INDIANAPOLIS – Unfortunately, this is an all too familiar position for Dale Coyne Racing to be in. “TBA” is back for the Month of May with DCR. This will be the second straight year and third time in the last four years that they’ve had a driver replacement for the Indianapolis 500. See, Pietro Fittipaldi was originally slated to run both races at IMS this month and follow that up with a shot at Texas in June. Unfortunately though, Fittipaldi broke both legs in a scary qualifying crash in a sports car race in Europe and is looking like he will be out 6-8 weeks to heal. That will take him out of the No. 19 Honda ride for Coyne for his next three races.
So, with limited turn around, what does Coyne do?
Last year, they were faced with a similar situation when Sebastien Bourdais crashed on his opening day of Time Trials qualifying run. They had to find a replacement and get him up to speed in just eight days. James Davison was that guy. But, Davison already has an Indy 500 seat this month with a joint entry between Byrd Racing and AJ Foyt Racing.
In 2015, the team replaced Carlos Huertas after he already qualified for the ‘500 and replaced him with Tristian Vautier. We never saw Huertas again in the Verizon IndyCar Series. Last year in Texas, Vautier replaced Bourdais and did a fine job. He doesn’t currently have a ride and is a viable option to jump in the car for Indy.
So are a few others. The only problem with Vautier is that he doesn’t bring any funding to offset some costs.
First things first though, the INDYCAR Grand Prix (3:30 p.m. ET/ABC/INDYCAR Radio Network) on Sunday. The logical fit there is to put Zachary Claman DeMelo in the seat. He’s sharing the ride with Fittipaldi in 2018 after all. Claman DeMelo, has made three starts already in 2018 with a best finish of 17th so far. As far as putting him in the car for the ‘500, I would suspect that Coyne would want to use a seasoned veteran over a rookie without much oval racing experience.
Plus, this car has a legitimate shot to win. Think about it, DCR has already won a pole on an oval this season at Phoenix with Bourdais. Fittipaldi qualified 10th in his first ever INDYCAR race that day. Last year, Bourdais was on a likely P1 run before his crash. He was fastest on Fast Friday in that very car too. Davison, started last in that car in the race and became just the third driver ever to lead a lap in the race after starting from the 33rd position. He was in the hunt to win before being caught up in a late race crash. His teammate and rookie Ed Jones finished third in this very car that they’re seeking a substitute driver for. At Texas, another superspeedway, Vautier was very fast in Bourdais’ car and Jones was in the hunt too.
Moral of the story is, this is a fast car and a dare I say, race winning capable entry. So, the line of drivers waiting for a shot is going to be long. The problem lies, there’s not much time to figure this out and not a lot of time for a sponsor to line up with what Coyne would be offering.
That makes Vautier the man at the top of the list I would think. He’s made two ‘500 starts and raced in the series as recently as last year at Texas. The only draw back to him is he hasn’t raced at Indy since 2015. So, if not Vautier, look no further than Sebastian Saavedra. He has funding and made four starts in the series in 2017, one of which at Indy with Juncos Racing. Saavedra, has six career ‘500 starts to his credit.
If not those two, the best driver to grab would be Juan Pablo Montoya. He’d be overall at the top of the list and my first phone call. But, despite Penske saying that Montoya was free to look for a ‘500 ride, they’ve since said that as long as he drives for them, it would be a conflict of interest for him to race in a series for a different team that Penske also competes in. If Honda, whom Montoya has a relationship with in IMSA, can sway Penske is letting Montoya help out, that would be a huge get.
If neither Vautier, Saavedra or Montoya are options, Ryan Briscoe should be up next. That’s if Ganassi doesn’t say to him what Penske said to Montoya that is. Briscoe, is always fast at Indy and has no conflicts in other racing series’ either. He’s made 10 Indy 500 starts, his most recent a fill in role for James Hinchcliffe in 2015. He’d finish 12th in that race too.
Those would be the top four drivers at the moment to call. I’m sure there’s more out there that could be in the mix, but these are the four currently at the top I’m sure.