No more Mr. Nice Guy: Dale Earnhardt Jr. gets aggressive and ends up with career-best finish at Sonoma

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You almost have to wonder if Dale Earnhardt Jr. listened to Alice Cooper’s “No More Mr. Nice Guy” prior to Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway — and took the lyrics to heart.

Earnhardt came into the race never having finished in the top-10 at Sonoma in 14 prior starts.

But Sunday was a completely different story.

Instead of the passive Junior we’ve seen in past races at Sonoma, he got up on the wheel, became aggressive – overly aggressive in some instances (just ask Matt Kenseth) – and wound up with a career-best third-place finish at the twisting and turning road course in California’s wine country.

“Aside from holding a trophy, this is like a win for us,” Earnhardt said in the post-race press conference. “We came in here and knew we had a good car throughout practice, and I’ve been in the top 10 in a lot of these races with two or three laps to go, but we’ve just never been able to finish.

“So to be clear of the mess and just have an advantage with the tires at the end, there was a lot of confidence, and knowing we were going to be able to wrap it up or feel like we were in good position to wrap it up and really good.  The car was fun to drive all weekend.”

Earnhardt’s aggressiveness and confidence extended to crew chief Steve Letarte.

“Just putting the tires on and getting the strategy right with Steve” was the key to the win, Earnhardt told TNT after the race. “I told him (Letarte) the secret to being a great crew chief is to call every year like it’s your last, because he’s had the best strategy every week.

“Our car was fast all weekend really. I tried to screw it up a couple of times there in the race, but calmed down and was able to get a good finish out of it.”

No more Mr. Nice Guy, indeed.

To that end, Earnhardt got into at least two significant incidents that, while they didn’t hurt him and his car too bad, they pretty much ended the day for two other drivers, including one of his closest friends, Matt Kenseth.

Earnhardt and Kenseth were fighting hard on Lap 75, driving side-by-side, when Kenseth pulled slightly ahead going into Turn 7.

Earnhardt hit a curb and his car bounced back to the left, right into the right rear quarter-panel of Kenseth’s car, spinning him out hard and almost head-on into a tire wall.

Kenseth’s car was all but obliterated by the crash, and while he fortunately was uninjured, he also wound up with one of his worst finishes of the season: 42nd out of the 43-car starting field.

Earnhardt took complete blame for the incident.

“I got into Matt,” Earnhardt said. “I jumped that curb and just ran into him. Totally my fault.

“It was just racing a little too hard with him there and I probably should have let him have that spot. Other than that, we had a pretty good day.”

Earnhardt also got into a scrum with AJ Allmendinger 11 laps later, but this time it wasn’t Junior’s fault.

Allmendinger was coming out of Turn 11 and got pinched towards the inside retaining wall. Allmendinger bounced off the rear of Junior’s car in the process, spun and then continued bouncing like a pinball off the trailing cars of Kasey Kahne and Brian Vickers.

As a result, Allmendinger, who dominated the first half of the 110-lap race by leading 35 laps, finished with a very disappointing 37th-place finish, two laps behind the leaders.

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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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