Petty, Childress, JTG, Furniture Row teams testing at Watkins Glen

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After this coming weekend’s GoBowling.com 400 at Pocono Raceway, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series will travel to perhaps the final “wild card” race of the regular season at the Watkins Glen International road course.

The Cheez-It 355 at the Glen on Aug. 10 could be the last big opportunity for teams not currently locked into the Chase for the Sprint Cup to steal a regular season win and make the 10-race playoff run.

In the most recent “wild card” earlier this month at Daytona, Richard Petty Motorsports’ Aric Almirola won a rain-shortened Coke Zero 400 to become the 11th different driver on the Chase Grid.

Now, RPM is focusing on getting its road racing ace, Marcos Ambrose (pictured, from 2013), into the Chase. Both Almirola and Ambrose are among a group of Chase hopefuls that will be testing today and tomorrow at the Glen.

Other Cup drivers involved in the two-day session are Richard Childress Racing rookie Austin Dillon, JTG Daugherty Racing’s A.J. Allmendinger, and Furniture Row Racing’s Martin Truex Jr.

Additionally, RCR Nationwide Series driver Ty Dillon is getting seat time in a Cup car after winning last Saturday in the NNS race at Indianapolis.

Among the four currently winless Cup drivers involved in the test, only Austin Dillon would make the Chase if it started now. He’s four points up on Kasey Kahne for the 16th and final spot on the Chase Grid.

But while Austin Dillon can possibly make it on points, it’s win or bust for Ambrose (22nd in Chase outlook, 48 points behind Dillon), Allmendinger (24th in Chase outlook, 93 behind Dillon), and Truex (25th in Chase outlook, 94 points behind Dillon).

One would assume the Glen would be right in Ambrose and Allmendinger’s wheelhouses. Ambrose has won two of the last three Sprint Cup races on the New York road course, while ‘Dinger earned two Nationwide Series road course wins last year and the Sprint Cup pole position this past June at Sonoma.

But Truex has performed well at the Glen in his Cup career, too (three Top-5s, 5 Top-10s in eight starts). He also won last year at Sonoma for Michael Waltrip Racing.

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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