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Penske back to three full-time IndyCars after Castroneves shift

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Confirmation of Helio Castroneves’ move to Team Penske’s Acura ARX-05 sports car program, announced Wednesday, means the team will not replace him in its IndyCar lineup.

The three-car lineup will feature three of the series’ four most recent champions in Josef Newgarden (2017), Simon Pagenaud (2016) and Will Power (2014, with Castroneves joining in a fourth car for the month of May at both the INDYCAR Grand Prix and the 102nd Indianapolis 500.

Juan Pablo Montoya, who was added in a fifth car for those two races this year, will not be back with Penske’s IndyCar program next year while he has a full-time role in the other Acura.

The last time Penske ran three cars only was in 2014, with Power, Castroneves and Montoya. Pagenaud was added as a brand new fourth car for 2015, and the team ran at that level for three years – Newgarden having replaced Montoya going into this year.

“To me, this gives Helio a longer future in his racing career,” Roger Penske said Wednesday in a teleconference. “He’s been with us as the longest tenured driver, and I think the fact that he gets to go back to the Indy 500 again in 2018 and also will run in the road race the weekend before gives him the chance to stay with one foot in INDYCAR, but also a chance to bring our Acura sports car team into championships hopefully as we go forward over the next however many years.

“A great opportunity for him, and along with this, many don’t know that Helio became a business partner of mine in a major automobile dealership in Pennsylvania, and I think as I look to him and help him build his future career, I think when you put these all together, he’s in the right place.

“We are only going to run four cars next year (in May), which would be the three regulars, then we’d add Helio as a fourth car. Last year, of course, with four drivers and the deal I made with Juan was to run him in 2017.”

Montoya will be free to race for another team at the Indianapolis 500 if he can secure another seat.

“If he wants to run for another team, that would be his decision,” Penske said. “There would be nothing that we would say not to.”

Because of this, it leaves Chevrolet with seven cars retained from the 2017 season – three at Penske and two apiece at Ed Carpenter Racing and A.J. Foyt Enterprises – with the capacity to add more. Honda has confirmed all five of its teams from 2017 will continue with the manufacturer into 2018.

What this inadvertently means is that Team Penske, which has won 16 Indianapolis 500 races – most all-time – will enter the 2018 season without any of its full-time drivers having one on his resume, and that’s something each of them will seek to correct. The last time this happened was in 2001, with Castroneves and Gil de Ferran not yet on the board before Castroneves won each of the next two ‘500s and de Ferran won his first and only in 2003.

Penske will also shift some of its IndyCar personnel to the Acura sports car program, many of whom are on site in Braselton, Ga. this weekend for Motul Petit Le Mans as the team makes its sports car return with an Oreca 07 Gibson.

“The good news is there’s quite a bit to be able to transition, the full team that ‑‑ as we looked really across the whole Indy team, and we picked a group of individuals that would have been capable of running a fourth car, and they transitioned over,” Penske explained.

“Then we had some other people within our organization that we activated, had been on the sports car program before, and then we’ve reached out and we’ve added, over the last probably 60 or 90 days, people who had shown interest and put their hands up when they heard we were going into the sports car world, and I think we’ve added some very good people.

“Plus we had individuals that worked on Juan’s car at Indianapolis, so some engineering people, and to me that’s going to help us build, I think, a good organization.

“But I guess overall you’d probably have to say there are maybe 10 or 15 people that we’ll add before the season starts.”

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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