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.

Tony Kanaan’s “New Reality” in IndyCar

Photo by Stephen King, INDYCAR
Stephen King, INDYCAR
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AUSTIN, Texas – Tony Kanaan is one of the most popular drivers in the NTT IndyCar Series from the fans who love his aggressive racing style and his fearless attitude. His team owner is the most popular man in the history of Indianapolis 500 – the legendary AJ Foyt, the first driver to win the famed race four times in his career.

In 2019, this combination would rather win races than popularity contests.

Kanaan has won 17 races in his career but hasn’t been to Victory Lane since a win at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California when he was driving for Chip Ganassi Racing in 2014. He left Ganassi’s team following the 2017 and joined Foyt’s operation last season.

Foyt always admired Kanaan’s attitude and racing style because it reminded him of his own attitude behind the wheel of a race car. But in 2018, the combination struggled. Kanaan led just 20 laps for the season and finished 16thin the IndyCar Series points race.

“A lot of work has been done because obviously, we struggled quite a bit last year,” Kanaan admitted. “That was the challenge when I signed with AJ was to try to make this team better. It is not an easy task, especially with the competition nowadays.

“It’s a lot slower process than I thought it would be.”

Kanaan believes the biggest keys for him is to “keep digging and be patient.” But he’s also in a results-driven business.

The driver called it a long winter, but he has helped lure some of his racing friends to the team to help improve the two-car operation that also includes young Brazilian Matheus Leist.

At 84, Foyt still has control over the operation, but has turned the day-to-day duties over to his son, Larry. Just last week, the team hired Scott Harner as the team’s vice president of operations. Harner was in charge of Kanaan’s car when both were at Chip Ganassi Racing.

“The second year, we are trying to be better,” Kanaan said. “It’s not an excuse, it’s the reality we have. There are a lot of new teams coming along so we have to step up. Otherwise, we aren’t fighting the Big 3 teams, we are fighting everybody.

“We are working on it. I like the way we are heading. AJ has been extremely open to my ideas.”

Kanaan has moved his family from Miami to Indianapolis to be near the race team’s shop. The team also has another race shop in Waller, Texas and that is where Leist’s car is prepared.

Although Kanaan doesn’t believe it’s ideal to have two different racing facilities, he believes being closer to his team will help build a more cohesive unit for this season.

At one time, Kanaan would show up at the track with a car that could win the race. No longer in that situation, he has had to readjust his goals.

“The biggest challenge is to accept that and understand your limits on equipment and on the people that you have,” Kanaan said. “Being on some of the teams that I’ve been on in the past, with four-car teams and engineers and all the resources you can get and the budget; then to come to a team with limited resources, I have to self-check all the time. With that, comes a lot of pressure as well and block out people’s opinions like, ‘Oh, he’s old or he’s washed up or the team is not good.’

“You need to shield that from your guys, because psychologically, that gets to you. You need people to work well, even if you have a car that is going to finish 15th.

“What is our reality? Racing can be lucky, but we try to make goals. We are greedy, we try to improve, but we are trying to be realistic. I have to re-set and understand this is my reality now, and I have to accept it.”

At 44, Kanaan is the oldest driver in the IndyCar. The 2004 IndyCar Series champion won the Indianapolis 500 in 2013 and if his career ended this year, it would be one of the greatest of his era.

But Kanaan isn’t ready to call it an “era.” He has more he wants to accomplish.

“The mistake I have made in my career is counting your days,” Kanaan said. “The best line I ever heard is when I signed with AJ, he told me he drove until he was 58, so why am I talking about getting old?

“In his mind, I still have 14 years to go.”

There remains one race, more than any other, that Kanaan’s boss wants to win. It’s the one that made Foyt famous.

“For my boss, winning the Indianapolis 500 is all he cares,” Kanaan said. “I could not finish a single race this year and if I win the Indy 500, that would be enough for him.

“We are not in a position to win a championship and I accept that. So, we focus on the Indianapolis 500. We had an awesome car last year and were the fastest on the second day.”

Foyt and Kanaan believe success at Indy may be in the numbers.

“AJ is all about numbers and his number was 14,” Kanaan said. “He found out Dallara was making chassis No. 14 at the end of the year. AJ bought that chassis and said that is the one we are going to race at the Indy 500. I’m not allowed to drive that car until Opening Day at the Indianapolis 500.

“That’s how big the boss is about the Indy 500.”