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Familiar faces, fond farewells and bumping headline Indy 500 lineup

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The throwback month is in full swing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Danica Patrick started tuning up for her final race on the historic 2.5-mile oval more than a week ago. Helio Castroneves has been peppered with questions about becoming the fourth four-time winner of the Indianapolis 500.

The seemingly indestructible A.J. Foyt came back less than two months after surviving a second bout with killer bees. Even real, live bumping should be on the qualifying weekend docket.

For race organizers it’s a dream script: Familiar faces, fond farewells and a return to traditions with a whole new look.

“The story line of Danica, the story line of bumping not just for the fast nine but to get into the entire field, gives us an opportunity to talk about what we love so much, that’s the activity on the racetrack as we lead into the Indianapolis 500,” track president Doug Boles said.

Even this year’s new-look cars have an old-fashioned flavor. They’re sleek, speedy and have been all the rage around Gasoline Alley and other tracks around the country where passing has become the norm.

When testing began at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in late April, IndyCar president of competition and operations Jay Frye noted the 1,284 total passes through IndyCar’s first four races was nearly double last season’s pace. In Saturday’s IndyCar Grand Prix, there were 214 more passes – the highest total since the 225 passes in 2014.

There were also nine lead changes in the race and a record-tying seven drivers actually led laps.

Not enough?

Speeds could be higher when practice begins Tuesday, too. If the weather cooperates, qualifying will take place Saturday and next Sunday and the race will be run May 27.

Longtime fan favorite Tony Kanaan got the new cars topping 226 mph on the first day of testing.

And it’s not just numbers that have people buzzing.

Chip Ganassi Racing managing director Mike Hull believes the retro appearance has made it easier to explain how these cars work even to casual observers.

It’s all part of a plan.

“We wanted to get our identity back, what an IndyCar is supposed to look like,” Frye said. “A lot of input from the fans, a lot of input from the paddock, all the teams. We came up with what we did. We’re really proud of where we’re at with the car.”

But fans also like talking big names and they’re back, too.

The second and final part of Patrick’s farewell tour drew dozens of reporters to testing. She’s driving for Ed Carpenter Racing in the neon green Go Daddy car that made her an Indy sensation as a rookie in 2005.

So, fittingly, she intends to end her racing career at the same track.

During testing, Patrick took time to reflect on her earliest days in the series and started asking photographers along pit lane whether they were around for her first race.

She has six career top-10 finishes in seven Indy starts. Adding another might be her toughest act yet after spending six seasons in NASCAR. But if she can turn back the clock and recapture one last memorable result, it could be the perfect finish.

“I remember watching the Indy 500 the first year I wasn’t in it and I missed it. I remember that feeling,” she said.

“As time wore on I missed that relevancy of being in the game and being someone like before the race of `Who do you think is going to win today?’ My name did not pop up in NASCAR. Then that first Daytona 500 when I was on the pole, and other than that most of the races weren’t like that. I missed being relevant, so I’m going to try to be that here this month.”

The only thing bigger than Patrick’s return might be if Castroneves can reach victory lane in his second and last scheduled start on the series this season.

Helio Castroneves looks to win his fourth Indianapolis 500 in 2018. Photo: IndyCar

“I’m back!” the Brazilian said after turning his first laps in Team Penske’s No. 3 Chevrolet. “I’m excited to go out there and put on a great show for the fans there.”

Add 35 confirmed driver-car combinations attempting to qualify for the traditional 33-car starting grid and it’s no surprise why tickets are selling at a brisker pace than 2017.

It’s a month that has the potential to be even better than the good, old days.

“I think from first to 20th, the 21st car ran 220,” Frye said, referring to the early testing at Indy. “Again, it’s a real good group. I think this year’s field will be as strong as it’s been in a long time.”

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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