Ten races left to determine NASCAR’s 2014 Chasers

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The potential of a Sonoma “wild card” winner has come and gone, with Carl Edwards taking his second victory of the season Sunday at the first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series road race of the season.

Now, as 16 of 26 regular season races are complete, time to sort out who’s in good shape and who needs to channel past success over the final 10 regular season races heading into the 2014 Chase.

ALL BUT LOCKED IN

The 10 race winners: Jeff Gordon (1st in points), Jimmie Johnson (2nd), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (3rd), Brad Keselowski (5th), Edwards (6th), Joey Logano (7th), Kevin Harvick (9th), Kyle Busch (11th), Denny Hamlin (13th) and Kurt Busch (26th) pretty much have their tickets punched. It would take six more winners in the next seven or eight races to make a total of 16 winners, and that seems an unlikely proposition.

GOOD ON POINTS, NOT ON WINS

The six currently in on points although they haven’t won yet this year are Matt Kenseth (4th), Ryan Newman (8th), Kyle Larson (10th), Paul Menard (12th), Clint Bowyer (14th) and Greg Biffle (15th). Of that six-pack, Newman and Menard are past Brickyard 400 winners and could lock themselves in with a repeat; Kenseth seeks to reprise his 1.5-mile efforts of 2013 starting next weekend at Kentucky, although the entire JGR operation has lost a step on those tracks this year; Bowyer and Biffle always seem to get at least one win between them before the Chase; Larson’s primed to enter victory lane as a rookie.

NEED A WIN OR SOME HELP

The group from 16th back to 25th are separated by 69 points; 25th-placed Martin Truex Jr. is currently 84 points behind Biffle. Generally speaking anyone in this range – this includes Kasey Kahne, Tony Stewart, Jamie McMurray and Truex, among others – has had maybe 1-2 standout races in the first 16 this year but otherwise haven’t shown race-winning potential. Stewart, a notoriously slow starter, could still get on the board, and a win at the July Daytona race is likely his best shot. Same story for McMurray. Any of Brian Vickers, Marcos Ambrose or AJ Allmendinger could sneak in with a win at Watkins Glen in August. Vickers is also a past winner at Michigan, and that could be his ticket.

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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