Matt Kenseth recovers from mid-race issues, finishes 4th

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Matt Kenseth was unable to repeat as winner tonight at Kentucky Speedway, but still put on a great drive to finish fourth after suffering a flat tire under green and a pit road speeding penalty later on.

Even more encouraging, it looks like his Joe Gibbs Racing team has gotten its pace back on 1.5-mile ovals.

Kenseth was running solidly in the Top 10 when on Lap 120, his No. 20 JGR Toyota suddenly slowed down with a right-front tire failure.

He was the second of the Gibbs racers to suffer such a problem, as Denny Hamlin had earlier smashed into the wall on Lap 29 when his own right-front tire came apart.

But Kenseth was able to keep his car off the wall and got it to the pits for green-flag service without damage. He went down a lap, but got the wave-around following a Lap 126 yellow for debris.

Things got tougher, however, when the caution came out at Lap 153. Kenseth made his stop under the yellow, but was hit with a speeding penalty in the pits. Just before the Lap 160 restart, Kenseth came in again to top off on fuel.

On Lap 176, another caution emerged and this time, Kenseth was told to stay out in a bid for track position. He took the subsequent restart on Lap 182 in ninth position, and during a stop under a Lap 214 yellow, his crew got him three spots in the pits to move him into the Top 5.

Kenseth would hover around fifth and sixth position for much of the final run before passing a fading Kevin Harvick for fourth with less than 10 laps left.

“They did a really good job on pit road on the pit stop there and we gained a whole bunch of spots,” said Kenseth. “Jason (Ratcliff, crew chief) had some good adjustments in the middle of the race that got us back in the game.  It was certainly a positive weekend.”

Kenseth also noted the speed across the board for the Gibbs team, which got a runner-up result from Kyle Busch in addition to his own solid result.

He believes that it’s a sign of progress in coming to grips with the new rules package that was implemented this year.

“We ran a lot better — we’ve been struggling at these bigger tracks all year and I thought this was a big step forward,” he said. “I know Denny had a problem at the beginning and I thought Kyle was real competitive — I thought all three of our cars were pretty good all weekend.”

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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