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New aero kits may create more passing in today’s INDYCAR Grand Prix

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Simon Pagenaud expects the IndyCar Grand Prix to be very different from the first four races. So does just about everyone else in Gasoline Alley.

The expected warm temperatures and breezy conditions could change racing conditions on Saturday. New aero kits are expected to create better drafting. A smoother asphalt surface is expected to make cars less sensitive. And this time, winning the pole may not be the surest path to victory lane.

The combination is expected to create more passing and a better overall show for the fans, a perfect combination for race organizers.

“You can follow closer and not get as affected as before,” said Pagenaud, a two-time race winner. “So there’s more (passing) opportunities for sure. Now we’ll see how many restarts there are because here it’s always very exciting on restarts because it’s such a long straightaway. There’s a lot of action into Turn 1.”

There are plenty of uncertainties, too.

By condensing the weekend schedule from three days to two, drivers had only two short practice sessions before qualifying. All 24 drivers will have one more 30-minute tuneup on the 2.439-mile, 14-turn road course Saturday morning.

The limited track time may explain why some familiar names – Marco Andretti, Scott Dixon, Graham Rahal and Ryan Hunter-Reay – failed to reach the second round of qualifying. Pagenaud, Alexander Rossi, Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan were all eliminated in the second round and defending series champion Josef Newgarden barely made the final qualifying group.

Will Power won his third Indy GP pole with a fast lap of 1:09.8182 on his final run of the day.

Everyone seems to expect an increase in the kind of daring moves that can create intrigue, consternation and anger. Possibly crashes, too.

Sebastien Bourdais knows just how dicey it can be. He complained publicly about everything from IndyCar rulings to his fellow drivers after successfully negotiating one of this season’s best passes at Long Beach – only to have it negated by a penalty for using pit lane.

The Frenchmen who drives the No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda expects things to heat up again this weekend.

“Just a lot of passing opportunities (here), and especially with the new aero kit this year,” Bourdais said. “I think it will be quite an interesting race, and even more so if the weather comes into play.”

In previous years, Indy’s road course hasn’t created much tension.

Pagenaud and Team Penske teammate Power have split the first four Indy GP races, Pagenaud winning in even-numbered years, Power in the odd-numbered years. The only pole winner who failed to win the race was Sebastian Saavedra in 2014. He got caught up in a crash at the start that prevented three drivers, including Saavedra, from completing a lap.

Nobody believes it will be such a one-sided affair this time.

Series officials have said nearly twice as many total passes were logged over the first four races than last season, something they expect to continue this weekend and at the Indianapolis 500 on May 27.

Fans also will be watching the engine manufacturer’s race between Chevy and Honda, which is tied at 2-2 going into the weekend.

That’s exactly what organizers wanted when it made the technical changes after last season.

“We don’t know how it races yet here, but everywhere else, it’s been better,” Power said, referring to the new cars. “It’s just easier to follow. You don’t have a big, dirty wake from all the winglets and stuff that was hanging off the old car. I can see it being – especially being such a hot day on race day – pretty good racing, tire degradation, and people might struggle to come on to the front straight here a little bit, so yeah, it’ll be absolutely better racing here than last year.”

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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