Photo courtesy Dale Coyne Racing (Kate Shoup photo)

Welcome surprise: Coyne announces Bourdais back for final 3 races

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The talk for months since his injury qualifying for the Indianapolis 500 was when Sebastien Bourdais would be back in his No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda.

The Verizon IndyCar Series season finale at Sonoma Raceway was a near certainty, with the penultimate race at Watkins Glen International also considered.

But in a welcome surprise that few if any saw coming, Bourdais’ return date to racing will actually come in this weekend’s Bommarito Automotive Group 500 presented by Valvoline (Saturday, 9 p.m. ET, NBCSN) at Gateway Motorsports Park, back in the car with Esteban Gutierrez stepping aside.

Bourdais, who was officially cleared to drive as of Wednesday, August 16, by Dr. Geoffrey Billows, INDYCAR medical director, following his recovery from injuries sustained in a crash during Indianapolis 500 qualifications. following an evaluation by INDYCAR orthopedic consultant Dr. Kevin Scheid on Tuesday and was given clearance to fully return to racing activities.

He suffered multiple fractures to his pelvis and right hip in the incident, but made an incredible recovery from his injuries and is returning sooner than anticipated to take part in the final three races of the season.

Gateway marked the site of Bourdais’ first test with the team upon his return over the 2016 offseason and he also tested on the old surface again in May of this year, prior to the two weeks of running in Indianapolis.

His first time back in a car was in a one-day test at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course the day after the Honda Indy 200, with a successful bit of running.

Per Trackside Online, Bourdais was expected to run in a third Coyne car at the Sonoma season finale, but now Gutierrez has made way for this return on the 1.25-mile oval this year. The Mexican driver raced a total of seven events this season, the most number among fill-ins (James Davison and Tristan Vautier each raced once), and posted a best result of 13th in his oval debut at Iowa Speedway.

Bourdais, understandably, was thrilled with this news.

“You have no idea how excited I am to be getting back in the car this weekend and for the remainder of the season,” Bourdais said in a release.

“It’s been a long 14 weeks and I’ve worked very hard to get to this point. Following the crash, I had one goal in mind and that was to be back for Sonoma, and here I am getting back in the car with three races to go. It’s a bit unbelievable but I can’t wait to try out that new surface at Gateway this weekend!”

Both Gutierrez and team owner Coyne were gracious in their respective quotes, Gutierrez for the opportunity and Coyne for Gutierrez’s work.

Gutierrez could end up at a high-profile team in the 2018 IndyCar season, and is now working to solidify those plans.

“It’s been a very interesting few months for me getting to race in the Verizon IndyCar Series on the street circuits, road courses and especially ovals,” shared Gutierrez. “I want to thank the team and Dale Coyne for giving me this opportunity to gain this experience in view of a full-time program in the Verizon IndyCar Series next year. My goal was to learn as much as possible in order to be ready for 2018 where a new car will be introduced. This experience with the team will pay dividends next season.”

Coyne added: “It’s great to have Sebastien back, but I want to thank Esteban for the amazing job he did filling in for him these last few months. It wasn’t easy for him coming in and having never driven an Indy car, but he did a fantastic job especially on the ovals. For someone that had never driven on an oval track before Iowa in July, he impressed a lot of people including myself. Hopefully we get to work with him again in the future.”

Coyne transitioning from underdog to Indy 500 threat

Photo: IndyCar
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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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