Justin scored his and Dale Coyne Racing’s maiden oval victory in the Firestone 550 at Texas Motor Speedway on Saturday night in a thrilling race where driver skill was to the fore in a battle to manage tyres and grip. Two laps from the end Justin was running comfortably in 2nd and closing down a 1.3s gap to race leader Graham Rahal when the Chip Ganassi Racing driver got loose and tapped the wall. Justin took full advantage of the mistake to shoot past to the chequered flag and he celebrated a popular win by serving up donuts in front of the crowd. It was a great night too for Justin’s team-mate and fellow Yorkshireman James Jakes who finished 10th after a strong race of his own. Graham Rahal finished runner-up, with Team Penske’s Ryan Briscoe rounding out the podium.
The contrast to Friday, when practice was limited and the #18 Sonny’s Bar-B-Q car was a handful, couldn’t have been more stark. Starting from 17th on the grid, Justin made steady progress up to P12 by his first stop on Lap 36, but found his pit box blocked after Simon Pagenaud (Schmidt Hamilton Motorsports) punted one of his own tyres into Justin’s path. Justin fought his way back from 18th to 12th before his second stop on Lap 67 when great service by the Sonny’s Bar-B-Q Honda team saw him rejoin the field in 10th.
After that, Justin showed that he had the pace to run comfortably inside the top-5 and he led from Lap 117 to 125 before his third pit-stop. With great fuel mileage from his Honda engine and a car which - as in the Indianapolis 500 - was supreme toward the end of long green-flag runs, it was all about tyre management in the closing stages. After his final pit-stop, and the last re-start on Lap 184, the track stayed green all the way to the finish. Justin eased his way forward from P4 to P2 by Lap 216 before closing the gap to Graham and taking full advantage of the opportunity to clinch his first oval win.
“It’s just fantastic,” said Justin. “I have to thank Dale, [race engineer] Bill (Pappas) and everyone who works at Dale Coyne Racing – they’ve worked so hard and some long hours to get us to this point. I just can’t believe we managed to pull this off. I’ve also got to thank Honda for being such a great partner and giving us great engines and fuel mileage. It was four-wheel drifting all the way into Turn 3 and all the way out of Turn 4. You’re working as hard as you are on a road course – you really had to finesse the car and hang it out there. The Sonny’s Bar-B-Q Honda was fantastic and on the long runs it just got better and better. I saw people sliding around and knew I just had to hit my marks. When I saw Graham sliding more and more I thought “maybe there’s a chance” and when he hit the wall, I thought “OK, now it’s time to go.”
“I wanted to come back to come back to Dale Coyne Racing for a number of reasons,” Justin added. “Bringing Bill (Pappas) and John Dick on board with other members of the team was big, but having Honda was also a huge part of it - they’re a fantastic partner and I’m really pleased to be aligned with them. And last but not least Dale and Gail. It’s their team and their passion and you want to go out and win and do well for them. It means a lot to get this one.”