FORT WORTH, Texas – It had been nearly two years since Tristan Vautier turned a lap in the Verizon IndyCar Series, but that didn’t hinder the Frenchman from securing a surprising fifth place in qualifying Friday for the Rainguard Water Sealers 600 at Texas Motor Speedway.
The 27-year-old was called in this week to fill the No. 18 Honda seat at Dale Coyne Racing for countryman Sebastien Bourdais, who continues his recovery from injuries sustained in a qualifying crash last month at the Indianapolis 500.
Vautier is the third part of the driver carousel in as many weeks since, with James Davison subbing at Indy and ex-Formula One driver Esteban Gutierrez taking the reins last weekend for the doubleheader at Detroit.
Despite rain delaying and shortening opening practice on the reconfigured and repaved 1.5-mile TMS oval, it was business as usual for Vautier. The veteran of 30 series starts put down a two-lap average speed of 221.801 mph in afternoon qualifying to earn his best start at the track.
“Of course it’s always a big step when you step in like this and you have a one-hour practice before qualifying, but I’m used to this kind of situation,” said Vautier, the 2012 Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires champion.
“That’s kind of been the story all the time for me for the last three or four years – stepping in last minute for opportunities of this kind. So I’m used to dealing with it and I always embrace it because it’s what has kept me alive and given me the opportunities to race full time in sports cars.
“I was a bit nervous, obviously, before getting here on such a tough oval. But as soon as I got out of the pits, that’s kind of the moment I felt the best, where it was like, ‘Just go!’ So I was a bit nervous, but kind of impatient to get going, so you run it and now you’re back in it.”
Vautier drove the entire 2013 Verizon IndyCar Series season with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports but couldn’t land a ride for the following season. He joined Dale Coyne Racing for the final 11 races of 2015 and is witness to the steps that the team has taken to improve since then.
“Dale is really, really putting a lot of effort into making the team as good as it is now,” Vautier said. “I think a good thing this year is they've had – unfortunately there's been the accident for Seb – but they've had two very strong drivers in the car and stability and two very strong engineering teams as well. Because even the rookie (Ed Jones) has been very strong.
“I think that stability and, as I said, a wider engineering team with Craig Hampson coming and Olivier (Boisson), I think they've been able to share ideas with their experience from other teams on how the team has been running. Overall, yeah, the team is very strong.”
Vautier’s goal for tonight’s 248-lap race is simple: fulfill the potential of the car and himself.
“I think already we arrived in the top 10 (in qualifying) and, if we end in the top 10, we’ll be happy,” said Vautier. “I think the goal is to leave the race having maximized everything and knowing we did the best that we could and we didn’t do any bad mistakes or leave anything on the table.
“Wherever that puts us will be what it is. I just want to feel that we’ve maximized everything we could, so we’re not really focusing on the position or the actual results itself.”
Coverage of the Rainguard Water Sealers 600 begins at 8 p.m. ET today on NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.