NASCAR: Kurt Busch starting 5th, looking for more Sonoma success

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Only two drivers have collected three consecutive Top-5 finishes at Sonoma Raceway: Clint Bowyer and Kurt Busch.

But while Bowyer will have to start 25th in tomorrow’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 on the Northern California road course, Busch had a much better qualifying session on Saturday and will roll off fifth.

In his last three runs at Sonoma, Busch has won (2011) and finished third (2012) and fourth (2013) – all with three different teams. His run on Saturday will put him in good position for another solid result.

“It was a good lap,” he said. “We prepared well for this race with a couple of test sessions and executed a good practice run yesterday. The lap time we ran put us P1 in the first practice. We knew we needed to gain a little more and today, we got beat by a couple of guys that laid down really good laps.

“For us, it was a better than average lap. That gets us fifth and the way the team has bolted together this qualifying set-up, I think that gives us a good pattern for what we have to put under it for a race set-up.”

Busch led a strong qualifying effort for Stewart Haas Racing, which also got Kevin Harvick and Danica Patrick into the final round. When the dust settled, Harvick qualified sixth and Patrick 11th.

“Road course qualifying kind of stresses me out because there are so many opportunities to make a mistake,” said Harvick. “Our first goal was to get through the first round with a solid lap and we were able to do that. Second round was good for us too, always want to do better, but we can see the front so that is a good thing on a road course.”

Said Patrick about her day: “We only made one qualifying run yesterday, but it felt good in the opening round today. It just got tight in the second session and we ended up 11th. We would have liked it to be better, but we’ll take it. We’ve got a lot of folks from [sponsor] GoDaddy here tomorrow, so I’m happy we are starting up front.”

For a full recap of today’s qualifying, click here.

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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