During his IndyCar tenure at Dale Coyne Racing, the late Justin Wilson elevated the small team to a new level, one they failed to reach in decades prior to his arrival but have maintained since his departure.
Four years ago today, former IndyCar driver Justin Wilson was tragically killed the day after a fluke accident late in the race at Pocono Raceway when race leader Sage Karam spun out and hit the wall and the nose cone of his car hit Wilson’s helmet, effectively making him a passenger as he drove by the crash site.
But instead of focusing on the tragic passing of the 37-year-old from Sheffield, England, let’s focus on one particular aspect of his rather underrated IndyCar career: his impact on Dale Coyne Racing.
After spending the 2003 season driving in Formula 1 and the next four seasons driving in Champ Car, four seasons during which he earned a total of four victories, Wilson signed with Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing in IndyCar for the 2008 season.
Wilson finished the season in 11th place in the championship standings, but he did so after winning the race at the Raceway on Belle Isle for his first victory in an IndyCar-sanctioned race.
One season later, he drove for Dale Coyne Racing, a team that had competed in American open-wheel racing since 1984. In their first 25 seasons, including 24 in CART/Champ Car and one in IndyCar. In those 25 seasons, they had never won a race, and they had only ever had two drivers finish in the top 10 in the championship standings.
Oriol Servia finished in 10th place in the championship standings in the 2004 Champ Car season, a season during which he recorded the team’s second ever podium finish with a third place finish in the race at Laguna Seca, and Bruno Junqueira finished in seventh in the standings in the 2007 Champ Car season, a season during which he recorded the team’s best ever finish of second in the race at Circuit Zolder to go along with two additional podium finishes.
It was no secret that Dale Coyne Racing were headed in the right direction, but in his first season driving for the team in their 26th season of competition, it was Wilson who put them over the top and elevated them to a level where they had never previously been and a level at which they continue to compete to this day.
In his first race driving for Dale Coyne Racing, Wilson recorded the team’s sixth ever podium finish with a third place finish in the race on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida. Eight races later at Watkins Glen International, he found himself in victory lane with the team’s first ever victory.
He finished the 17-race season with eight top 10 finishes, including six in the last nine races, en route to a ninth place finish in the championship standings, just the third top 10 result in team history.
Wilson spent the next two seasons driving for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, and Dale Coyne Racing spent the next two seasons struggling except in the 2011 season when four-time Champ Car champion Sebastien Bourdais, the driver to whom Wilson finished runner-up in the 2006 and 2007 Champ Car seasons, drove for the team in the road and street course races.
Never during the 2010 or 2011 season did any Dale Coyne Racing driver finish on the podium, and never did any of them finish in the top 15 in the championship standings.
In the 2012 season, Wilson returned to the team. In thrilling fashion, he earned their second ever victory and first ever oval victory by winning the race at Texas Motor Speedway when race leader Graham Rahal ran into trouble with just over two laps remaining.
Here is a video of what went down en route to Wilson securing the seventh and final overall victory and the first oval victory of his American open-wheel racing career.
(NOTE: Begin watching at 2:16:00)
After the race, team owner Dale Coyne stated that Wilson is “not supposed to be an oval guy” and was “doing pretty damn good”.
Well, Dale Coyne Racing weren’t really “supposed to be an oval team” either, yet after a strong seventh place performance in the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway just two weeks earlier, Wilson delivered them their first ever oval podium finish in the form of a thrilling and extremely shocking victory.
They were also “doing pretty damn good”.
Wilson could only manage a 15th place finish in the championship standings in the 2012 season, but he returned to the team for the 2013 season and recorded the team’s best ever finish in the standings in sixth despite the fact that he did not win a race.
He did record four podium finishes, and part-time teammate Mike Conway recorded two, including the first even non-Wilson victory in Dale Coyne Racing history in the season’s first of two races at the Raceway on Belle Isle. Wilson finished in third place in this race to give the team their first ever double podium finish.
During the 2014 season, Wilson’s final season at Dale Coyne Racing, Carlos Huertas secured a huge fuel-saving upset victory for the team in his rookie season in a rain-shortened race on the streets of Houston, Texas. Had the race ended a few minutes earlier, it would have been Wilson who won. Nevertheless, Dale Coyne Racing ended the day with four career victories.
Bourdais ended up doing something similar to what Wilson did by returning to Dale Coyne Racing several seasons after leaving the team, and his return has produced a similar result.
In his first race back, the 2017 season opener on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida, he dominated after starting in 21st (last) place on the grid. He also won this race in the 2018 season en route to a seventh place finish in the championship standings.
Dale Coyne Racing have performed very well on ovals in general in recent seasons as well, something that could never be said until Wilson’s victory at Texas Motor Speedway in 2012.
Rookie Santino Ferrucci recently secured a career-high fourth place finish at the same venue after finishing in seventh in the Indy 500, and he went on to tie his career-high finish with another fourth place result at Pocono Raceway.
Bourdais himself had a car capable of taking the pole position for the 2017 Indy 500 before he crashed while attempting to qualify for the race, resulting in injuries that sidelined him for nine races.
Even after starting in 33rd (last) place as his replacement, James Davison, who was only in his fifth career IndyCar start, led two laps of the race and was in the mix for the victory. To go along with that success, rookie Ed Jones, who was only in his sixth career IndyCar start, finished in third for the team. Their cars were pretty much second to none.
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Dale Coyne Racing are still not on the level of the “Big 3” of Team Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Autosport, but they are now a solid mid-pack team, and they are perennial contenders to secure race victories each IndyCar season. Let us never forget that this level of success truly started with the late Justin Wilson in the 36th-year team’s 26th season of operation.