Mar 11, 2014, 9:00 AM EST
Justin Wilson remains IndyCar’s “nearly” man heading into 2014. “Nearly” everyone acknowledges he is a true top-five talent, and top-two or three guy in terms of character.
Yet he’s “nearly” the best driver. He’s “nearly” in victory lane. He’s “nearly” with the best team.
So goes the story again for 2014. Despite Team Penske adding a car for Juan Pablo Montoya, and Chip Ganassi Racing needing to fill two new spots but going with Tony Kanaan and Ryan Briscoe, once again Wilson has “nearly” missed out on a top drive as his contract option was picked up for one more year by Dale Coyne Racing.
Once Champ Car was folded into IndyCar in 2008, Wilson’s never had the true top-flight ride his talent deserves. He’s overachieved with Newman/Haas/Lanigan, Coyne, and Dreyer & Reinbold, but in 2013 wasn’t able to crack victory lane.
As 2014 beckons, he’s “nearly” with the same group of people. Engineer Bill Pappas departs, with fellow veteran Michael Cannon entering his stead.
But on the bright side, the lanky Englishman says the Coyne team has made “nearly” all the improvements over the winter to be considered a top-flight organization on merit, rather than by Wilson and crew overachieving.
“We’re generally just working away on things, trying to get used to the new personnel,” Wilson said at IndyCar media day in Orlando. “We’ve had a lot of changes at Dale Coyne Racing. I’m now working with Michael Cannon, my new race engineer. He’s got a lot of experience, and that’s great.”
Also great has been Wilson’s frequency of seat time in the new year, beyond his No. 19 Boy Scouts of America/Sonny’s BBQ Honda for DCR. That’s important considering where he was in October.
Wilson suffered a fractured pelvis and pulmonary contusion at the season finale at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, which was his second major injury in three years. He also sustained a compression fracture to his T-5 vertebra to his back in 2011 at Mid-Ohio.
But through it, Wilson recovered quickly, and was back in a car by January. He’s alternated between the IndyCar and Michael Shank Racing’s Ford EcoBoost Riley, for the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship’s opening rounds at Daytona and Sebring.
As Wilson’s gained track time, he feels optimistic that the team can improve on its sixth place in the championship in 2013.
“We didn’t expect that at the start of the year. Obviously now this year we want to build on it,” he said. “There’s a lot of things that have got to happen. We have to make sure we don’t make any mistakes. Trying to get the most out of the car in qualifying, trying to get the car to work over a full stint in the race, that’s just part of it.
Wilson scored four podium finishes, with a best of second at Sonoma. He’s planning a return to victory lane in 2014, to build on his two prior wins (Watkins Glen 2009, Texas 2012) with Coyne.
“It’s easy to go down a path and get trapped and lost. That’s our focus,” he said. “Hopefully we can build on that and win races. That was the one thing last year, we came close to winning a couple races. There were a few races that something happened and I thought, We should have won that one. We didn’t. Want to change that around this year and at least win one, if not multiple.”
Considering Wilson, Cannon and the Coyne team have nearly 60-plus years of combined open-wheel experience between them, they should punch above their weight once more.
They don’t want another year of “nearly” missing out on wins and a potential top-five championship finish.
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