Bourdais has Dale Coyne Racing atop heap in IndyCar

LONG BEACH, Calif. -- There is a familiar team atop the Verizon IndyCar Series standings, but it's one that history has never witnessed in this lofty position.

Yes, Dale Coyne Racing leads the likes of Team Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Autosport.

Dale Coyne's small team isn't the Chicago Cubs of U.S. open-wheel racing because it has never been a contender. A Coyne car didn't win its first race until 25 years into the organization's existence, and one of Coyne's entries has never had enough points to end a season within sniffing distance of the series championship.

Yet, as the IndyCar Series heads to this weekend's Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, Coyne's No. 18 car is atop the standings thanks to Sebastien Bourdais' season-opening victory last month in St. Petersburg, Fla.

The strong start is no fluke, either. Bourdais was one of 13 Honda drivers testing at Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway earlier this week, and he posted the fastest lap. He even led the morning and afternoon sessions against a field that included cars owned by perennial frontrunners Chip Ganassi and Michael Andretti.

Of course, Bourdais is no stranger to the lead pack. He won the final four season championships of the Champ Car World Series (2004-07) and ranks sixth on the sport's all-time victory list with 36 wins. Bourdais even has won three times at this 11-turn, 1.968-mile temporary street circuit.

The story behind this unlikely story began last fall when Bourdais didn't feel secure in KV Racing's commitment to participating the upcoming season. The Frenchman's hunch proved correct when longtime KV co-owners Kevin Kalkhoven and Jimmy Vasser decided to disband the team in January. Fortunately for Bourdais, he signed a deal to join Coyne's team as it added a pair of engineers and some crew members from his championship-winning Champ Car days at Newman-Haas Racing.

Now, they have the series lead with 16 races to go.

"I couldn't be happier about how we've been able to assemble this program," Bourdais said. "It's getting the band back together, and we're off to a good start."

Actually, Bourdais will strive for a better start than he had in the St. Petersburg street race. There, he overshot a corner in qualifying, damaged the car and was forced to start at the rear of the 21-car field. His race-day effort was aided by a mid-race caution that shuffled the running order.

Had that caution not occurred, likely victory lane contenders would have included Honda drivers Scott Dixon (a Ganassi driver) and James Hinchcliffe (driving for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports), among others. Benefitting as Bourdais did was Penske driver Simon Pagenaud, the reigning series champion, who finished second.

This Long Beach race presents several unique challenges, including tight racing quarters with concrete barriers looming on either side of the circuit. Bumps must always be dealt with, too. Pagenaud won last year.

The race which began with Mario Andretti's victory in 1984 has a streak on the line.

Since 1975, when Formula One cars zoomed around the circuit, it hasn't rained on race day, a distinction no other motor sports venue can claim. However, a chance of showers is in the forecast all three days.

Practice begins Friday with qualifying Saturday. The 85-lap main event is Sunday at 4 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

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