Photo courtesy Gray Motorsports

Tanner Gray off to fast start in rookie NHRA season

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MADISON, Ill. (AP) Tanner Gray has the NHRA buzzing in his rookie season. He’s young, he’s brash and he says what’s on his mind.

In fact, one driver said the 18-year-old Gray was a “cocky little puke.”

He’s also fast – and a winner.

Two weeks ago, Gray won the Countdown playoff opener at his home track in North Carolina for his fifth Pro Stock victory of the season. That gave him the points lead, though he dropped to third behind Bo Butner and Greg Anderson last week in Pennsylvania. The young star has a chance to get back on top Sunday with a victory in the NHRA Midwest Nationals at Gateway Motorsports Park.

“He’s an instant success story,” Anderson said Friday. “When he told the world he’s going to contend for the championship in the first year, a lot of people thought he was crazy. But he’s proved he was right. He’s got a great chance to win it.”

Tanner’s father, Shane, and grandfather, Johnny, are racers. In fact, the three of them raced together at the U.S. Nationals in Indiana over the Labor Day weekend.

Gray has been able to back up his talk with his performance on the track.

He was put in a car that was competitive from the beginning in the opener in Pomona, California. Although he qualified ninth and was eliminated in the second round at Pomona, he made a statement.

At Las Vegas, Gray became the youngest champion ever at 17 years, 11 months, 18 days. He also won at Topeka, Kansas; Sonoma, California; Brainerd, Minnesota; and Concord, North Carolina.

“Some people say he was put in a fast car,” said mother Amber. “Well he was put in a fast car, but you have to have the ability to leave the starting line. He has proven himself to do that.”

The fact that Gray doesn’t have to answer to any sponsors has a lot to do with what comes out of his mouth. Most drivers choose their words carefully when talking to the media for fear of saying the wrong thing, which might cause a team to lose a major sponsor.

But Gray fires away and is not afraid to say what’s on his mind.

“Everybody has their own opinions on things,” he said. “I really don’t care what people think about me. I’m going to go out there and try to drive to the best of my ability and do the best I can.

“That’s really the only reason I’m out here. If we were out here to please everybody, nobody would be any good.”

Amber Gray thinks working with and for family can be problematic in a good way.

“It is a different environment. … But it’s always good to have the family and have the support out here,” she said. “We are blessed that his grandfather is willing to spend the money to be out here.”

The money is being spent wisely because Gray might earn his team and his family a first national title.

One thing is for sure: Gray won’t be afraid to tell people what he thinks and how he feels. He’ll also let his car do most of the talking.

“I’m a pretty confident guy,” he said. “I’m very competitive. I tell people week in and week out, the only reason I come here is to win. It’s been a lot of fun so far. It’s definitely been a learning experience for me.”

More AP Auto Racing: http://racing.ap.org

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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