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Scott Dixon: Lot of ground to make up — and not a lot of time to do it in

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With four races remaining on the schedule, Scott Dixon knows it’s go time if he hopes to repeat last year’s Verizon IndyCar Series championship.

Last year at this time, Dixon was closing in on Juan Pablo Montoya, who led the entire season until the finale at Sonoma, where Dixon doubled-up with both the race win and the series championship, his fourth.

But this year, things are a bit more formidable and challenging for the driver of the No. 9 Chip Ganassi Racing Target Chevrolet.

Dixon finds himself tied for fifth in the points with fellow series veteran Tony Kanaan, both drivers with 357 points each.

And way ahead of both of them is points leader Simon Pagenaud, who has amassed not only a series-leading four wins but also six poles and 484 points.

In other words, Dixon and Kanaan must make up a 127-point shortfall to just catch Pagenaud – and that doesn’t count how many more points the French driver will continue to amass in the final four races, starting with Sunday’s ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway.

Pocono has been a good track for Dixon. In the three years the IndyCar clan has raced on the 2.5-mile “tricky triangle,” Dixon won the inaugural event there in 2013, finished fifth in 2014 and ninth in last season’s race.

But Dixon has also struggled of late. In the last six races, he’s fallen from second place to a tie for fifth, with good finishes of fifth (Belle Isle 2), third (Iowa) and eighth (Toronto) offset by disappointing finishes of 19th (Belle Isle 1), and a pair of last-place finishes (22nd place at each) at Road America (engine) and the most recent race nearly two weeks ago at Mid-Ohio (mechanical problems)

Dixon, who has just one win and three podium finishes thus far this season — compared to three wins and four podium finishes last year — knows what he needs to do and what he’s up against Sunday.

“This is one of the toughest oval style tracks you’re ever going to encounter,” Dixon said. “It’s the ‘Tricky Triangle’ so that really sums it up.

“For us in 2013 it was a great moment to bring back open-wheel racing to Pocono with a win and a 1-2-3 finish (along with fellow teammates Charlie Kimball and Dario Franchitti, respectively).

“You have to put a lot of hard work into getting everything right on this track. Nothing is a given here. While we’ve kind of struggled there the past two races, we know what we need to do to be successful, so hopefully we can get it turned around for this time around.”

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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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