s Gardner Denver 200 NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Road America, Gaughan was smacking his chops and counting his chips.

“I love racing in the rain, it’s fun,” said Gaughan. “And when you’re good at it, it makes it even more fun.

“I haven’t smelled blood in a long time, that’s something I’ve been lacking lately, that killer attitude. When it started to rain, even without the wiper blade (was broken), I started to smell blood and said, ‘I’m coming.’

“It’s fun to watch guys who haven’t done it in the rain. They don’t understand the rain line, and fortunately for me, I did.”

When NASCAR officials called all competitors into the pits on Lap 27 and mandated that all cars switch from dry slicks to rain tires, it was a new experience for pretty much everyone in the field.

But not Gaughan (or for that matter, runner-up Alex Tagliani). He’s taken part in a number of races in the rain in various series in his career, including one of the two prior NNS races ran in the rain in Montreal in 2010 (the other was also in Montreal in 2008).

Like a poker dealer with a deck of marked cards, Gaughan the rain-racing veteran knew he had a marked edge over almost every other driver in the field – and then he went out and took advantage of it.

Granted, if Tagliani had not run out of fuel on Lap 49 and if the originally scheduled 50-lap race hadn’t been extended three more laps, Gaughan might not have won.

But those are too many ifs.

Still, the point is Gaughan did win, he had fun and wound up winning one of the most exciting and action-filled – albeit wet – NNS races the series has seen in a long time.

Not only did Gaughan teach a lesson to his fellow competitors on how to get around a slippery when wet racetrack (sorry Bon Jovi, I know that’s the title of your biggest-selling album/CD, but I couldn’t resist), Gaughan also made a very poignant comment in the track media center after the race.

Race fans have complained for years that NASCAR should run Sprint Cup races in the rain, rather than pushing them back or postponing them outright – like we saw earlier this year at Daytona and Texas.

The logic goes that if the technology exists to have rain tires run on road courses and in the Nationwide Series, why not extend that to the Sprint Cup Series.

After all, if Formula One, rally cars and other series can race in rain, why can’t NASCAR?

I admit, I’ve also often wondered about that, too.

So when I asked Gaughan — who is a pretty smart guy, having graduated from Georgetown University — after Saturday’s race why can’t we see Sprint Cup races run in the rain, he set me straight … and hopefully will teach many fans a valuable lesson after they read his words:

“You can’t on an oval, period, that’d be asinine and dumb,” Gaughan said. “You just can’t do it. There’s no rain line on an oval course.

“Here (at the Road America road course), you can get away from rubber. Here, you don’t have the same G-forces and physics acting upon your race car. You cannot race in the rain on an oval, it just will not happen.

“But on a road course, as we showed today, you can put on a hell of a race in the rain. … You got some spins, you had some excitement, then you saw old rain tire, new rain tire, dry tire at the end.

“I don’t know how much more drama (people could want) – what it looked like from the TV camera – but inside the driver’s seat, it looked pretty cool to me.”

Saturday’s race in the rain indeed was pretty cool. And now hopefully a lot of folks will finally understand why – unless it’s Sonoma or Watkins Glen – you can forget about seeing rain tires at every other Sprint Cup track on the circuit.

What worked for Gaughan in the rain on a road course at Road America just won’t translate on a conventional Cup track.

Gaughan is willing to bet you on that.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

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.

Follow@KyleMLavigne