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Bourdais: Determination to return in 2017 fueled fast recovery

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MADISON, Ill. – Sebastien Bourdais’ return to Verizon IndyCar Series active competition isn’t just sooner than expected, but also fueled by motivation to silence any doubters or questions about his readiness to return.

He’s back in the No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda ahead of the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 presented by Valvoline (Saturday, 9 p.m. ET, NBCSN), only 14 weeks after his unreal accident during qualifying for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

Bourdais was determined to avoid an offseason of discontent and questions about his recovery, which fueled him to get back in the car for the final three races of the year.

“That’s really the whole thing for me, to get back in the saddle, obviously prove to everybody that nothing has changed, that I’m still the same guy, plus a little bit of hardware, but that’s another thing,” Bourdais said Friday at Gateway, when speaking to reporters.

“I think you always have to prove yourself or re-prove yourself in racing. There’s no doubt about that. Because those questions are going to be in people’s mind and everything, I just wanted to make sure that that’s taken care of and we just can go back to work and just not worry about it.”

The deal came together this week, with Bourdais finding out on Tuesday once contact was made with Coyne that he’d be good to go. Figuring out Esteban Gutierrez’s status was the next step; the team will keep Gutierrez’s full UNIFIN sponsorship and livery at least for this weekend with UNIFIN signage expected to continue the rest of the year.

A third car was expected for Bourdais for Sonoma and the season finale at the least, but the decision was made to move up his return to this week. He wanted to get back on an oval, at a track he’s tested at twice with Coyne, albeit on the prior surface before the repave.

“We never really know exactly the timing of things,” Bourdais said, as he explained the recovery process. “We knew six weeks for weight-bearing, providing the that X-rays looked good, and eight for walking.

“We did eight and a half for weight-bearing and transitioned really quickly into walking, got out of the office and started walking. I was feeling good enough at that stage, and the doctor in Tempe was pretty happy with what he saw, and then Terry and Dr. Scheid didn’t exactly agree with it, so there was a little setback and the cane popped back and things like that, but I’d say overall as soon as we did X-rays and the bone looked pretty strong, I knew things were looking good.

“And then we went out west for the trip that was planned a long time ago with the family, and that went very well, and when I came back, drove the coach back from Vegas to Indy and went to see Dr. Scheid again, and we did the final — what had the potential to be the final check but not necessarily on the 15th of August. He really obviously was pleased with the X-rays and everything looked really strong.

“At that point it was a green light, and let’s go racing. I couldn’t be any happier about that. Yeah, just looking forward to putting this story behind and just getting back to work.”

Expectations are minimal for Bourdais this weekend, not because of how he’s feeling but more due to the anticipated gap between the Chevrolet and Honda aero kits, in the final oval race for the manufacturer aero kits over a three-year period before the 2018 Dallara universal aero kit comes into the series next year. The Chevy kit has less drag than does the Honda one.

“It’s obviously a bit of a difficult one because we knew going into this one that it was not going to be the easiest of weekends for our package,” he said. “But Honda has worked really hard, and so we’ll see exactly where we’re at. But I think it’s very much of a Phoenix scenario as far as where we stand with field position. We’ll see how things go, but I mean, we’ll just try and do the best we can, and for me to get back in the saddle.

“I think it’s a great layout, and obviously now with the new pavement, it looks like a first-class facility, so it’s awesome,” he added about Gateway. “You know, hats off to the organization. I think a lot of people had doubts about the organization being able to pull it together and repave so fast and be ready for a race like that.”

Bourdais hasn’t lost his sense of humor and candor, either. Asked whether he wanted to forget the Indianapolis crash best as he could, he said you can’t and instead have to focus forward.

“There’s no forgetting it, and I think it would be a mistake to forget it. I think it’s a good reminder that obviously you should not disregard the signs that the car is giving you sometimes, and I did.

“Like I said, I got caught up in the moment, and I paid for it. So, probably don’t want to do that again.”

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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