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.