Photo: Mercedes-AMG / SunEnergy1

Tristan Vautier returns to Dale Coyne Racing for Texas

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Tristan Vautier will make his return to the Verizon IndyCar Series this weekend at Texas Motor Speedway’s Rainguard Water Sealers 600 (Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, NBCSN), as a somewhat surprise choice for Dale Coyne Racing.

Vautier is the latest driver in the No. 18 Honda for Coyne, the fourth in as many weekends going back to Sebastien Bourdais’ accident in qualifying for the Indianapolis 500.

“We chose Tristan to fill the 18 seat at Texas because of his previous experience at Texas Motor Speedway,” Coyne said in a release. “We think he can help the team and Ed (Jones) who has never raced or even tested there. Tristan has remained close with the team and he’s always done a good job for us. I expect much of the same going into this race weekend.”

It will mark his first start at Texas since 2015, when he finished 20th with Coyne, and his third at the track overall (finished 18th with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports as a rookie in 2013). He completed the 2015 season with Coyne after starting in an abnormal qualify one car, then race another situation at the Indianapolis 500, and additionally collected championship contender Graham Rahal at Pocono.

With Bourdais sidelined, James Davison took the reins of the car for the ‘500 before Esteban Gutierrez made his series debut this past weekend at Detroit for the doubleheader.

INDYCAR had not yet cleared Gutierrez to participate in this weekend’s race, as he’d need to complete an oval rookie test before doing so.

With a compressed timeline before track activity begins on Friday, the decision was made to go for a team veteran instead, with Oriol Servia and more recent team veteran Pippa Mann thought to be the leading candidates.

Vautier, who told NBC Sports as recently as Friday while he’d welcome an opportunity to return to IndyCar but was primarily focused on his sports car roles with Mercedes-AMG in IMSA (SunEnergy1 Racing) and Blancpain GT (Team AKKA-ASP), then was brought into the equation.

“I really can’t wait to be in the car on Friday and see how it feels that first lap around,” Vautier said. “It’s not the easiest place to step back in and practice is going to be very limited, but the team has been competitive everywhere, and I trust we’ll be good. It’s going to be cool working with the whole team again, and also with Craig Hampson who I met in Le Mans when I was 16 and just getting started in racing. I remember I was asking him about opportunities in the USA and he was telling me to come over!

“I’m super grateful to Dale for renewing his trust in me like he did in 2015, and I also want to send a big thanks to SunEnergy1 Racing and my team owner Kenny Habul who is making 2017 such a special year for me as I return to racing full time in the USA for his team. He is much more than a team owner to me, he wants to see me succeed and supports me in everything I do beyond my commitments with him in sports cars. He is a true blessing. Now it’s time for me to focus and deliver this weekend.”

His return to the No. 18 Honda is one of three changes to the entry list this weekend compared to Detroit this past weekend. Ed Carpenter is back in the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet with Spencer Pigot not racing on the oval, and Gabby Chaves will make his second start of 2017 in the No. 88 Harding Racing Chevrolet, after impressing with a ninth place finish in the Indianapolis 500.

Coyne, meanwhile, poked fun at its return to TBA-status on Monday night on Twitter, channeling 2001’s infamous CART-based movie Driven to ask whether Kip Pardue’s Jimmy Bly or Sylvester Stallone’s Joe Tanto should have got the nod instead.

Zach Veach splits with Andretti Autosport for rest of IndyCar season

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Zach Veach will be leaving his Andretti Autosport ride with three races remaining in the season, choosing to explore options after the decision was made he wouldn’t return for 2021.

In a Wednesday release, Andretti Autosport said a replacement driver for the No. 26 Dallara-Honda would be named in the coming days. The NTT IndyCar Series will race Oct. 2-3 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and then conclude the season Oct. 25 on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida.

Veach was ranked 11th in the points standings through 11 races of his third season with Andretti. Since a fourth in the June 6 season opener at Texas Motor Speedway, he hadn’t finished higher than 14th.

“The decision was made that I will not be returning in 2021 with Andretti Autosport in the No. 26 Gainbridge car,” Veach said in the Andretti release. “This, along with knowing that limited testing exists for teams due to COVID, have led me to the decision to step out of the car for the remainder of the 2020 IndyCar season. I am doing this to allow the team to have time with other drivers as they prepare for 2021, and so that I can also explore my own 2021 options.

“This is the hardest decision I have ever made, but to me, racing is about family, and it is my belief that you take care of your family. Andretti Autosport is my family and I feel this is what is best to help us all reach the next step. I will forever be grateful to Michael and the team for all of their support over the years. I would not be where I am today if it wasn’t for a relationship that started many years ago with Road to Indy. I will also be forever grateful to Dan Towriss for his friendship and for the opportunity he and Gainbridge have given me.

“My love for this sport and the people involved is unmeasurable, and I look forward to continuing to be amongst the racing world and fans in 2021.”

Said team owner Michael Andretti: “We first welcomed Zach to the Andretti team back in his USF2000 days and have enjoyed watching him grow and evolve as a racer, and a person. His decision to allow us to use the last few races to explore our 2021 options shows the measure of his character.

“Zach has always placed team and family first, and we’re very happy to have had him as part of ours for so many years. We wish him the best in whatever 2021 may bring and will always consider him a friend.”

Andretti fields five full-time cars for Veach, Alexander Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti and Colton Herta.

It also has fielded James Hinchcliffe in three races this season.