Brickyard owes Juan Pablo Montoya one, but will it pay off Sunday?

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INDIANAPOLIS – Juan Pablo Montoya has twice come close to winning the Brickyard 400, only to suffer maladies that kept him from kissing the finish line bricks at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in celebration.

Even though he’s now back racing full-time in the Verizon IndyCar Series, the Brickyard jinx has continued to tug at Montoya.

That’s why he’s back for his second Cup race of the season (finished 18th at Michigan in mid-June), and ready to potentially get the payback from IMS that he feels he deserves.

“Yeah, once or twice, and I probably coulda, shoulda and would’ve won the 500 this year as well, but coulda, woulda and shoulda doesn’t count,” Montoya said in a press conference at IMS Friday afternoon. “At least I had a chance and I still think I’ve got a good chance this year.”

Having a chance to gain that elusive Brickyard win — to go along with his win in the 2000 Indianapolis 500 — is both a fortuitous chance and an attempt to break a NASCAR curse for Montoya. When team owner Roger Penske suggested Montoya race in the Brickyard (using Michigan in June as somewhat of a warmup), Montoya had to initially give it some thought.

But the more he rolled the idea around in his mind, the more intriguing it proved to be. Shortly thereafter, Montoya was all-in.

“I think it’s fun,” said Montoya, who will drive the No. 12 Penske Truck Rental Ford Fusion in Sunday’s event. “There’s a lot of history here. I’ve done a lot of racing. I’ve run pretty much everything that’s raced here, even with the bikes, I’ve been in a two-seater bike, so I’ve pretty much done everything here.

“Roger (Penske) gave me the chance to come. They have great cars this year and he gave me the chance to come today with the Penske Truck Rental Ford and see what we can do.”

Even though he ran the most laps of the 46 drivers that took to the track, Montoya had trouble getting speed in Friday’s sole practice session, managing a top speed of just 180.144, good for just 28th on the speed grid and more than 6 mph behind the fastest of the 90-minute run, Matt Kenseth.

“Our race pace, looking to compare with Brad (teammate Brad Keselowski, who was third-fastest at 185.939 mph), looks really, really close so it seems like we’re pretty competitive,” Montoya said.

But he subsequently admitted he had hoped to have a better run.

“I wasn’t that happy with the car to be honest,” Montoya said. “It’s hard because they’re so different and what Brad and Joey (Logano) drive every week and what they look for in the car is a little bit different than what I want out of the car, so we’ve got to try and do a lot in one practice.

“Like today, we went through a lot of stuff and it was good – just short runs – try this, try that just to try to get ready for tomorrow. I think the one thing that is gonna be good for us is we’ve got qualifying tomorrow and not today. Michigan was hard because I ran six laps of practice before qualifying, so at least today we got a lot of running done.”

But Montoya and every other driver may not get to qualify Saturday. The weather forecast is calling for heavy thunderstorms through much of the day, and because IMS does not have lights, Sunday’s starting grid could be set based upon Friday’s practice if Saturday’s final practice session and qualifying are washed out.

If that’s the case, Montoya would start where he practiced Friday: 28th. But regardless of that, he’s confident that perhaps his Brickyard jinx may come to an end.

“I feel like coming here we’ve got a good shot,” said Montoya, whose best efforts in seven starts at the Brickyard have been second in his first start there in 2007, as well as ninth (2013) in his last effort prior to this year’s race.

“I think if we can get the car close we’ll be pretty good. It seems like the race pace is pretty good, I think I’ve been pretty good here and I know what I want out of the car. That makes it a lot easier so we know what we need to work on to be a little better. We’ll see once we put it in qualifying trim what it does.”

Even though NASCAR Sprint Cup is no longer his chosen full-time racing series, Montoya could use a bit of a confidence boost from Indy, given he’s struggled to finishes of 16th, 18th and 19th in his last three IndyCar races after winning at Pocono last month.

When asked if he feels like an insider or outsider at IMS now that he’s an IndyCar regular, Montoya was non-committal.

“Neither, I’m just good to be here,” he said. “I felt maybe like an outsider the first six months I came to NASCAR and then it was like normal.

“It’s good. You know how everything works, so I don’t really feel like an outsider because you know how to do everything. You know how practice works. You know how qualifying works. You know where you need to go to sign in and where to drive around in the garage. It’s fine.”

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Coyne transitioning from underdog to Indy 500 threat

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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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