Season struggles continue for NNS rookie Kwasniewski

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It’s been a rough rookie season in the Nationwide Series for Dylan Kwasniewski.

The 19-year-old Las Vegas native came into the series billed as a potential star of the future, having spent two years as part of the NASCAR Next group of up-and-coming drivers.

He won the K&N Pro Series West championship at the age of 17 in 2012, and the K&N Pro Series East title at the age of 18 in 2013, becoming the only driver in K&N history to earn titles in both east- and west-coast based series.

He also was featured on a web-based reality series, “Flat Out,” which followed Kwasniewski both on and off the racetrack, highlighting not only his racing endeavors, but also his personal and family life.

With all those good things going for him, it seemed like he was ready to make the big move to the Nationwide Series, which potentially would be nothing more than a stopover point for Kwasniewski on his way up to the Sprint Cup Series.

But it has not been an easy road for Kwasniewski. In 21 NNS starts this season, he’s failed to earn a win or even a top-five finish, and has just two top-10 showings to his credit.

He’s had nine finishes of 20th or worse.

Also, after being as high as fifth in the season rankings after the second race of the season (Phoenix), Kwasniewski has been stuck in 12th-place in the series standings for eight of the last nine races.

He’s also been involved in several wrecks, including three DNFs directly related to crashes.

Things became so rough that just before last month’s race at Chicagoland, the driver of the Rockstar Energy Chevrolet saw veteran crew chief Pat Tryson relieved of his duties and reassigned within the TSM organization.

Shannon Rursch replaced Tryson as crew chief.

But the crew chief change has not greatly affected Kwasniewski’s success factor in their first four races together. While he earned finishes of 17th and 14th, followed by a ninth-place showing last week at Iowa, his second-best finish of the season, Kwasniewski once again had a mediocre 27th-place showing Saturday at Watkins Glen, finishing one lap off the lead lap.

It’s been a trying season, hasn’t it, Dylan?

“I definitely set high expectations for myself,” Kwasniewski recently told his hometown newspaper, the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “So I’m a little bit disappointed in my finishes so far. But to me, the big thing is to finish the races and to gain all the experience I can by completing every lap.

“Once you finish the laps and finish the race, then the good finishes will come after that.”

Kwasniewski has been criticized for being overly aggressive, but that’s nothing unusual for a series rookie. Many other drivers have been accused of – and been guilty of – the same thing.

The most recent episode of too much aggresiveness came in Saturday’s race at The Glen, when Kwasniewski was involved in two different run-ins with series veteran Regan Smith, who confronted the young rookie while still in his car on pit road after the race (Smith finished 17th, Kwasniewski 27th).

“It was nothing, I’m fine,” Smith told ESPN. “I had two runs on him. The second time, he just didn’t give at the point in the race he should have give. He said he wasn’t trying to wreck me, that he just was mad.”

Smith is under contract as a development driver for Chip Ganassi Racing. But it’s likely he’ll be staying in the Nationwide Series for at least a couple more seasons of seasoning and development before promoting him to Sprint Cup is broached.

“We were set up to have a lot of good finishes — a lot of top 10s and even some top fives,” Kwasniewski said of several races earlier this season. “Then I ended up screwing up because I was trying to overextend. That’s my competitive nature.

“I made some mistakes, and I ended up wrecking some cars. You can’t learn anything from that, so I’ve got a little different mentality.”

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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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