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Max Chilton hails ‘best race of my IndyCar career’ in INDYCAR GP

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INDIANAPOLIS – Max Chilton enjoyed what he called easily the best race of his Verizon IndyCar Series career Saturday in the INDYCAR Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.

Starting 14th, Chilton took the No. 8 Gallagher Chip Ganassi Racing Honda up to seventh at the finish of the fifth race of 2017 after a spirited drive that featured several solid passes and good pit work all around.

The result was a nice bounce back finish after improving slightly from 16th to 14th to 12th in the opening three races, and then getting taken out in Mikhail Aleshin’s triggered first lap accident at Phoenix.

This also matches his best IndyCar finish to date, which was seventh last year at Phoenix. Chilton’s only road course top 10 last year was 10th at Watkins Glen.

“That was my best race in IndyCar, full stop. One of my best ever,” Chilton told NBC Sports post-race. “From lights to flag, with no safety car, pure racing, pure speed, and no people doing crazy moves on restarts, that was one of the best of my career. It was only seventh, but to come from 14th when you can’t easily get people, was a really good day.”

Chilton made his own inspired pre-race decision to start on Firestone’s black primary tire, which meant he could get off them at the first pit stop and move forward from there on the softer, faster, red alternate tires. Graham Rahal was the only other driver able to match Chilton’s pace from there as they could run reds the rest of the race.

It’s the first sign of Chilton’s improved confidence and pace in his sophomore season actually translating to results. He’s had pace this season at times, notably in testing, but hadn’t really delivered a result of note. He continues to work well with engineer Brandon Fry and strategist Julian Robertson.

“I hardly did any fuel saving. It was go, go, go… then save your tires and get your moves done,” Chilton explained. “From six or seven laps in, I knew it’d be a good day. I started on blacks, which was my call, and I sort of went off the engineers.

“We had a great gap and didn’t have to worry about what was behind me. (James) Hinchcliffe was maybe a tenth quicker a lap than I was on blacks. The second stint I’d piss them (on pace) and we did. We had such great speed.

“Rahal was the only car that caught me all race. I’m not sure what planet he was on. But at the end I caught him again when he got held up by Marco. That was a great race. It all went to plan. We did a faultless job. You can have a faultless day, even when you don’t get up there.”

Over the moon with this result and as he noted one of his best drives in his career overall, Chilton will now look to better what was a respectable debut finish of 15th in last year’s Indianapolis 500, his second career oval race. That’s now where he sits in the points as well, ahead of a race where qualifying points are awarded and the race triggers double points.

“I know it’s only seventh, but coming from 14th with pure overtaking, made it a top, top day,” he said.

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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