Wednesday, February 22, 2017

2017 IndyCar Team Preview: Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing

For the second consecutive season, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing carried the Honda flag in 2016 and finished as best of the rest in IndyCar and now the team looks to continue to be the Japanese manufacture's leader for a third consecutive season. The task hasn't got any easier as the team will have to contest with the returning Chip Ganassi Racing, a rebuilt Andretti Autosport, an unchanged Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and a Sébastien Bourdais-led Dale Coyne Racing for that honor.

2016 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Review:
Wins: 1 (Texas)
Poles: 0
Best Start: 5th (Sonoma).
Final Championship Positions: 5th (Graham Rahal).

2017 Drivers:

Graham Rahal - #15 United Rentals/Steak & Shake Honda
After a career year in 2015, where Rahal found himself in championship contention until the final race, the American had a more up-and-down 2016 season but still was a contender in many races and continued to carry the Honda flag. He challenged Simon Pagenaud at Barber in one of the more thrilling road course battles in recent memory only to have contact with a back marker force him to limp home in second-place. He had another great run at Road America and Mid-Ohio before taking a photo-finish victory at Texas and ended the season with another battle with Pagenaud at Sonoma and again coming home in second position.

Numbers to Remember: 
4.5: Average finish in the championship the last two seasons (Rahal is the first American to finish in the top five in the championship in consecutive seasons since Sam Hornish, Jr. in 2006 and 2007).

14: Laps led in 2016, the fifth-fewest laps led by a race winner in a season since reunification (Dan Wheldon: 1 (2011), Danica Patrick: 4 (2008), Carlos Huertas: 7 (2014), Ed Carpenter: 11 (2011)).

4: Rahal has qualified in the top five four times in the DW12-era. (Texas 2012 (3rd), Houston 2 2014 (4th), Pocono 2015 (5th), Sonoma 2016 (5th). This does not include having his qualifying time disallowed at the 2016 Grand Prix of Indianapolis after qualifying third).

Rahal had eight top five finishes in 2016, tied for the second-most but those were his only top ten finishes in the season. If he can maintain that number of top five finishes and podiums (which he had four of), but add four or five top ten finishes, he is going to be a legitimate championship contender. He needs to improve on big ovals where the team has lacked speed the last few seasons. Qualifying, as a whole is something Rahal needs to improve on as the facts above show. He hasn't had multiple top five starts in a season since he had six in 2011. To be fair, he did make the Fast Six session on five occasions in 2016 out of ten races and that does not include losing his third-place starting position in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis. I don't think Rahal is going to be the top Honda driver in the championship but he will again finish solidly in the top ten of the championship and will get a win on a road course.

Oriol Servià - #16 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda
After getting a surprise substitute role for Will Power at St. Petersburg, Servià was back at Indianapolis with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and made an impressive qualifying run and ended up starting tenth and had a solid race, running around the top ten all day and finished 12th. Servià has made 199 IndyCar starts and is confirmed for only the Indianapolis 500 but the team hopes to have the Catalan driver competing in more than one race in 2017.

Numbers to Remember: 
104: Starts since Servià's only IndyCar victory at Montreal in 2005.

4: Servià's last four IndyCar starts have been with four different teams (RLLR, Andretti, Penske, Schmidt Peterson).

11: Serviá has had a top ten finish with 11 of the 15 teams he has driven for (PPI Motorsports, Sigma Autosport, PWR Championship Racing, Patrick Racing, Dale Coyne Racing, Newman-Haas Racing, PKV/KV Racing, Team Forsythe, Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, Panther Racing and RLLR).

I think the goal is to have Servià run more than one race but I don't think he runs majority of the schedule. Maybe RLLR can roll in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and/or the Belle Isle doubleheader into an Indianapolis 500 sponsorship deal as those races are on ABC and get better ratings than the rest of the schedule. As for how he will do at Indianapolis? If RLLR can find some speed opposed from the last few years, Servià should be able to qualify somewhere between row four and row seven and run a respectable race and finish on the lead lap.

The 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season opener, the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg will take place on Sunday March 12th at 12:00 p.m. ET on ABC.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

2017 IndyCar Team Preview: Andretti Autosport

The fifth 2017 IndyCar Team Preview looks at the team that was probably the most frustrated from 2016 but not because nothing went the team's way but rather for how close many things were to going its way but didn't. Andretti Autosport's four entries might not have finished as well as expected but 2016 wasn't a disaster and there were plenty of bright spots for the team, including another Indianapolis 500 victory. The team has a new driver and has shuffle some of the pieces on the pit stands as it looks to find itself back in the fight at the top of IndyCar.

2016 Andretti Autosport Review:
Wins: 1 (Indianapolis 500)
Poles: 1 (Texas)
Final Championship Positions: 10th (Carlos Muñoz), 11th (Alexander Rossi), 12th (Ryan Hunter-Reay), 16th (Marco Andretti), 27th (Townsend Bell).

2017 Drivers:

Takuma Sato - #26 Andretti Autosport Honda
After three seasons at A.J. Foyt Racing, the Japanese driver will continue his IndyCar career by heading to his fourth team in what will be his eighth season. The 40-year-old driver is coming off matching his second-worst finish in the championship after finishing 17th. Despite the poor championship finish, Sato did have two top-five finishes, the fifth time he had multiple top five finishes in a season.

Numbers to Remember: 
66: Starts since Sato's most recent victory.

4.57: Average amount of top ten finishes a season in Sato's seven IndyCar seasons.

11: Lead lap finishes in 2016, the most in Sato's IndyCar career.

Expectations aren't high for Takuma Sato. After seven seasons, we know who he is and what he is capable off. There is no point in wondering if this will be the year Sato figures it out and turns his pace into results with an absence of accidents. However, he is coming off 11 lead lap finishes in 16 races last year and only retired from three races, two of which were accidents and both came in the 500-mile races. The goal should be not to finish last among the four Andretti drivers and match what he did last year.

Marco Andretti - #27 hhgregg Honda
The only way to describe Andretti's 2016 season would be consistent but mediocre. The American finished all 16 races and completed all but eight laps but he didn't get a top ten finish until Belle Isle and added just two more in the back half of the season with an eighth-place finish at Sonoma being his best finish of the season. Nine of Andretti's finishes in 2016 were between 11th and 14th position. Qualifying was not any better with 11th at Phoenix being his best grid position.

Numbers to Remember: 
92: Starts since his most recent victory (He went 77 starts between his first two career victories).

2,062: Laps completed in 2016, the second-most in 2016.

0: Laps led in 2016, the first time Andretti did not lead a lap in the season.

Andretti turns 30 years old the day after St. Petersburg. He has to be a bigger factor than he was in 2016. He needs at least two or three top five finishes and turn a lot of those near top ten finishes into top ten finishes. Eight top ten finishes isn't out of the discussion for Andretti. He is also going to have to improve his average starting position by at least three points from 17.5. Ultimately, while Sato's goal should be not to be the bottom of the four Andretti drivers, Andretti's goal should be to at least stay ahead of Sato in the championship.

Ryan Hunter-Reay - #28 DHL Honda
Despite having as many podiums, more top five finishes and more top ten finishes than his 2015 season, Hunter-Reay dropped six places in the championship from sixth to 12th, finishing behind two of his teammates and going winless for the first time since the 2009 season, where he didn't get a ride until the week before the season opener at St. Petersburg and then had to switch teams midseason from Vision Racing to A.J. Foyt Racing.

Numbers to Remember: 
17: Starts since his most recent victory (Longest drought since he went 18 starts between his Iowa victories in 2014-15).

3: Third-place finishes in 2016, the most third-place finishes in a season for Hunter-Reay.

48: Races since most recent pole position (Long Beach 2014).

I think the goal is to win and get back into the top ten of the championship and compete to be the top Honda in the championship, which has only gotten harder now that Ganassi has moved back to Honda and Sébastien Bourdais has joined Dale Coyne Racing. I think Hunter-Reay does get a victory possibly two and will find himself in the back half of the top ten of the championship but not the top Honda driver but maybe good enough to be the second-best Honda driver.

Alexander Rossi - #98 NAPA Auto Parts Honda
Coming off earning Rookie of the Year with a Indianapolis 500 victory as the cherry on top of that, Rossi looks to make more strides forward. While his Indianapolis 500 victory was a surprise but also came after Rossi had a strong month of May, success came slow to him. He didn't get a top ten start until ninth at Texas and didn't make it out of round one of knockout qualifying on road/street circuits until Mid-Ohio with his seventh-place start at Pocono being his best of the season. He closed out the season with back-to-back top ten finishes at Watkins Glen and Sonoma.

Numbers to Remember: 
2: Of the previous rookie Indianapolis 500 winners won a race the following season (Frank Lockhart won four times in 1927 and Hélio Castroneves won twice in 2002).

22: Of Rossi's 23 laps led in 2016 were on ovals (Indianapolis: 14, Iowa: 4, Pocono: 4).

118: Rossi won the 2016 Rookie of the Year award by 118 points over Conor Daly.

I think Rossi has to make a step forward on road and street circuits and I think he will. I think he gets at least one podium on a road/street circuit and makes it to the Fast Six session at least once. I think Rossi can rival Hunter-Reay in terms of success and challenge him for being the top Andretti driver. Look for Rossi to have between four to five top five finishes and eight to ten top ten finishes and either finish just inside the top ten of the championship or finishing 11th for the second consecutive season.

The 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season opener, the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg will take place on Sunday March 12th at 12:00 p.m. ET on ABC.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Musings From the Weekend: Clash a-ha Savior of the Universe

KV Racing died. Formula E returned and will now be taking a six-week break after having the previous three months off. Supercross visited a new venue. NASCAR suffered its first rain delay on its first weekend of the season. Joey Logano won the Clash after Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski got together. Chase Elliott won the pole position for the Daytona 500 for the second consecutive year with Dale Earnhardt, Jr. qualifying second. Brendan Gaughan and Elliott Sadler have also qualified for the Daytona 500. Here is a run down of what got me thinking.

Clash a-ha Savior of the Universe
What is the point of the Clash? Or the Shootout... or the Unlimited? Or whatever you want to call the exhibition race that rings in the NASCAR season. The whole origins of the race don't make any sense. A race for the pole winners from the season before and to prove what? Who the best pole winner is? It is a knockoff All-Star Race.

Perhaps thirty years ago the race made sense, as it was an extra race to put on television and give fans a taste of something after a long, quiet winter before the 500-mile meal to fatten the fans to get through the final couple weeks of winter.

The Thursday night Daytona 500 qualifying races became redundant after the top 35 were locked into race and made even further redundant once charters were introduced. To solve that issue NASCAR decided to pay 10 points to each winner to justify the existence of the races. However, the Clash is another story. What is the point? Do the fans need to whet their appetites just three months after the nearly 40-week gorging ended? Maybe there was a time when people would stop and watch this exhibition but the world is more diluted than ever with options to take up our time and another race isn't going to take attention away from those interested in NBA All-Star Saturday Night full of a skills challenge, three-point contest and slam dunk contest. Fortunately or unfortunately the rain delay erased that conflict but it still doesn't solve the problem.

When thinking about the Clash and the NBA All-Star Game and all all-star games for that matter, the Clash is just another race but all-star games are special events each year. All-star games and all-star weekends might be equally as meaningless as the Clash but they do provide everlasting memories. From Magic Johnson's return in 1992 to Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant reuniting in 2009 and sharing the MVP award to Larry Bird calling the three-point contest with the final shot still in the air to dunk contests that featured Spud Webb, Michael Jordan taking off from the free throw line and Vince Carter declaring its over in Oakland, NBA All-Star weekend provides something.

Name a Clash/Shootout/Unlimited that stands out or a moment from those races. What? Ricky Rudd's barrel roll that forced him to duct tape his eyes open? That's it. A 75-lap race to fill a Saturday night on Fox Sports 1 (or late Sunday morning because of rain) needs to do something more than just be another race. One thing all-star games do is it brings players together that don't play together on a regular basis and maybe that is something NASCAR should take from other sports instead of segmenting races.

Keep the Clash at 75 laps with a draw for the starting order, a 25-lap first segment and a 50-lap final segment. However, after the first segment, pay the winner $100,000 dollars, have all the cars come to the pit lane and have the drivers get of the car. Have each driver that finished the segment lineup inverse from the segment one results and have the drivers draw a number out of a hat but instead of setting up the starting order, that is the car the driver is going to start the final segment in.

For example, Joey Logano won segment one ahead of Jamie McMurray, Kevin Harvick, Danica Patrick and Brad Keselowski and Martin Truex, Jr. was the last car running in segment one after Kurt Busch's accident. Truex, Jr. would draw first and let's say he draws the number four. Truex, Jr. would get into Patrick's car for the second segment. This would continue until each car has a new driver. Of course, have a rule that would prevent a driver from drawing his or her own car.

Imagine having Chase Elliott in Kyle Larson's car and Larson in Matt Kenseth's car and Kenseth in Joey Logano's car and Logano in Kevin Harvick's car and Harvick back at Richard Childress Racing in place of Austin Dillon. Besides being in a different car, the driver would be in a whole new position for the restart. Truex, Jr. could go from 16th after the first segment to restarting in the #22 Ford in place of Joey Logano if he drew position one and vice versa.

Would it be confusing? At first for sure but who cares? It is a race that means nothing at the start of the season. It would at least be different and test the drivers, as they would have to get out of their comfort zones and get into a car with an unknown setup. It would be interesting to hear drivers compare how their initial car felt compared to the setup to the car for segment two. Teams may be conservative and play their cards to their chest not to reveal any secrets to a competitor and purposely sabotage the car's setup but it could end up biting them if they actually accidentally set the car up to the liking of the new driver without them even knowing it.

Pay $250,000 for the segment two winner with the team and driver splitting it 50-50. As for crew chiefs, I would allow crew chiefs to crossover that way we don't have to worry about changing helmets or radio frequency. It will be tough enough for a driver getting into an unknown car, no need to give them an unfamiliar voice as well.

A downside would be making sure the seats fit each driver. We have seen driver changes before but teams don't entirely change the seat for the substituting driver. I am sure as the draw is going on teams could install the proper seats into each car but I don't know how long and tedious it is to take a seat out and put it in and any longer than a 20-minute break could spell trouble for the broadcast.

Not only could getting each seat fitted and draw be an issue but inevitably we could be facing conflicts with drivers and their sponsors. Kyle Larson might throw a tantrum if he draws Jimmie Johnson's car because Larson is sponsored by Target and Johnson by Lowe's and there is probably some conflict there. Or what if Jimmy John's-sponsored Kevin Harvick draws Jamie McMurray's McDonald's car or vice versa? And let's not forget that Harvick has been a Ford driver his entire life since November 21, 2016. In my eyes, ignoring sponsor commitments for one night and just having the drivers be drivers and race regardless of the engine under the hood or whatever company is pissing away millions of dollars on the hood of the car is worth it. In the end, if the car wins the sponsor will quickly forget who is behind the wheel.

If seat swaps and the draw could be done in a timely manner and drivers won't be brain-dead brand loyalists, the Clash could evolve from being an otherwise meaningless race into a meaningless but intriguing race. Of all the things NASCAR has taken from other sports, this could be one that fans actually support.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Logano and Elliott but did you know...

Sébastien Buemi won the Buenos Aires ePrix, his third consecutive victory.

Eli Tomac won the Supercross race from Minneapolis, his third victory of the season.

Coming Up This Weekend
The Daytona 500.
World Superbikes and World Supersport begin their respective seasons at Phillip Island.
Supercross makes its final appearance at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.

Friday, February 17, 2017

2017 Speedweeks Preview

The 2017 NASCAR season is upon us and this weekend marks the unofficial start to the season with the renamed Advance Auto Parts Clash exhibition race on Saturday night followed by Daytona 500 pole position qualifying on Sunday afternoon.

Seventeen cars are entered for the Advance Auto Parts Clash on Saturday night. Denny Hamlin is the defending race winner and defending Daytona 500 winner and could solely move into second-place all-time in Clash victories should he win his fourth. He would trail only Dale Earnhardt, who won the exhibition race six times. Two-time Daytona 500 winner Matt Kenseth won the then-Sprint Unlimited in 2014 and Kyle Busch won the event in 2012. Joe Gibbs Racing has won three consecutive Clashes, four of the last five and has won six of the last eleven editions of the race and is tied with Richard Childress Racing for most Clash victories by a team with eight victories apiece.

Daniel Suárez make his Cup series debut in the #19 Toyota as NASCAR will allow him to race despite not meeting the criteria because the team had prepared the car for the event prior to Carl Edwards announcing his retirement. Martin Truex, Jr. is the only other Toyota in the field. He finished second in the 2015 edition to Matt Kenseth.

Jimmie Johnson returns as the defending series champion but has not won this race since 2005. Alex Bowman will race the #88 Chevrolet in place of Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Earnhardt, Jr. was eligible for the race as a two-time winner of the event and as the 2011 Daytona 500 pole-sitter but will take the race off and Bowman was eligible after winning pole position at Phoenix last November. Earnhardt, Jr. will make his return to competition in the Daytona 500 after being sidelined since July due to a concussion. This is the first Clash not to feature Earnhardt, Jr. since 2000, which was won by Dale Jarrett. Chase Elliott makes his Clash debut after winning last year's Daytona 500 pole position. His father Bill won the Clash in 1987. Hendrick Motorsports has won the Clash six times with Ken Schrader, Jeff Gordon, Johnson and Earnhardt, Jr. responsible for the victories.

Both Penske drivers Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski are entered and the team is going for its third Clash victory. Logano finished second last year to Hamlin and Keselowski finished second to Hamlin in 2014. Stewart-Haas Racing makes it debut with Ford. Kevin Harvick has won the event three times and Kurt Busch won the race in 2011. This year also marks the tenth anniversary of Harvick's lone Daytona 500 victory. Danica Patrick will make her fourth appearance in the race. Her best finish is tenth. Ford has not won the event since 2004 when Dale Jarrett won for Robert Yates Racing.

Austin Dillon is the only Richard Childress Racing driver in the Clash. The team hasn't won the race since 2013 and all the teams' victories came at the hands of Dale Earnhardt and Kevin Harvick. Both Chip Ganassi Racing drivers of Jamie McMurray and Kyle Larson are in the race. Larson has finished in the top five the last two years in the race and McMurray's best finish was second in 2011. Chris Buescher makes his Clash debut with JTG Daugherty Racing. The Ganassi drivers and Buescher are eligible by qualifying for the Chase last year.

This year's Clash will be the first one not to feature a Roush owned car since 1988 but Roush Fenway Racing has two cars entered for the Daytona 500 with 2011 Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. Clint Bowyer makes his debut for Stewart-Haas Racing in the #14 Ford replacing the retired Tony Stewart. Ryan Blaney returns for his third consecutive Daytona 500 in the famed #21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford.

Matt DiBenedetto moves to Go Fas Racing from BK Racing to drive the #32 Ford. Landon Cassill remains at Front Row Motorsports but moves to the #34 Ford with David Ragan moving from BK Racing into the #38 Ford. Aric Almirola heads into his seventh Daytona 500 and for the sixth time with Richard Petty Racing. Cole Whitt joins TriStar Motorsports in the #72 Ford. Whitt failed to qualify for last year's Daytona 500 but his best career Cup finish came at Daytona last year in the July race with an 11th-place finish.

Kasey Kahne makes his 14th Daytona 500 appearance and he is still looking for his first top five finish in the famed race. He has started 13th in the last two Daytona 500s and finished 13th last year. Ty Dillon returns for his third Daytona 500 start but this year in the #13 Germain Racing Chevrolet. Paul Menard and 2008 Daytona 500 winner Ryan Newman both return with Richard Childress Racing.

Jeffrey Earnhardt will make his Daytona 500 debut in the #33 Chevrolet for the newly merged Circle Sport - The Motorsports Group. The 27-year-old Earnhardt has made 25 Cup starts with his best finish being 27th at Richmond last September with Go Fas Racing. A.J. Allmendinger returns for his eighth Daytona 500 and fourth with JTG Daugherty Racing. Since finishing third in his Daytona 500 debut in 2009, Allmendinger's average finish in the other six starts is 24th. Michael McDowell returns in the #95 Leavine Family Racing and is coming off a tenth-place finish at last year's season finale at Homestead.

Two-time Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip will make his 784th and final start in what will be his 30th Daytona 500 start in the #15 Premium Motorsports Toyota. Waltrip will retire with the tenth most starts in NASCAR Cup Series history. He has also led at least one lap in 31 consecutive seasons. Joey Gase will make his Daytona 500 debut in the #23 BK Racing Toyota. In 13 Cup starts, Gase's best finish was 32nd at Phoenix last March. Along with Gase, Erik Jones will make his Daytona 500 debut in the #77 Furniture Row Racing Toyota.

The following six teams are the non-chartered teams and will have to make the race either on qualifying speed or through the Thursday night qualifying races. For the first time since 2012, Elliott Sadler will attempt to make the Daytona 500 in the #7 Tommy Baldwin Racing Chevrolet. Sadler has six top ten finishes in 13 Daytona 500 starts. Timmy Hill will attempt to make his Daytona 500 debut in the #51 Rick Ware Racing Chevrolet. Reed Sorenson missed last year's race and will again have to either qualify or race his way in but this time in the #55 Premium Motorsports Toyota. Brendan Gaughan will attempt to make his first Daytona 500 since 2004 in the #75 Beard Motorsports Chevrolet. Corey Lajoie will attempt to make his Daytona 500 debut in the #83 BK Racing Toyota. Lajoie has two Cup starts but both those came in 2014. Canadian D.J. Kennington will drive the #96 Gaunt Brothers Racing Toyota. Kennington's lone Cup start came at Phoenix last November.

Heading into Daytona 500 pole position qualifying, three of the last four pole positions have been won by rookie drivers and the last two pole positions have been won by Hendrick Motorsports. Jimmie Johnson is the only active driver with multiple Daytona 500 pole positions. No one has won the Daytona 500 from pole position since Dale Jarrett in 2000. Toyota has yet to win a Daytona 500 pole position.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is looking for his sixth Daytona 500 qualifying race victory and he could tie Cale Yarborough for second all-time in that department. Earnhardt, Jr. has won a qualifying race each of the last two years and should he win a qualifying race this year, he would join Fireball Roberts, Junior Johnson and his father as the only drivers to win a qualifying race in three consecutive years. His father won a qualifying race for ten consecutive years from 1990 to 1999.

The Advance Auto Parts Clash will take place on Saturday February 18th at 8:00 p.m. ET. Daytona 500 Pole Position Qualifying will be Sunday February 19th at 3:00 p.m. ET. Thursday night's qualifying races are scheduled for 7:00 p.m. ET and 9:00 p.m. ET on February 23rd. The 59th Daytona 500 is scheduled for 2:31 p.m. ET on Sunday February 26th.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

2017 IndyCar Team Preview: Ed Carpenter Racing

Our fourth 2017 IndyCar Team Preview features the team arguably going through the biggest transition heading into the season and that is with two teams changing manufactures. Ed Carpenter Racing has sold its golden goose and now it needs to see if it can make the most of two highly regarded drivers who are trying to become staples on the IndyCar grid. While going through many changes, Ed Carpenter Racing needs to see if it can maintain its position at the front end of the IndyCar grid.

2016 Ed Carpenter Racing Review:
Wins: 1 (Iowa)
Poles: 0
Best Start: 2nd (Indianapolis 500, Iowa, Pocono).
Final Championship Positions: 4th (Josef Newgarden), 21st (Spencer Pigot), 23rd (J.R. Hildebrand), 25th (Ed Carpenter).

2017 Drivers:

J.R. Hildebrand - #21 Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet
After spending the better part of the last four seasons on the sidelines, J.R. Hildebrand is back in a full-time IndyCar seat. The Californian's occasional IndyCar outings since losing his ride with Panther Racing during the 2013 season have mostly been with Ed Carpenter Racing and they have been respectable cameos from Hildebrand. He has finished in the top ten in the last three Indianapolis 500s and has started in the top ten in two of those three races.

Numbers to Remember: 
7: IndyCar starts since Hildebrand was sacked by Panther Racing after the 2013 Indianapolis 500. 

1,407: Days between Hildebrand's most recent street course start (São Paulo 2013) and St. Petersburg.

2,758: Days between Hildebrand's most recent victory in any series (Sonoma 2009 in Indy Lights) and St. Petersburg.

Hildebrand has some big shoes to fill as he replaces Josef Newgarden. While most saw Newgarden's success as him overachieving with a small team, it also showed ECR has top equipment and that won't be an obstacle for Hildebrand to overcome. It shouldn't be expected for Hildebrand to pick up where Newgarden left off and be on the verge of being a title contender but he should be able to get three or four top five finishes and about eight top ten finishes while finishing in the back half of the top ten in the championship and after the Phoenix test, he clearly has the pace to contend for a victory or two on ovals.   

Spencer Pigot - #20 Fuzzy Ultra Premium Vodka Chevrolet
After not securing a full-time ride for the 2016 season, the 2015 Indy Lights champion pieced together a schedule that allowed Pigot to run majority of the IndyCar races including making his Indianapolis 500 debut. After three respectable finishes with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, he joined ECR midseason and learned on the fly with the team and along the way scored two top ten finishes. 

Numbers to Remember: 
10: Starts in his rookie season (three for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing and seven for ECR).

16.5: Points averaged per start in Pigot's rookie season.

14.034: Average finish of Carpenter's co-driver since he starts running only ovals in 2014.

After diving into the deep end with a team he had next to no relationship with in the middle of last year, Pigot now is familiar with the ECR crew and has IndyCar experience on nine of the 11 tracks he is scheduled to contest this season. I think Pigot's goal should be to have an average finish below 12.5 while picking up at least four top ten finishes and advancing to the second round of qualifying in at least four races.

Ed Carpenter - #20 Fuzzy's Ultra Premium Vodka Chevrolet
Things have not been getting better for the two-time Indianapolis 500 pole position winner. Carpenter has not finished on the lead lap in his last six starts and over the last two seasons he has led two laps. In his last 11 starts, Carpenter has eight retirements, four because of accidents and four due to mechanical issues. While he failed to finish in the top fifteen once in 2016, Carpenter did start in the top ten on three occasions. 

Numbers to Remember: 
17: Starts since deciding to run oval ovals starting in 2014.

10: Starts since his most recent top-five finish.

16.11: Average finished since 2014.

1: Carpenter was running at the finish of one race last season.

Carpenter's race craft has eroded over the last two seasons. His win or bust psyche is going to leave Carpenter bust when it comes to buying spare parts. He needs to get the car to the end of the race even if it means being a lap or two down. You can still get a top ten finish on ovals while being a lap down as we have seen at Iowa and Texas in the last few seasons. Carpenter needs to finish at least four races in 2017 and have at least three top ten finishes with no retirements due to accidents. If he can't do that then maybe it will be time for Carpenter to consider cutting his schedule to just the Indianapolis 500. 

The 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season opener, the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg will take place on Sunday March 12th at 12:00 p.m. ET on ABC.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

2017 IndyCar Team Preview: Dale Coyne Racing

The first Honda team to preview for the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Season will be the plucky Dale Coyne Racing. While not have the deep pool resources as a Penske, Ganassi or Andretti nor a Scrooge McDuck pool of Russian money like that of Schmidt Peterson, the team finds away to get decent finishes. This season will see another shuffle of the deck but unlike previous seasons, it appears Coyne will go wire-to-wire with the same two drivers instead of having a constant rotation of talent through one or both cars.

2016 Dale Coyne Racing Review:
Wins: 0
Best Finish: 2nd (Belle Isle 1)
Poles: 0
Best Start: 7th (Toronto)
Final Championship Positions: 18th (Conor Daly), 22nd (Gabby Chaves), 26th (Luca Filippi), 28th (RC Enerson), 29th (Pippa Mann).

2017 Drivers:

Ed Jones - #18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda
After finishing third in the 2015 Indy Lights championship, Jones returned to the series in 2016 and while he didn't have as impressive start to the season as he did when he won the first three races in 2015, Jones had two victories and two runner-up finishes through the first six races. After finishing second in the Freedom 100, the Emirati driver had three podiums and six top five finishes in the final ten races to take the title.

Numbers to Remember: 
5: Victories in two Indy Lights seasons but since coming to the United States Jones has not won a race after the month of May.

28.4667: Average amount of IndyCar starts for the 15 Indy Lights champions that preceded Jones.

31,333: Days between IndyCar starts for Middle-East-born drivers. Syrian-born George Howie made his only start in the 1931 Indianapolis 500. He did make a relief appearance in the 1933 Indianapolis 500.

With any rookie the goal is to complete laps, keep it out of the barriers and at the same time turn heads, something that is very difficult to do with limited testing and each session being another learning experience. The good news for Jones is he is the de facto Rookie of the Year and won't have to feel he is competing against anyone else in particular. Success for him will be keeping up with his veteran teammate. The previous four Rookies of the Year have averaged 4.25 top ten finishes ranging from Tristan Vautier's one to Carlos Muñoz's eight. Last year, Conor Daly had five top ten finishes including a second-place finish. I think that is achievable for Jones.

Sébastien Bourdais - #19 Dale Coyne Racing Honda
After two seasons at KV Racing, the four-time IndyCar champion has moved back to the team he made his initial return to IndyCar with in 2011. While winning at Belle Isle, Bourdais lacked other races where he was in contention down the stretch but he did have six top ten finishes in the final seven races including ending the season with four consecutive top ten finishes, two of which were top five finishes, his only other top five finishes outside of his victory.

Numbers to Remember: 
9: Starts with Coyne in 2011, which saw him rack up five top ten finishes and three finishes outside the top 25.

11: Top ten finishes in 2016, the most for Bourdais in a season since 2007.

14: Bourdais finished 14th last year in championship, his worst championship finish in a full season contested.

While not replicating his dominance from the Newman-Haas years and realistically never being expected to do so, Bourdais has still been a competent and consistent driver in IndyCar with a deficiency in equipment appearing to be the one thing holding the Frenchman back. Coyne isn't necessarily a major leap forward from KV but with Honda firmly behind his return and Dale Coyne being the king strategist, results could fall in Bourdais' favor. Eleven top ten finishes will be tough to repeat but if he can get a podium or two, about four or five top five finishes and find himself knocking on the door for top ten in the champion, that would be a respectable season.

The 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season opener, the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg will take place on Sunday March 12th at 12:00 p.m. ET on ABC.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Musings From the Weekend: This Might Not Be So Bad

IndyCar tested in Phoenix and some drivers are frustrated by the downforce levels. J.R. Hildebrand was fastest over the two-day test and broke the track record with a lap of 19.0401 seconds (193.234 MPH) but he did hit the wall at the end of the session. In actual races, an underdog beat a Red Bull junior driver, a Ferrari academy driver, a Force India junior driver and the son of a three-time world champion to take the first title of the junior formula season. Something happened in the World Rally Championship that hadn't happened since 1999. Something happened in Supercross that hadn't happened since 2002. Here is a run down of what got me thinking.

This Might Not Be So Bad
We are less than two weeks away from the first race of the 2017 NASCAR season and many are dreading the impeding 60-60-80 segmentation of the Daytona 500 and that is without mentioning the dread for playoff points and championship points that will come from positioning at the end of those segments and forgetting to mention that the Thursday night qualifying races will now pay ten points to the winners and descending a point for the rest of the top ten in those races. However, let's take a step back to look at how the segments aren't going to change that much in a NASCAR race.

The easiest way to look at segments is two guaranteed caution periods in each race. While there is something inherently wrong about that because races in theory should start and run unto the finish without being disrupted, the truth is pretty much every NASCAR race has at least two caution periods. The last race to feature fewer than two cautions was nearly five years ago at Fontana and the only caution in that race was for the rain that eventually caused the race to be shortened after 129 of 200 laps. NASCAR races have always been segmented but for an undetermined amount of times and at previously undetermined lengths.

This change is compared to other sports because it is a carbon copy of what other leagues have been doing for years. Hockey fans are accustomed to knowing there will be three commercial breaks per period coming with under 14 minutes to play, ten minutes to play and six minutes to play.

Commercial breaks aren't the end of the world for hockey or any other sport but a key difference is there are many stoppages in a hockey game for offside calls, penalties, pucks going out of play and goals that three extended breaks hardly go noticed. This is a little different because unlike hockey where the commercial break comes once there is a natural stoppage in play (unless it is a goal or during a power play) the end of a segment will be a hard break. When lap 60 occurs at Daytona, the caution is coming out to end the segment. At the same time, I am not sure when a natural stoppage would be in a race so it has to be a hard break otherwise it would just be the way races have been conducted for the last 69 years, which is now no longer an acceptable way of doing things.

Another issue many have is that making lap 60 and lap 120 or lap 55 and lap 110 or lap 150 and lap 300 worth something doesn't mean the racing will be better nor does it make any sense to subjectively make these laps any more valuable than the next. Points may be on the line but there is still a bigger picture at play and that is winning a race still locks a driver into the Chase. While the playoff point for leading at the end of a segment is nice, winning a race pays five playoff points. If a team is struggling and approaching the end of a segment it still makes more sense to fight for another day than push in the moment especially with the new rules basically preventing damaged cars from returning to a race.

If a driver is in the top three and feels a tire going down four laps before the end of a segment that driver is going to pit and change the tire and live to fight for another day than go all out for a handful of points and one special points that floats around until Phoenix in November. After all, the championship is a basic experiment in common sense. It makes more sense to pit, sacrifice the segment points, go a lap down (which you will likely get back anyway because of wavearounds and lucky dogs) and at worst finish 15th and get 22 points than risk it, have the tire fail exiting turn two on the final lap of the segment and not be able to reenter the race and have to settle with at most two points for being classified in 35th.

The segments likely won't be that big of a deal. It is better than the caution clock but the biggest problem is the arbitrary nature of awarding points for being at the front 25-33% of the way through a race. This was the safest way NASCAR could split up the race without being too radical, although outside of the Daytona 500, the Coca-Cola 600 and the Southern 500, I am sure most of us would have been ok if NASCAR jumped into the deep end and split the rest of the races on the schedule into two heats, an LCQ and a final that fit into the three or four-hour television window. After all those changes are more likely to draw viewers in than two caution periods that are always going to happen.

Champion From the Weekend
Australian Thomas Randle won the Toyota Racing Series by five points over Pedro Piquet after finishing fifth, fourth and third over the weekend at Circuit Chris Amon in Feilding, New Zealand. Red Bull junior driver Richard Vanschoor finished 12 points back in third with New Zealander and Ferrari Driver Academy's Marcus Armstrong finishing fourth, 63 points off Randle.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about the IndyCar test and Thomas Randle's championship but did you know...

Jari-Matti Latvala won Rally Sweden and it was Toyota's first win since Didier Auriol won Rally China in 1999.

Pedro Piquet, Richard Vanschoor and Force India junior driver Jehan Daruvala split the three Toyota Racing Series races from Circuit Chris Amon.

Marvin Musquin won the Supercross race from Arlington. It was Musquin's first Supercross victory and the first victory by a French rider in the series since David Vuillemin won at Indianapolis in 2002.

Coming Up This Weekend
Formula E returns after over three months off in Buenos Aires for the final edition of the Buenos Aires ePrix on the current course.
NASCAR starts its season with a clash in the Advance Auto Parts Clash at Daytona.
Supercross makes its debut at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota.