DiZinno: Dale Coyne Racing’s brave, new, TBA-less world

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The Chicago Cubs winning the World Series. Donald Trump winning the U.S. Presidency. Dale Coyne Racing confirming both its drivers by mid-November.

None were considered realistic possibilities for years, if ever. Yet in the last 14 days, all three theoretical jaw-droppers have become reality.

The last of those became real on Monday, when Coyne confirmed Indy Lights champion Ed Jones as the second driver alongside the previously confirmed Sebastien Bourdais, who was announced in mid-October.

Two of the three actually were linked up in a conference call following Bourdais’ signing, because Coyne’s eponymous team is based in Plainfield, Ill. – a northern suburb of Illinois – and for years Coyne’s team has carried the “underdog” label, as has that fabled baseball team on the North Side of Chitown.

Both have long endured losing droughts, or were at least been better known as a team that could punch above their weight. And both want to shed the label.

“The underdog thing can be a stigma that stays with you for a long time,” Coyne admitted during an October 12 conference call.

“When the management decides to spend the money and get the right people to do the right resources, an underdog team can become something much greater.

“Years and years ago somebody gave me a T-shirt that said we were the Chicago Cubs of racing. I hope we’re the Chicago Cubs of racing next year. They’ve changed from an underdog to a championship team.”

The Cubs’ road to its eventual first World Series championship in 108 years featured the oft-discussed close-but-no-cigar disappointments. The Billy Goat in 1945. The end-of-season collapse in 1969. Leon Durham’s error in ’84. Steve Bartman making that ill-advised lunge in ’03.

Mike Conway’s shock win in Detroit and the late Justin Wilson’s heroics headlined what’s been the best season to date for Dale Coyne Racing, back in 2013. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Coyne’s team? They’ve only once realistically come close to a championship, courtesy of a superhuman season from the late Justin Wilson in 2013, when he was fourth in points going into the final race, but for years have never even made it to the brink of title-losing disappointment.

Instead, Coyne’s team – much like the Cubs or the 2016 GOP presidential field – has been a mashup of past but aging stars, hungry but unproven young guns, a determined female or two and other entrants coming in with money to burn.

But never has this mishmash of personnel ever really scratched the ceiling of title contention. They’d been the racing equivalent of say, the Cleveland Indians of 1989’s original Major League.

Coyne’s team has endured for more than 30 years in North American open-wheel racing as a perennial survivor more than anything. But because of Coyne’s business savvy, the team is third only to Team Penske and A.J. Foyt Enterprises in terms of longevity on the IndyCar grid among the remaining nine teams that are left as of the end of 2016.

This means Coyne’s been around longer as an owner than Chip Ganassi, Michael Andretti, Bobby Rahal, Sam Schmidt, Jimmy Vasser, Bryan Herta and Ed Carpenter – all of whom were full-time drivers who then ended their full-time driving career (Carpenter excepted, who still races on ovals). So many other team owners have come and gone, and a good number of them have faded in the last five or six years in particular as costs have escalated.

Carlos Huertas used a Dale Coyne strategy to win in Houston 2014, but was otherwise emblematic of Coyne’s unheralded “TBA.” (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)

Yet the future has rarely looked brighter for Coyne’s team, which not even two years ago headed into the St. Petersburg season opener with a less-than-inspiring lineup of Carlos Huertas and Francesco Dracone, the latter driver done no favors by only having only just received his Honda aero kit mere days before the first official practice of the season.

The optimism is in play because of the change to get both seats filled by the end of the year, which then has a good series of effects from there.

Confirmation of drivers means you can test those drivers earlier, which Bourdais already has at Gateway Motorsports Park, and which Jones likely will at least once before the end of the year. Bourdais and engineer Craig Hampson already knew each other from their time together winning titles at Newman/Haas more than a decade ago and haven’t missed a step.

Second, Coyne now has a true balanced mix of good veteran and proven youngster for arguably the first time in a decade, since Bruno Junqueira and Katherine Legge were the two drivers in the last season of Champ Car in 2007.

Bruno Junqueira’s 2007 season marked the first time Dale Coyne Racing was a proper podium contender. (Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images)

Junqueira scored several podiums and finished seventh in points in 2007, which was Coyne’s best season as a team. The three podiums Junqueira achieved that year was one more on his own than Coyne’s team had, combined, from 1984 through 2006 (Roberto Moreno in 1996 and Oriol Servia in 2004 each had one third-place). Legge, meanwhile, knew the circuits and tried to overachieve on a relative shoestring budget in the second car.

Jones isn’t the highest-rated rookie ever to enter IndyCar and he wasn’t even the leading contender for this seat this winter – RC Enerson was the betting favorite after three impressive end-of-year runs – but he has the built-in experience joining Coyne that several past team rookies Mario Moraes (2008), James Jakes (2011) and Carlos Huertas (2014) didn’t when they entered as Coyne’s “TBA second driver de jour.”

Third, on paper anyway, there’s the likelihood of stability from both a driver and a personnel standpoint. Driver-wise, Coyne has only maintained the same two full-season drivers three of the last seven years (2010, 2012, 2014) and in each of those three, Milka Duno, Jakes and Huertas played clear second acts to Alex Lloyd and Wilson.

When the crew knows who’s in the car for the full year, they can grow with the driver, better tailor and set up the car for them, and look for progression over the course of the campaign.

For the Coyne crew – who are no doubt a family, with the team one of only three based outside Indianapolis – this can no doubt be a benefit.

The challenge of putting all this together early, however, comes with an upshot of increased expectations.

One, while Coyne’s team is better, it’s not like they’ve suddenly leapfrogged to being the second or third best team on the grid. “Increased expectations” here mean the team wins more than one race in a year, which it’s still never done in its history. It also means leaping above drivers from other Honda teams, and with Ganassi and Andretti fielding four cars each, it’s still a tough mountain to climb.

Bourdais only returned to Coyne on a part-time basis in 2011, like here at Barber Motorsports Park. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Second, Bourdais, like Coyne, has had a revolving door of teammates since his return to IndyCar in 2011. He’s never had the same teammate in the same team in successive years in that time frame; only Sebastian Saavedra, at Dragon, then KV/AFS, was the same driver to line up alongside Bourdais in back-to-back years, 2013 and 2014.

“To be honest with you, it all depends on how the team functions,” Bourdais admitted about his teammate preference during the conference call.

“It’s always a little harder if you have a rookie as a teammate because obviously he has to figure his stuff out on his own and try and understand where he’s at. Most of the weekend he tends to go up to speed, then kind of lays it down in qualifying. You don’t necessarily benefit a lot from a rookie.

“Of course, if it’s a proven driver, it’s a different case. But it still needs to be a very specific combination where both drivers have similar enough driving styles that they can feed off of each other.”

That leaves it to Jones to adapt early to IndyCar, and the offseason testing he can do will be crucial both for his development and to earn Bourdais’ respect.

Unlike Bourdais’ teammates in years past though, at least he’ll have the next four months to acclimate and get comfortable before his race debut comes in his adopted home state of Florida in St. Petersburg.

“He’s one of the best teammates I could ask for during my rookie season as I get used to everything; he has a wealth of experience in the sport that I can draw upon and he seems like a really open and approachable guy,” Jones said.

“Not only that, but he will be an excellent benchmark too as he is still clearly one of the fastest drivers in the series, so for me, it’s the ideal scenario and I’m sure we’ll establish a strong working relationship to really drive the team forward.”

Coyne’s team has fielded more than 70 drivers in 30-plus years of IndyCar competition. As recently as two years ago in 2015, Coyne fielded eight different drivers throughout the year.

For 2017, with the looming specter of uncertainty removed from the picture earlier than it ever has, the only thing that’s “TBA” for Dale Coyne Racing is its potential success during the season.