Tuesday, February 19, 2019

2019 IndyCar Team Preview: Ed Carpenter Racing

We have reached the midway point of the 2019 IndyCar team previews. Five are behind us and after this one five will remain. Midway point, let's look at the team with a Midwest-native owner, the first son of IndyCar racing if you will, Ed Carpenter and the team that holds his namesake. Carpenter's team continued to search for identity and Spencer Pigot moved up to be a full-time driver in 2018 while Carpenter paired with Jordan King, fresh off a few years in GP2/Formula Two. There were plenty of promising days and all the drivers had their time at the front of the field but victory again was again out of the grasp of this operation.

2018 Ed Carpenter Racing Review
Wins: 0
Best Finish: 2nd (Iowa)
Poles: 1 (Indianapolis)
Championship Finishes: 14th (Spencer Pigot), 20th (Ed Carpenter), 22nd (Jordan King)

2019 Drivers:

Ed Carpenter - #20 Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet
The 2018 season started on a down note for Carpenter with his qualifying 18th for the first oval race of the season at Phoenix but he stuck to it in the race, had the pace to move forward and found himself on the lead lap. In the end, he ended up in seventh position; his first top ten finish since seventh the year prior at Phoenix.

After a few weeks off, Carpenter was back in the car for the Indianapolis 500 and as we have become accustomed to seeing, Carpenter was at the sharp end of the grid in qualifying. Carpenter ended up second quickest on the first qualifying day behind only Hélio Castroneves with two other Team Penske cars of Simon Pagenaud and Will Power behind him. The entire Ed Carpenter Racing team made the Fast Nine with Spencer Pigot sixth quickest on day one and Danica Patrick rounding out the top nine.

On Sunday, Carpenter was the penultimate qualifier and put down a four-lap average of 229.618 MPH, nearly a mile per hour quicker than Pagenaud and disrupting an all-Penske front row. Castroneves could not beat the time and for the third time Carpenter ended up as Indianapolis 500 pole-sitter.

Carpenter had one of his best performances in the Indianapolis 500. He led the most laps in the race and he spent 154 of 200 laps in the top five, 186 of 200 in the top ten and his average running position was 3.58. Unfortunately for Carpenter, it was Will Power's day and the Penske driver took the victory while Carpenter came home in second.

Texas was not going well for Carpenter and it was made even worse when he made contact with Robert Wickens, who was in contention for a race victory. At Iowa, Carpenter brushed the wall late, forcing a caution and preventing the race from restarting but he still finished tenth. Carpenter finished off the lead lap in his final two starts of the season with him three laps off Alexander Rossi at Pocono but still finishing tenth and a lap down at Gateway and coming home in 12th.

Numbers to Remember:
11: Consecutive seasons with a lap led. Only Tony Kanaan (20), Scott Dixon (16), Will Power (13) and Graham Rahal (12) have longer active streaks.

4: Carpenter has led more than 50 laps in only four of those 11 seasons.

10.2: Carpenter's average finish in 2018, the second-best of his career behind 9.7 in 2014.

Carpenter runs five races a year. He just needs to win one of them for the season to be considered a success and we all know the race that matters the most is the Indianapolis 500. After seeing what he did last year, it is not crazy to think he could win that race.

For all the pace Carpenter has had when it comes to Indianapolis 500 qualifying, last year was the first time he put together a strong 500 miles with his own team. Will Power beat him and there is no shame in losing out to a Penske entry.

Besides Indianapolis, Carpenter improved across all the oval races and was able to bring the car home in more races. It was good enough for him to be sixth in oval points on 187, twenty behind Simon Pagenaud and 32 more than Ryan Hunter-Reay and Graham Rahal.

I think the goal should be to crack the top five in oval points and while this team has lost engineering whiz Allen McDonald, who has made a name for qualifying success in the Indianapolis 500, I think Carpenter and the entire team will be competitive on the ovals.

As for the Indianapolis 500, why couldn't he win it? He was runner-up last year and led the most laps. He has led the most laps in two of the seven Indianapolis 500s held during the DW12-era. He has led 139 laps in the Indianapolis 500, four more than Will Power and only two fewer than Marco Andretti. Of those 139 laps, 133 of them have come since 2013. It isn't going to be easy but is absolutely possible.

Ed Jones - #20 Ed Carpenter Racing/Scuderia Corsa Chevrolet
After winning Rookie of the Year in 2017, Jones moved from Dale Coyne Racing to Chip Ganassi Racing for the 2018 season. He started 17th for his first race with the team but he found his way forward and got an eighth place finish. The bad news is he did not hang himself in much glory in the second race where he found himself in second position at Phoenix only to spin in turn three and toss a podium finish out the window. Cautions were in his favor at Long Beach and he got a third place finish after a tough battle with Zach Veach.

Mechanical issues hampered his Barber race and he struggled in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis. Things did not go well when it came time for the Indianapolis 500. He started 29th, the middle of row ten, and only completed 57 laps before an accident in turn two ended his race.

June was kinder to Jones with top ten finishes in all four races, starting with sixth in the first Belle Isle race and third in the Sunday race from the Motor City, a race he spent most of it at the front and ahead of his teammate Scott Dixon. A pair of ninths at Texas and Road America closed out the month.

The results did not carry over into July and August and four consecutive results outside followed. Gateway was an average race with an eighth place finish. He didn't complete a lap at Portland and tenth at Sonoma was not going to be enough to earn him an extension into 2019.

Numbers to Remember:
1: Jones' average finish improved by one position from 14.2 to 13.2 in 2018.

1.3: Jones' average starting position improved by 1.3 positions from 14.4 to 13.1 in 2018.

8: Top ten finishes in 2018 after five in his rookie season.

Get back to where he was in 2017 but keep what went right in 2018.

Jones was impressive in his rookie season and it lead to a promotion in his sophomore season. There were plenty of good things that happened at Ganassi but his bad days were bad in 2018 and it didn't help that many of those down performances came toward the end of the season. With his schedule reduced to the 12 road/street course races and the Indianapolis 500, he is going to have less opportunities to accumulate stats. I think he has to aim to get top ten finishes in at least half of his starts and he has to advance to the second round of qualifying in at least five of ten races that will have the three-round qualifying format.

That is asking a lot for Jones but he kind of has to be at that level to earn another full-time seat. A third team in three years isn't going to help and I think expectations have to be kept somewhat low. We do not see drivers with this kind of instability improve year after year. A contemporary example would be Takuma Sato. From 2011-2013 he drove for KV Racing, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing and A.J. Foyt Racing and his championship finishes in those three respective seasons were 13th, 14th and 17th. His average finish went from 14.1 to 15.1 to 16.0.

In Jones' favor is the fact he will be in car often despite not being a full-time competitor. He will run the first eight races of the season and then he will have two weeks off between Texas and Road America, a week off between Toronto and Mid-Ohio and then a month between Mid-Ohio and Portland. His oval numbers were not great and if you take just road and street courses into consideration he scored 20.08 points per race. If he keeps up that form through 12 road/street course races that alone will earn him 240 points, more than Max Chilton's total from 2017 and only 13 points behind Matheus Liest and that doesn't take into account Jones getting at least ten points for starting the Indianapolis 500.

I think Jones will do better than Spencer Pigot on a fairly regular basis but if this team is behind from where it was in 2018 than Jones' numbers will not be as impressive.

Spencer Pigot - #21 Autogeek Chevrolet
The full-time career of Spencer Pigot got off to a rough start. Graham Rahal punted him at St. Petersburg in turn one. He still got up to eighth in the running order but a multitude of pit stops forced him to finish one lap down in 15th. His next three finishes would be 14th, 15th and 15th.

Pigot started sixth for the Indianapolis 500 but did not have the pace of his team owner and a pit lane speeding penalty killed his hopes of a top ten finish, dropping him one lap down to 20th in the final results. He got off the snide at Belle Isle with a tenth place finish in race one but he was spun on lap one of race two and his day was over after 21 laps. Let's just say he wasn't a fan of Santino Ferrucci before not being a fan of Ferrucci was cool.

Texas was a better outing with an 11th place finish and a solid day would follow at Road America, where he finished eighth. Iowa was Pigot's best race of the season. He started 18th but he drove to the front and was pushing Josef Newgarden and James Hinchcliffe. Newgarden and Robert Wickens making late pit stops may have elevated Pigot to second but it was a fitting result for his race.

Unfortunately, bad days followed and a promising day at Toronto ended after he banged into the barrier. He could only manage 13th at Mid-Ohio and at Pocono he was spun coming to the green flag and could only complete 16 laps.

A wave around gave Pigot new life at Gateway and an all-out final stint got him a sixth place finish. He may have started 17th at Portland but the lap one accident moved him right into the top ten and he continued his charge to the front. Aggressive moves got Pigot a fourth place finish behind Sébastien Bourdais and directly ahead of Scott Dixon and Simon Pagenaud. However, for a third consecutive year, Pigot's season ended early with a mechanical failure at Sonoma.

Numbers to Remember:
13.6: Average finish in 2018, his best average finish in a season.

41.176: Percentage of lead lap finishes in 2017, the lowest of his career after finishing on the lead lap in 50% of the races in his prior two seasons.

9: Starts outside the top fifteen in 2018.

6: Times starting on row nine in 2018.

There is a lot of room for improvement in Pigot's second full season. He needs to qualify better. He had only three top ten starts in 2018 and the only time he made it out of the first round of qualifying at a road/street circuit was at Road America. Qualifying wasn't his strong suit in either of his two part-time seasons but he is entering his fourth season and he has to make a big improvement in qualifying if he wants to improve race results.

Looking back and the numbers point to a 14th place championship finish being the best he could have done. His best day was at Iowa and, while he was still going to finish in the top five and he can't be blamed for Newgarden and Wickens making late pit stops hoping for a restart, it does slightly inflate that performance. Better results came late in the season and he needs to carry that form, especially how he ran at Portland to the first portion of the 2019 season.

If there is one bright side for Pigot it is that he was ninth in oval points in 2018 with 142, three more than Wickens, who missed Gateway but five more than James Hinchcliffe, 16 more than Marco Andretti, 19 more than Takuma Sato and 23 more than Sébastien Bourdais.

As successful as Pigot was in the Road to Indy season and as promising as his two part-time seasons were, I would not be surprised if Pigot regressed a bit when it came to results. The grid is getting tougher. I think Zach Veach will be better. I think Santino Ferrucci will have good days. Colton Herta is coming in with a lot of momentum from Indy Lights and a victory at the 24 Hours of Daytona in the GT Le Mans class with BMW. All those drivers are in cars that finish behind Pigot in the champion. If all three of those drivers finished ahead of Pigot in the championship and he repeats his 2018 results then he is going to fall to possibly 17th in the championship.

That seems drastically low but I would not rule it out. Ed Carpenter Racing is still trying to find an identity post-Josef Newgarden and it also lost engineer Jeremy Milless in to Andretti Autosport at the same time. I cannot tell if the team is heading in the right direction but it is still in transition for the third consecutive season.

Fuzzy's Ultra Premium Vodka is gone as a sponsor. Allen McDonald has left the team to go to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. All these changes disrupt small teams and Pigot could end up finishing 14th in the championship again but I also think if the team is struggling to find speed and on top of that be concerned about sponsorship than that distraction could lead to Pigot regressing in results.

The 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season opens on Sunday March 10th with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. NBCSN's coverage will begin at 1:00 p.m. ET.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Musings From the Weekend: Where Are We Now?

Just over a month after the passing of J.D. Gibbs, somebody up there watched over Denny Hamlin lead a Joe Gibbs Racing 1-2-3 finish with Kyle Busch and Erik Jones in the Daytona 500. Thursday also would have been J.D. Gibbs' 50th birthday. Prior to Sunday, there were not many happy people heading into the conclusion of Speedweeks from Daytona. Formula E had a lengthy red flag in Mexico City but once that was lifted an outstanding race took place although, Pascal Wehrlein may need some help driving in a straight line. The wintery conditions of Sweden tripped up a few drivers in the second round of the World Rally Championship season. Supercross had its closest finish in series history. Here is a run down of what got me thinking.

Where Are We Now?
I originally meant this to be about IndyCar's windscreen and how a year after its initial test at Phoenix we have not seen much progress in public. Scott Dixon was the driver who took the maiden voyage and Josef Newgarden gave it a run at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in May and it hasn't been seen since.

The good news is we got an update on what has been IndyCar's most notable safety innovation. Jon Beekhuis was a guest on last week's Trackside with Curt Cavin and Kevin Lee and everyone's favorite and most informative pit reporter caught us up on the windscreen.

The material used on the prototype had passed the visual test and passed low- and medium-impact tests but it did not pass at an adequate level on the high-impact tests and the series will look to use a polycarbonate material for the windscreen, something similar to what is used on F15s.

There we are. IndyCar had something that was good but not good enough and IndyCar will work with this new material in hopes it passes the high-impact tests.

It is a bit of back to square one and it feels like regression but the series is still working on it and instead of putting out something that had flaws and was not up to standards, IndyCar will work on a solution that is more foolproof. Hopefully there will be more tests over the season and we will get closer to this thing becoming a reality, whether that is in 2020 or 2021.


But more happened in IndyCar over the last week and, while I do not want to make these observations a state of the series, I do think it is important to take stock of where IndyCar is and keep our expectations in line.

The unexpected divorce between Patricio O'Ward and Harding Steinbrenner Racing on the eve of the first test session of the season unsettled many and understandably a lot of people were upset at the news. Part of the reason was the reigning Indy Lights champion had a promotion to a full-time IndyCar season disappear in a snap but another part was everything was wrapped up and presented with a bow back in September.

On the final day of summer, O'Ward and Colton Herta were presented as Harding Steinbrenner Racing's two drivers for the 2019 IndyCar season. It was not presented with a disclaimer, "if the funding is found." There was no qualifying language. It came off as a certainty and it was refreshing to hear such news days after one season had ended.

Everything seemed signed, sealed and delivered and when preparations for the 2019 season were on the precipice of getting underway it became public that O'Ward did not have a ride underneath him and his only option was to request a release and seeking another option for a full-time ride.

It is similar to when we thought Tony Kanaan was going to drive for de Ferran Dragon Racing for the 2011 season. It was announced late in 2010 and we went throughout the winter expecting Kanaan to be in a blue and silver Air Force-sponsored car at St. Petersburg. Then the pieces fell a part. Kanaan was fortunate and KV Racing stepped up with Lotus money and got the Brazilian a ride and that was during the less optimistic times of pre-DW12-era. O'Ward doesn't appear he will be as fortunate.

Many bemoaned when O'Ward lost his ride that nothing is better in IndyCar. The series does not have a mammoth fan base, the television ratings are puny and sponsors do not have a lot of reasons to enter and stay long.

The truth is things can be better but not perfect and that is where IndyCar is at and has been for quite sometime.

We are always going to have sponsorship struggles and we are always going to have to be on our toes. Gone are the days of just expecting another sponsor to step up and fill a void when one decides to move on. Nerviness is the constant state of IndyCar and it may suck but we know it is going to be this way. We know teams need sponsors and when one is announcing its end we know it will take a lot of work for another to arise.

It is likely we will never have never-ending calmness again in IndyCar. It is always going to be tough. There is always going to be a concern over sponsors, whether it is a race car or a race or the title sponsor. We know the ice is thin and no one is safe. It doesn't matter how many races or championships you win. Everyone has the same perilous road ahead.

None of that sounds good but IndyCar is in a better place even if it seems like things are no better than at any point over the last decade.

IndyCar was able to find another title sponsor in NTT and Firestone extended its deal with the series for seven years. The series has returned to Road America, Portland and Laguna Seca. The series has two engine manufactures, both of which seem happy in the series and provide equal resources and in turn allows for great competition. Though not great, television ratings have been creeping up and the series has a new television deal with NBC Sports, which will show eight of 17 races on network television, the most for the series since reunification.

While Harding Steinbrenner Racing might not have two full-time cars, IndyCar has Michael Shank Racing increasing its participation in the series while DragonSpeed will join the series and McLaren of all names has been dabbling in the series and could increase its participation in the near future.

When it comes to drivers, the grid is deep with talent from familiar faces of Scott Dixon, Sébastien Bourdais, Tony Kanaan, Will Power, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Graham Rahal to the next wave of IndyCar drivers in Alexander Rossi, Josef Newgarden, Zach Veach, Felix Rosenqvist and Colton Herta. While O'Ward will likely not be full-time and that in of itself is a shame, he still has his scholarship money, which will get him at least three races, including the Indianapolis 500.

Speaking of the Indianapolis 500, after spending over a decade being an event that was a shell of its previous glory, it has returned to the biggest race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and in the last ten years we have seen Carb Day – Carb Day people of all days – rise to the second-biggest racing day at the Speedway! The schedule has other successful events. Long Beach is still going strong and has a new title sponsor. IndyCar has found a home in Barber Motorsports Park. Road America returned to the schedule and people have filled that place. The crowd at Mid-Ohio is staggering. Gateway returned almost out of nowhere and has been an encouraging sight. There was a line to get into Portland last year for its first race in 11 years! And now IndyCar will go to Austin. There is no guarantee that race will be a success but it is a new place for IndyCar and it is worth the shot.

Yes, there are going to be tough times. There are going to be good drivers that can't get a shot and there will be sponsors that come and go and there will be races that can't seem to draw a crowd regardless of what the racing is like. There are going to be the bad stories, the ones that can ruin a day and make you worry and IndyCar fans have experienced a lot of those since 1996. I can understand why it is difficult not to be cynical.

We have to remember that things are looking up. Just because things are looking up does not mean it will be easy and turmoil will never enter the series again. It might be better but it isn't linear. Just because Kanaan found a ride in the days leading up to St. Petersburg in 2011 and Ryan Hunter-Reay had a similar situations in 2009 and 2010 doesn't mean if O'Ward doesn't get a full-time ride in the next three weeks before St. Petersburg then things are worse. They are different times and things can be better even if the positive events of the past do not repeat in the present. We have to take the bad with the good and this is one of those times. 

So... where are we now?

For all the crap IndyCar has gone through and those days where it seemed the only way everyone could communicate was through bickering and there was only anger we have come far, farther than many thought. It wasn't that long ago many expected IndyCar to die. It seemed to be the only path the series was on.

After all those years of uncertainty and fluid identity IndyCar is still alive. It has found its legs. It has gotten out of bed and entered the world, full of its pitfalls but also full of extraordinary people that the series brings together into a community and it has taken a role where something simple and otherwise small in the grand scheme of life can provide happiness in the lives of many.

It may be tough and at times we may get down but IndyCar is in a good place.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Denny Hamlin but did you know...

Michael Annett won the NASCAR Grand National Series from Daytona, his first career victory in the series. Austin Hill won the Truck race, his first career victory in the series.

Lucas di Grassi won the Mexico City ePrix.

Ott Tänak won Rally Sweden.

Cooper Webb won the Supercross race from Arlington by 0.02 seconds over Ken Roczen, the closest finish in Supercross history.

Coming Up This Weekend
NASCAR moves north to Atlanta
The Asian Le Mans Series concludes its 2018-19 season in Sepang. 
Jonathan Rea's inevitable fifth consecutive Superbike championship season begins from Phillip Island.
Supercross has its first race in the Eastern Time Zone at Ford Field in Detroit.

Friday, February 15, 2019

2019 IndyCar Team Preview: Schmidt Peterson Motorsports

The fifth 2019 IndyCar team preview moves back to the Honda camp and the team with the most vocal aspirations heading into the new season: Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. After experiencing both polar ends of emotions in 2018, the team heads into 2019 with increased funding from Arrow Electronics and believes it is ready to ascended to the level of Team Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Autosport and making the Big Three a Big Four. With Robert Wickens continuing his recovery, the team has brought in Marcus Ericsson in to team with James Hinchcliffe.

2018 Review
Wins: 1 (Iowa)
Poles: 1 (St. Petersburg)
Championship Finishes: 10th (James Hinchcliffe), 11th (Robert Wickens)

2019 Drivers:

James Hinchcliffe - #5 Arrow Honda
While Robert Wickens stole the headlines at St. Petersburg, Hinchcliffe did well for himself, qualifying seventh and finishing fourth in a race where he was solidly in the top ten. SPM had a great shot at victory at Phoenix with Wickens impressing many in his first oval start and both he and Hinchcliffe were fighting for spots on the podium. Unfortunately, neither driver came in for tires under the final caution and while Wickens held on for second, Hinchcliffe slid back to sixth.

Hinchcliffe would finish ninth at Long Beach and followed that up with a third at Barber, a race he spent much at the front. A seventh in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis made it five top ten finishes from the first five races and left him fifth in the championship but the driver of the #5 Honda would have the season turn on its ear.

Time was not on his side for one day in May and Hinchcliffe failed to qualify for the Indianapolis 500. He would finish outside the top ten in both Belle Isle races and in three weeks he dropped from fifth to 11th in the championship.

The tide turned in Texas with a fourth place finish from 15th and he went from 16th to tenth at Road America. He started 11th at Iowa but charged to the front and put himself in contention. When cautions fell his way and Josef Newgarden got caught in lapped traffic, Hinchcliffe pounced, took the lead and ran away. Time was on the Canadian's side this day with a late caution preventing the race from restarting and gave Hinchcliffe his sixth career victory. He followed it up with a fourth place finish at Toronto.

The bad news is another year ended with a string of poor results. Hinchcliffe did not score a top ten finish over the final five races of the season but held on for tenth in the championship on tiebreaker over Wickens.

Numbers to Remember:
7: Consecutive seasons with a podium finish.

62.29: Percentage of lead lap finishes in 122 starts, that is eighth best among the 12 regular drivers with over 100 IndyCar starts ahead of only Marco Andretti (60.829%), Ryan Hunter-Reay (57.446%), Charlie Kimball (50.746%) and Takuma Sato (44.736%).

20: Hinchcliffe has led at least 20 laps in all eight of his IndyCar seasons.

2: Only twice has Hinchcliffe led more than 100 laps in a season and in both of those seasons he lead over 100 laps in one race.

This is getting tiring but it is the same story every year for Hinchcliffe. He has to finish better than eighth in the championship. He has never finished better than eighth in the championship. Hinchcliffe needs to do that to justify anyone saying he is one of the best in IndyCar. You cannot be considered one of the best when you have never cracked the top seven in the championship. Heck, you have to crack at least the top five to be considered one of the best. He may have a handful of race victories but he has to put together a complete season.

Schmidt Peterson Motorsports needs the improvement in championship finish just as much as Hinchcliffe does. This team is talking about becoming one of the Big Four in IndyCar with Team Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Autosport after Arrow increased its funding into the team. The problem is SPM's result have been sliding backward compared to the Simon Pagenaud-era. Pagenaud was in the top five of the championship in all three of his seasons at SPM. Since Pagenaud left, the team has only cracked the top ten once and that was last year when Hinchcliffe finished 10th.

The 2018 season started off well for Hinchcliffe but he has to have a more balanced season. Last year, he ended the season with five consecutive finishes outside the top ten. The year before that he finished outside the top ten in four of the final five races with his best result being eighth. He has never finished every race in a season and I think he has to aim for that and as hard as it may be and he has to finish on the lead lap more. Last year, he had 13 lead lap finishes out of 16 starts. At 81.25%, it is his best lead lap finishing percentage in his IndyCar career (minus 2013 when he only started five races) and it is the only time he finished on the lead lap in over 75% of his starts.

I think if Hinchcliffe is going to aim for a career-best championship finish, I think he has to aim for career-best numbers in every category. I don't think he will be able to get four victories but the most top five finishes he has had in a season is six and the most top ten finishes is 11. It will be tough to get but Robert Wickens had seven top five finishes and ten top ten finishes and missed the final three races. It is doable for Hinchcliffe. This grid keeps getting better and Hinchcliffe has to find another level.

Marcus Ericsson - #7 Arrow Honda
After five seasons in Formula One, split between Caterham and Sauber, Ericsson moves to IndyCar. The results leave little to brag about. Ericsson made 97 starts in Formula One and amassed a grand total of 18 points in his career. He had three scoreless seasons and scored nine points in 2015 and 2018. His best finish was eight in the 2015 Australian Grand Prix, his 17th career start and his first for Sauber.

Diving back into his junior formula career, Ericsson was the Formula BMW UK champion in 2007 and in 2008 he finished fifth in the British Formula Three Championship behind Jaime Alguersauri, Oliver Turvey, Brendon Hartley and Sergio Pérez but he finished ahead of the likes of Nick Tandy and Max Chilton. He went to Japan in 2009 and won the All-Japan Formula 3 Championship but also made six starts in British Formula Three, where he won twice beating drivers such as eventual champion Daniel Ricciardo, Renger van der Zande, eventual IndyCar race winner Carlos Huertas and Chilton. At Macau that year, he finished second to future Indy Lights champions Jean-Karl Vernay in the qualifying race and fourth in the Macau Grand Prix behind Edoardo Mortara, Vernay and Sam Bird but five seconds ahead of Valtteri Bottas.

The 2010 season would mark the start of four years in GP2. He won in his first season at Valencia but finished 17th in the championship on 11 points. He would improve to tenth in the championship and score 25 points the following year but not win a race. He would win the feature race at Spa-Francorchamps in 2012 and had feature race podium finishes at Monaco, Valencia and Monza in a season that saw him finish eighth in the championship. He won two pole positions early in the 2013 season but he did not finish in the points in the first nine races. He won the feature race at the Nürburgring and score four more podium finishes, salvaging sixth in the championship.

Numbers to Remember:
1,954: Number of days between Ericsson's last top five finish, a third in the GP2 feature race at Abu Dhabi on November 2, 2013 and the St. Petersburg season opener. Alexander Rossi won that race with Jolyon Palmer in second.

2,073: Number of days between Ericsson's most recent victory at the GP2 feature race at the Nürburgring on July 6, 2013 and the St. Petersburg season opener.

2,080: Number of days between Ericsson's most recent pole position for the GP2 feature race at Silverstone on June 29, 2013 and the St. Petersburg season opener.

This is a tough one to call. Based on his Formula One experience, Ericsson does not have a lot to sell on paper but going back to his junior formula results and taking into consideration that his results did improve greatly in 2018 after Sauber received increased funding from Alfa Romeo, he could be a sleeper in 2019.

It helps and hurts that he is stepping into the vacancy left after Robert Wickens was sidelined. It helps because he knows this is a car that can compete at the front and contend for race victories. It hurts because Wickens set the bar that damn high. The one concern is Piers Phillips has left this team so there will be a bit of a shake up on the pit stand but at the same time Ericsson didn't work with Phillips so there was no relationship there and he is going to be starting fresh anyway.

I think Ericsson will do well. Not Wickens level but better than how Zach Veach did last year. I think he could put up numbers similar to Rubens Barrichello's only IndyCar season in 2012. Barrichello came into IndyCar and had good results but never any bad days. The results got better as the year went along. The year started with a pair of top ten finishes at Barber and Long Beach and he was respectable in the Indianapolis 500 after starting tenth and finishing 11th. He qualified third at Milwaukee and finished tenth in that race; he finished seventh at Iowa, fourth at Sonoma and fifth at Baltimore. He had seven top ten finishes from 14 starts and finished 11th in the championship.

If Ericsson matches Barrichello's number from 2012 I think that is a big success for him and he will likely have a sophomore season, unlike Barrichello, which parenthetically Barrichello should have had. Seven top ten finishes is not unrealistic for Ericsson. It is asking a lot but we should remember we have not seen a Formula One driver come into IndyCar and just go straight to the front in recent seasons. Barrichello was excellent in his one season but he never had a stranglehold on a race and he never had everyone thinking he was going to be the dominant driver at the front of the pack entering a race. Max Chilton came into IndyCar and had a lot of growing pains and that was after a year in Indy Lights to get acclimated to most of the tracks.

My one concern for Ericsson is while he had success in GP2, he had plenty of lackluster results. In 84 GP2 starts, he finished outside the points in 54 of them and if you add his eight GP2 Asis Series starts, he failed to finish in the points in 60 of 92 starts. That isn't taking into consideration that he finished in the points in only 11 of 97 Formula One races. In nine seasons, he finished outside the points of a combined 146 of 189 races. That is not a good hit rate and part of that is because Ericsson was in bad cars in Formula One but focusing on just Ericsson's GP2 results, they can best be described as streaky. SPM already has one streaky driver in Hinchcliffe. It cannot afford Ericsson to have four or five strong results and then have seven or eight consecutive finishes outside the top fifteen.

Ericsson should aim to be on the cusp of the top ten of the championship. I think Ericsson will have his struggles but I think there will be one or two road courses where he qualifies in the top ten, possibly even the top six and stays towards the front, possibly getting a top five or podium finish.

Schmidt Peterson Motorsports is shooting high and while it is now or never for Hinchcliffe, the team does have a bit of a project with Ericsson. It is kind of two conflicting mindsets. Hinchcliffe has to get results but Ericsson has to learn and get mileage. While it hopes to create the Big Four, SPM has a lot of competition for that honor but in all honesty it is going to take more than one good year to reach that aspiration. Cementing Big Four status must come after multiple championship seasons and victories. At its best, SPM will just have laid the foundation for a Big Four push this year.

The 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season opens on Sunday March 10th with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. NBCSN's coverage will begin at 1:00 p.m. ET.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

2019 NASCAR Cup Series and Daytona 500 Preview

February is approaching the halfway point and the NASCAR Cup Series season is upon us.

This year will see a rash of changes with tampered spacers being added to the cars at tracks larger than a mile to slow the cars down and spoilers increasing in size to increase downforce and drag in hopes to improve the racing on track.

Before we get to see the new aero and engine package in action we start the season with the Daytona 500. Qualifying took place on Sunday and the front row and grids for the qualifying races were set and we know who will have to race their way into the race.

This preview will go through each team and look at what their prospects are for advancing to the 16-driver Chase, now doing business as Playoffs, as well as where each one of these teams and drivers could win a race and lock up a spot to chase a championship. This preview has been broken down into the 36 chartered teams and the six non-chartered teams entered for the Daytona 500.

Chartered Teams
Landon Cassill - #00 Permatex Chevrolet
Team: StarCom Racing
2018 Championship Finish: N/A (Ineligible for points)
Best Daytona 500 Finish: 12th (2014)
2019 Chase Prospects: Not likely. StarCom will run Cassill full-time but the team's best result was 18th last year.
Most Likely Place for a Victory: Most likely nowhere. He is going to have to hope to be in the right place on a rainy day.

Kurt Busch - #1 Monster Energy/GearWrench Chevrolet
Team: Chip Ganassi Racing
2018 Championship Finish: 7th
Best Daytona 500 Finish: 1st (2017)
2019 Chase Prospects: Pretty good. It is forgotten how good Busch's season was in 2018. He was seventh in the final championship but he was fourth entering the Chase and his 22 top ten finishes were fourth-most. The problem is he only had six top five finishes. Ganassi has a good program and should put two cars in the Chase.
Most Likely Place for a Victory: Busch won at Bristol last year and 15 of his 30 victories have come at tracks one-mile or shorter.

Brad Keselowski - #2 Miller Lite/Discount Tire/AutoTrader Ford
Team: Team Penske
2018 Championship Finish: 8th
Best Daytona 500 Finish: 3rd (2014)
2019 Chase Prospects: He will make the Chase and likely contend for the final four. Last year, Keselowski did not win until the Southern 500 and then he won the two races after that but six of his 12 top five finishes came in the final 12 races. He doesn't need to stout in the first four months of the season but it can set him up in a better position come autumn.
Most Likely Place for a Victory: I think he will have a great shot at the Daytona 500 after the Ford's success at restrictor plate races last year. He led laps in the ten races before the Homestead finale in 2018. He could win anywhere.

Austin Dillon - #3 DOW/Bass Pro Shops/Liberty National Chevrolet
Team: Richard Childress Racing
2018 Championship Finish: 13th
Best Daytona 500 Finish: 1st (2018)
2019 Chase Prospects: It is difficult to tell. Last year, Dillon was in the right place at the right time at Daytona and ran into the right guy. He wouldn't get another top five finish until Michigan in August. However, Dillon was quick at the Las Vegas test where teams got to test out the new aero package. How much will that test transfer over to the season? We will only find out as the season goes a long but it is tough to see this new package elevating Dillon to the top of the pile.
Most Likely Place for a Victory: Daytona and Talladega.

Kevin Harvick - #4 Busch/Jimmy John's/Mobil 1 Chevrolet
Team: Stewart-Haas Racing
2018 Championship Finish: 3rd
Best Daytona 500 Finish: 1st (2007)
2019 Chase Prospects: Harvick is coming off a career year that just didn't end up in a title. He has finished in the top four in five of the last six seasons. He is going to win multiple times and he is at least going to make the semifinal round.
Most Likely Place for a Victory: Phoenix but really anywhere. Four of his eight victories in 2018 came at 1.5-mile ovals.

Ryan Newman - #6 Wyndham Rewards/Oscar Mayer Ford
Team: Roush Fenway Racing
2018 Championship Finish: 17th
Best Daytona 500 Finish: 1st (2008)
2019 Chase Prospects: Slim. Newman is in a declining career and is going to a team on the decline. He is coming off nine top ten finishes and zero top five finishes, the first time he has not scored a top five finish in a season as a full-time Cup driver, and his average finish was 17.2, the third-worst of his career.
Most Likely Place for a Victory: It is unlikely he will get a victory.

Daniel Hemric - #8 Caterpillar/Liberty National Life Insurance/Bass Pro Shops/Cabela's/VF Workwear Chevrolet
Team: Richard Childress Racing
2018 Championship Finish: Rookie (Ineligible for points/3rd in the Grand National Series)
Best Daytona 500 Finish: This is his debut.
2019 Chase Prospects: Hemric never won in two years in NASCAR's second division and he never won in the Truck series. He made 116 starts between the two series. Few rookies have come into the Cup series and ascended to the top. The last rookie to finish in the top ten of the championship was Denny Hamlin in 2006. On top of that he is driving for Richard Childress Racing and the team has taken a step back since Harvick left.
Most Likely Place for a Victory: Hemric was particularly strong at Phoenix and Dover in the second division. He also had a good record on road courses.

Chase Elliott - #9 NAPA Auto Parts/Mountain Dew/Kelley Blue Book/Hooters Chevrolet
Team: Hendrick Motorsports
2018 Championship Finish: 6th
Best Daytona 500 Finish: 14th (2017)
2019 Chase Prospects: After Elliott's breakthrough with three victories in 2018, it feels like he has made it to a new level. He had one good year and a championship will take more but the foundation has been laid. He will be in the top 16 and could make a title push.
Most Likely Place for a Victory: Dover, Michigan, Texas and Pocono. He has at least five top ten finishes at all of those tracks. Although, this year's Daytona 500 comes 34 years to the day after his father Bill won his only Daytona 500 and if we have learned anything from NASCAR it is those too good to be true stories happen all the time.

Aric Almirola - #10 Smithfield/Mobil 1/Valley Technical Academy Ford
Team: Stewart-Haas Racing
2018 Championship Finish: 5th
Best Daytona 500 Finish: 4th (2017)
2019 Chase Prospects: Almirola will go down as finishing fifth in the championship in 2018 even though he had fewer victories, top five finishes and top ten finishes than Elliott. Almirola was solid throughout the season and he was one of the ten best drivers. He will likely have to find a bit more and get a victory in the first 26 races to make it back to the Chase.
Most Likely Place for a Victory: He won at Talladega last autumn and he has always been strong there but he has also finished in the top ten in three consecutive Phoenix races.

Denny Hamlin - #11 FedEx Toyota
Team: Joe Gibbs Racing
2018 Championship Finish: 11th
Best Daytona 500 Finish: 1st (2016)
2019 Chase Prospects: Hamlin is either going to turn it around from 2018 or continue his slide. Joe Gibbs Racing has gotten stronger. On paper, he should finish in the top 16 no problem but it is hard to imagine him making a deep run.
Most Likely Place for a Victory: He is always good at home, whether it be Richmond or Martinsville.

Ryan Blaney - #12 Menards/BodyArmour/PPG/Fitzgerald Gilder Kit/REV Group/Dex Imaging/VF Workwear/MoneyLion Ford
Team: Team Penske
2018 Championship Finish: 10th
Best Daytona 500 Finish: 2nd (2017)
2019 Chase Prospects: Blaney made it last year without a victory and then he was in the right place when Jimmie Johnson decided to win the battle and lost the war. The Penskes are going to be strong and in three seasons he has increased his total top five finishes and top ten finishes in each season. I don't think that trend changes.
Most Likely Place for a Victory: Nine of Blaney's 16 top five finishes in his Cup career have come on 1.5-mile ovals and he has four top top finishes in five starts at Las Vegas and five top ten finishes in eight Kansas races.

Ty Dillon - #13 Geico Chevrolet
Team: Germain Racing
2018 Championship Finish: 27th
Best Daytona 500 Finish: 25th (2016)
2019 Chase Prospects: Not likely. Richard Childress' second-favorite grandson is on the B-Team and when a spot opened at his grandfather's team Childress chose the man he wishes was his second-favorite grandson in Daniel Hemric. He has one top ten finish in 90 Cup starts and it took half the field to be wiped out in the second Daytona race for that to what. He some how got worse in 2018 with his average starting position going from 26.2 to 27.2 and his average finish dropped from 20.7 to 24.1.
Most Likely Place for a Victory: A go-kart facility.

Clint Bowyer - #14 Mobil 1/PEAK/Rush Truck Centers/One Cure Ford
Team: Stewart-Haas Racing
2018 Championship Finish: 12th
Best Daytona 500 Finish: 4th (2009, 2010)
2019 Chase Prospects: Bowyer was that perplexing driver in 2018 where he had two victories and yet no one was sure where he fell when it came to the hierarchy after Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex, Jr. had pulled away from the rest of the field. The one thing that killed Bowyer is he had only six top ten finishes in the final 18 races of the season. Bowyer could be a fringe guy and we could be left wondering what went wrong.
Most Likely Place for a Victory: A short track. He did really well at Bristol in August, leading 120 laps. He won at Martinsville in the spring, finished eighth in the first Martinsville race and finished in the top ten in both Richmond races.

Ross Chastain - #15 Premium Motorsports Chevrolet
Team: Premium Motorsports
2018 Championship Finish: N/A (Ineligible for points/10th in the Grand National Series)
Best Daytona 500 Finish: This will be his debut.
2019 Chase Prospects: Not eligible. He will be competing for NASCAR's second division championship.
Most Likely Place for a Victory: In NASCAR's second division.

Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. - #17 Fastenal/Fifth Third Bank/SunnyD Ford
Team: Roush Fenway Racing
2018 Championship Finish: 18th
Best Daytona 500 Finish: 7th (2014)
2019 Chase Prospects: Stenhouse, Jr. did not make the final 16 in 2018 after he won at Talladega and Daytona in 2017. The problem is Stenhouse, Jr. has only seven top ten finishes in 54 races since that Daytona victory. The only top ten not at a short track or Talladega was tenth in the Coca-Cola 600. There aren't enough short tracks for Stenhouse, Jr. to be a title contender and there are too many drivers that are better than Stenhouse, Jr. at short tracks to think he can sneak a victory.
Most Likely Place for a Victory: A short track or Talladega. He has been particularly strong at Bristol but to win there he is going to have the race of his life and then some.

Kyle Busch - #18 M&Ms/Skittles/Snickers/Pedigree/Interstate Batteries
Team: Joe Gibbs Racing
2018 Championship Finish: 4th
Best Daytona 500 Finish: 3rd (2016)
2019 Chase Prospects: He is going to be there. Similar to Harvick, it is really a matter of how far will Busch go? He could win eight or ten races and with NASCAR, as Busch described it "taking the talent out of the car" with the new regulations, I think Busch could wipe the floor.
Most Likely Place for a Victory: Everywhere. That is a boring answer. I think Busch will be a contender for the Daytona 500, he will surpass Lee Petty and Rusty Wallace for all-time Cup victories before he get to NBC's portion of the schedule, he will be the all-time leader in Truck victories before we get to Easter and he will surpass 200 victories between NASCAR's three national touring divisions.

Martin Truex, Jr. - #19 Bass Pro Shops/Auto Owners Insurance Toyota
Team: Joe Gibbs Racing
2018 Championship Finish: 2nd
Best Daytona 500 Finish: 2nd (2016)
2019 Chase Prospects: Truex moves to a new team and yet his championship hopes improve. He still has Cole Pearn on the pit box and after being a competitive force at Furniture Row Racing for four seasons, Joe Gibbs Racing will only be a springboard for Truex to continue to succeed in the Cup Series.
Most Likely Place for a Victory: People love bring up that Truex hasn't won at a restrictor plate track in the Cup Series or he has won a Cup race on a short track. I will pick him to win the Daytona 500 and I also think he will win a short track race this year and he will shut a lot of people up.

Erik Jones - #20 DeWalt/Sport Clips/Craftsman/Circle K Toyota
Team: Joe Gibbs Racing
2018 Championship Finish: 15th
Best Daytona 500 Finish: 36th (2018)
2019 Chase Prospects: Jones' first year with Joe Gibbs Racing saw the sophomore make gains over his rookie year at Furniture Row Racing. Eight of his nine top five finishes came in the final 19 races. I think he improves on his 2018 results and somehow remains the third-best driver at Gibbs.
Most Likely Place for a Victory: A 1.5-mile oval. Seven of Jones' 16 victories between NASCAR's lower two divisions came at 1.5-mile ovals.

Paul Menard - #21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane/Menard's Ford
Team: Wood Brothers Racing
2018 Championship Finish: 19th
Best Daytona 500 Finish: 5th (2017)
2019 Chase Prospects: We know who Paul Menard is. He isn't going to be flashy. He isn't going to be in the top ten for eight consecutive races. He will have a few good days but mostly remain unseen. He won a pole position last year and didn't lead a lap in that race. He has never led more than 82 laps in a season and he has been a full-time driver for 12 years. It is unlikely he makes the top 16.
Most Likely Place for a Victory: Menard has seven top ten finishes at Michigan, tied with Talladega for most in Menard's Cup career.

Joey Logano - #22 Shell/Pennzoil/AAA Southern California/MoneyLion/AutoTrader Ford
Team: Team Penske
2018 Championship Finish: 1st
Best Daytona 500 Finish: 1st (2015)
2019 Chase Prospects: The defending champion will likely be defending his title into September. Logano missed the final 16 in 2017 after a fluky run of results but Logano is a consistent driver. He fits the Penske mold well. He isn't going to win 10 races but he will win when he can and settle for a good points day when he can't.
Most Likely Place for a Victory: Logano's 21 victories have come at 14 different circuits. The only track he has won more than twice is Talladega, where he has three victories. He has never won at Las Vegas and has an average finish of 9.2 there. Before his Homestead victory in November, he had not won at a 1.5-mile oval since Kansas 2015. Yes, that Kansas race.

William Byron - #24 Axalta/Liberty University/Hertz/UniFirst Chevrolet
Team: Hendrick Motorsports
2018 Championship Finish: 23rd
Best Daytona 500 Finish: 23rd (2018)
2019 Chase Prospects: This kid was rushed to Cup. Hendrick Motorsports couldn't run the risk of letting someone else put him in a Cup car and so he was dropped into a car at least a season if not two early. I think he will still be getting a hang of the Cup series and this will be another learning experience. However, he does start on pole position for the Daytona 500 and the pole-sitter has not won the Daytona 500 since Dale Jarrett in 2000. It is bound to happen again.
Most Likely Place for a Victory: If not at Daytona this weekend then iRacing.

Corey LaJoie - #32 Schulter Systems/Old Spice Ford
Team: Go Fas Racing
2018 Championship Finish: 34th
Best Daytona 500 Finish: 24th (2017)
2019 Chase Prospects: Nope....
Most Likely Place for a Victory: Nope again...

Michael McDowell - #34 Love's Travel Stops/K-LOVE Ford
Team: Front Row Motorsports
2018 Championship Finish: 26th
Best Daytona 500 Finish: 9th (2013, 2018)
2019 Chase Prospects: For the longest time it seemed like McDowell was that guy who could win at a restrictor plate race or road course but with the regulation changes that first option seems to be off the table. It all comes down to whether he can win one of those six races and then just doing enough to stay in the top 30 in points. By the way, McDowell hasn't had a top ten finish since his ninth in last year's Daytona 500.
Most Likely Place for a Victory: You would think for a guy who is heralded for his road course ability he average finishes at Sonoma and Watkins Glen would be better than 26.1 and 29.2 respectable but that is it. Even worse, those are his third- and fifth-best track in average finish and they would each be a spot higher if you do not count the Charlotte infield road course, where he finished 18th last autumn.

Matt Tifft - #36 Speedco Ford
Team: Front Row Motorsports
2018 Championship Finish: Rookie (6th in the Grand National Series)
Best Daytona 500 Finish: This is his debut.
2019 Chase Prospects: This is another driver rushing to the Cup series and you cannot blame a guy who has the funding and the opportunity in front of him and takes it instead of spending another year in the second division. With that said, if his teammates are in the back half of the top twenty, I think I know where Tifft will be.
Most Likely Place for a Victory: He does have a good track record at road courses but like Hemric, Tifft has zero victories in 102 starts in NASCAR's lower two divisions.

Chris Buescher - #37 Kroger ClickList/Scott Products/Kleenez/Cottonelle/Bush's Beans/Louisiana Hot Sauce Chevrolet
Team: JTG Daughtery Racing
2018 Championship Finish: 24th
Best Daytona 500 Finish: 5th (2018)
2019 Chase Prospects: The unlikely occurrence of having lightning, or in Buescher's case, fog striking twice.
Most Likely Place for a Victory: Buescher finished fifth in both Daytona races last year but that isn't going to happen. His best track is Darlington, with an average finish of 15.7 in three starts but that isn't going to happen either.

David Ragan - #38 Select Blinds Ford
Team: Front Row Motorsports
2018 Championship Finish: 25th
Best Daytona 500 Finish: 5th (2007)
2019 Chase Prospects: It comes down to Daytona or Talladega. No win there then forget it.
Most Likely Place for a Victory: Ragan has had ten top ten finishes since leaving Roush Fenway Racing after the 2011 season. Those top ten finishes were at Talladega, Talladega, Talladega, Talladega, Martinsville, Martinsville, Talladega, Daytona, Talladega and Talladega. No reason to get creative here.

Jamie McMurray - #40 McDonald's/Cessna/Bass Pro Shops
Team: Spire Motorsports
2018 Championship Finish: 20th
Best Daytona 500 Finish: 1st (2010)
2019 Chase Prospects: The Daytona 500 shapes up to be the final race of his NASCAR Cup career in partnership with Chip Ganassi Racing. Spire Motorsports has formed from the scraps of Furniture Row Racing and it will be looking to just make it to the end of the season. Quin Houff will run 16 races.
Most Likely Place for a Victory: Daytona is it for McMurray.

Daniel Suárez - #41 ARRIS/Haas Automation Ford
Team: Stewart-Haas Racing
2018 Championship Finish: 21st
Best Daytona 500 Finish: 29th (2017)
2019 Chase Prospects: Better than 2018 but in no way a guarantee. Suárez got a raw deal with Gibbs. Two years isn't enough time to justify kicking a driver to the curb, especially after he won the Grand National Series title for the organization and his Cup results were respectable. He had three top five finishes and had nine top ten finishes in his sophomore season. It seems like a lateral move to go form the fourth Gibbs seat to the fourth Stewart-Haas Racing seat. I think he will be in the fight for that final spot in the final 16.
Most Likely Place for a Victory: He has two top ten finishes in two Watkins Glen starts but he also has four top ten finishes in four Dover starts and two top ten finishes in three Loudon starts.

Kyle Larson - #42 CreditOne/McDonald's/First Data Chevrolet
Team: Chip Ganassi Racing
2018 Championship Finish: 9th
Best Daytona 500 Finish: 7th (2016)
2019 Chase Prospects: Larson has to win races this year and he should. The stars never aligned for Larson in 2018 and on the days when he was best he was beat or a caution went against him. Larson will comfortably make it and he may be the best Chevrolet through the first 26 races.
Most Likely Place for a Victory: Anyone where that it is hot, slick, rough and the top line may be preferred. Although, with the new regulations who knows if any that will matter? Larson will win at one of Atlanta, Bristol, Martinsville, Chicagoland, Richmond, Darlington, Dover and/or one of the road courses in the first 26 races.

Darrell Wallace, Jr. - #43 Aftershokz/U.S. Air Force/World Wide Technology/STP Ford
Team: Richard Petty Motorsports
2018 Championship Finish: 28th
Best Daytona 500 Finish: 2nd (2018)
2019 Chase Prospects: Not likely. Everyone got caught up in his runner-up finish last year but he is still driving for a crap team. How many times did Wallace, Jr. have brake failures? How many other drivers had multiple brake failures last season? He finished tenth in the penultimate race at Phoenix and it was his only top ten finish in the final 29 races. Tyler Dillon was better than him in the championship! That is how bad it was and it isn't going to get better, don't let the Las Vegas testing results fool you.
Most Likely Place for a Victory: Some NASCAR fan-fiction.

Ryan Preece - #47 Kroger ClickList Chevrolet
Team: JTG Daugherty Racing
2018 Championship Finish: Rookie (21st in the Grand National Series)
Best Daytona 500 Finish: This is his debut.
2019 Chase Prospects: Preece made a name for himself as a part-time driver for Joe Gibbs Racing in NASCAR's second division and after two victories, 11 top five finishes and 14 top ten finishes in 19 starts over two seasons it has landed him a full-time Cup ride. The problem is Preece is driving for JTG Daughtery Racing, which is a good team but good isn't going to be enough.
Most Likely Place for a Victory: I think this is JTG Daugherty Racing rolling the dice, taking a hyped name and hoping things improve because this driver has won in the second division but I don't think this gamble is going to pay off.

Jimmie Johnson - #48 Ally Financial Chevrolet
Team: Hendrick Motorsports
2018 Championship Finish: 14th
Best Daytona 500 Finish: 1st (2006, 2013)
2019 Chase Prospects: Johnson is going to make it. Yes, he didn't win a race last year and it was the worst season of his Cup career and Chad Knaus has moved to Byron's car but Johnson will be fine. He is going to win a race. That will settle it.
Most Likely Place for a Victory: Somewhere. He will win at Charlotte or Dover or Martinsville.

B.J. McLeod - #51 Jacob Companies Chevrolet
Team: Rick Ware Racing
2018 Championship Finish: N/A (Ineligible for points/29th in the Grand National Series)
Best Daytona 500 Finish: This will be his debut.
2019 Chase Prospects: Moving on.
Most Likely Place for a Victory: Like I said, moving on.

Cody Ware - #52 Winn Dixie Chevrolet
Team: Rick Ware Racing
2018 Championship Finish: 42nd
Best Daytona 500 Finish: This will be his debut.
2019 Chase Prospects: Ware will not be full-time and it is not clear if he will run after Daytona.
Most Likely Place for a Victory: Like I said, it is not clear he will run after Daytona.

Alex Bowman - #88 Nationwide Insurance/Valvoline/Eastman/Llumar Chevrolet
Team: Hendrick Motorsports
2018 Championship Finish: 16th
Best Daytona 500 Finish: 17th (2018)
2019 Chase Prospects: For his first full season with Hendrick Motorsports, Bowman did a respectable job and he had some really good stretches of races but he will need to take a step forward in 2019 and I think it will be difficult for him to do better than he did in 2018.
Most Likely Place for a Victory: Bowman ran well at the road courses last year and he has a good record at Bristol.

Matt DiBenedetto - #95 Procore/Dumont Jets Toyota
Team: Leavine Family Racing
2018 Championship Finish: 29th
Best Daytona 500 Finish: 9th (2017)
2019 Chase Prospects: A lot of people think that since Furniture Row Racing has ceased operations and Leavine Family Racing has moved to Toyota it has filled the void and DiBenedetto will be competing for victories. That hasn't happened folks. This team may get better results than it did with Chevrolet and Kasey Kahne but still be off the top half of the field.
Most Likely Place for a Victory: DiBenedetto has had some remarkable results at Bristol but I have listed Bristol for about 18 drivers above and there are only two races at that place.

Non-Chartered Teams
Casey Mears - #27 Germain Racing Chevrolet
Team: Germain Racing
2018 Championship Finish: N/A (Did not make any starts)
Best Daytona 500 Finish: 2nd (2006)
2019 Chase Prospects: This is an Daytona 500 one-off. Mears has clinched a spot into the Daytona 500 based on his qualifying time.
Most Likely Place for a Victory: This is his only shot at a victory.

Tyler Reddick - #31 Symbicort Chevrolet
Team: Richard Childress Racing
2018 Championship Finish: N/A (Did not make any starts. 2018 NASCAR Grand National Series champion)
Best Daytona 500 Finish: This will be his debut as Reddick has clinched a spot into the Daytona 500 based on qualifying time.
2019 Chase Prospects: Not possible because he will be defending his Grand National Series title.
Most Likely Place for a Victory: In a Cup car, this is it but he should be competitive in the Grand National Series.

Brendan Gaughan - #62 Beard Oil/South Point Hotel & Casino Chevrolet
Team: Beard Motorsports
2018 Championship Finish: N/A (Ineligible for points/44th in the Grand National Series)
Best Daytona 500 Finish: 11th (2017)
2019 Chase Prospects: He will not be full-time. Gaughan could get into the Daytona 500 based on qualifying time but he would need both Mears and Reddick to be the top non-chartered team in their respective qualifying race.
Most Likely Place for a Victory: He will likely only run the restrictor-plate races.

Joey Gase - #66 Medic Air Systems, Inc./Fan Memories Toyota
Team: MBM Motorsports
2018 Championship Finish: N/A (Ineligible for points/20th in the Grand National Series)
Best Daytona 500 Finish: 23rd (2017)
2019 Chase Prospects: Not going to happen. Gase will have to race his way into the Daytona 500.
Most Likely Place for a Victory: A victory isn't going to happen either.

Ryan Truex - #71 Accell Construction Chevrolet
Team: Tommy Baldwin Racing
2018 Championship Finish: N/A (Did not make any starts/12th in the Grand National Series)
Best Daytona 500 Finish: This could be his debut. Truex could get into the Daytona 500 based on qualifying time if one of Mears or Reddick is the top non-chartered team in their respective qualifying race.
2019 Chase Prospects: Slim to none but mostly because he is a one-off.
Most Likely Place for a Victory: Here but more likely nowhere.

Parker Kligerman - #96 Gaunt Brothers Racing Toyota
Team: Gaunt Brothers Racing
2018 Championship Finish: N/A (Ineligible for points/24th in the Truck Series)
Best Daytona 500 Finish: 29th (2014)
2019 Chase Prospects: He will not be full-time. Kligerman will have to race his way into the Daytona 500.
Most Likely Place for a Victory: The television studio.

Chase Driver Predictions
1. Kyle Busch
2. Kevin Harvick
3. Martin Truex, Jr.
4. Chase Elliott
5. Kyle Larson
6. Brad Keselowski
7. Jimmie Johnson
8. Joey Logano
9. Ryan Blaney
10. Erik Jones
11. Kurt Busch
12. Clint Bowyer
13. Alex Bowman
14. Aric Almirola
15. Denny Hamlin
16. Daniel Suárez

The first of two Daytona 500 qualifying races will take place at 7:00 p.m. ET on Thursday February 14th with the second qualifying race following at 9:00 p.m. ET.

The 61st Daytona 500 will take place at 2:30 p.m. ET on Sunday February 17th.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

2019 IndyCar Team Preview: A.J. Foyt Racing

The fourth IndyCar team preview will take a look at A.J. Foyt Racing. Not a lot happened in 2018. This team keeps trying to figure out what it is and continues to struggle to get out of IndyCar's basement. After changing both its drivers for two consecutive seasons the team has retained its 2018 lineup for another season but that leaves little to be excited about.

2018 A.J. Foyt Racing Review
Wins: 0
Best Finish: 6th (Toronto)
Poles: 0
Championship Finish: 16th (Tony Kanaan), 18th (Matheus Leist)

2019 Drivers:

Matheus Leist - #4 ABC Supply Co. Chevrolet
The Brazilian's rookie season started with a surprise qualifying run at St. Petersburg with Leist ending up third on the grid. It didn't take long for Leist to suffer an electrical issue and fall to the back of the field and 16 laps into his IndyCar career he was in the barrier exiting turn three. And that kind of set up Leist's season. He had a pit mishap at Phoenix where he infamously spun around on three tires.

Outside of that, Leist had a respectable showing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway with him qualifying 11th, top of the rookie field and only one position off his teammate. In the race, he completed all 200 laps and finished 13th.

Most of his results were mediocre from there out. The days that stand out were the bad ones where a fire ended his Texas race after five laps, a devastating blow only made worse that it is the team's home race. The only other time he made it out of round one of qualifying at a road or street course was at Toronto where, just like St. Petersburg, he got through in changing conditions but only started 12th and in the race fell to 15th.

Leist's best shot at a top ten finish was at Pocono but a miscalculation on fuel strategy forced him to make a stop late and fall to 11th, his best result of the season.

Numbers to Remember:
7: Leist was the seventh rookie since reunification to run majority of the races and not have a top ten finish joining the likes of Jaime Camara, Mario Romancini, Ana Beatriz, James Jakes, Sebastián Saavedra and Josef Newgarden.

16.8: Leist's average finish in 2018.

17.5833: The average of the career average finish of those other six drivers.

18.8: The average of the career average finish of the five drivers not named Josef Newgarden.

Keep the bar low. Leist is more likely to be remembered with the likes of Camara, Romancini, Beatriz, Jakes and Saavedra than Newgarden.

He is only 20 years old but Foyt has a history of rushing a driver into a seat off minimal Indy Lights experience and once again it appears the team was not ahead of the curve and grabbing a star in the making early but taking a driver far from full maturation.

His third place starting position at St. Petersburg was a pure fluke in changing conditions. There was not a race during the entirety of 2018 where Leist caught your eye for something positive. He didn't get in many incidents and to be fair to him there were no brain fades that made him seem out of his element. He got into the barrier at St. Petersburg but that was after experiencing an electrical issue off the start. The fire at Texas was out of his control and he parked the car at Iowa. Other than those three races he got to the end of every race with minimal hardship... besides his boneheaded pit incident at Phoenix.

Leist has fulfilled bringing the car home but the pace is not there and the grid has only gotten stronger. I don't see him moving up but could he possibly fall back from 18th in the championship? It seems to be lining up that way. His best result was after a third of the field was taken out before lap eight at Pocono. There is no reason to think he is going to get one top ten finish this season. I think Leist is going to be another driver that enters A.J. Foyt Racing and is spat out after two seasons.

The goal should be not to get fired. What will that include? He started inside the top fifteen only four times in 2018. I think he has to get that number up to at least six or seven and four or five of those have to come in the first half of the season. He is going to need a top ten finish but if he can improve his average finish and get within touching distance of his teammate in average finish, let's say within a position, then I think he may save his job but I do not think he will improve his results enough to justify a third season.

Tony Kanaan - #14 ABC Supply Co. Chevrolet
The season started out promising for Kanaan. He started tenth in his first race with A.J. Foyt Racing and he went on to finish 11th. A pair of eighth place finishes followed at Phoenix and Long Beach but from there his season was stuck in neutral.

An electrical glitch at Barber knocked him off the lead lap and he was a mid-pack runner in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis. The Indianapolis 500 seemed to be Kanaan's one great hope for the 2018 season and it started out looking like Kanaan could be in the conversation for the victory. He went from tenth to the front and led 19 laps but a deflating tire forced an extra pit stop and dropped him to the back. He worked his way back into the top ten before a spin in turn two ended his race 13 laps early.

He would use a three-stop strategy in the second Belle Isle race to go from 22nd to seventh but there were few good days ahead. He brushed the wall at Texas after starting sixth, knocking both Foyt cars out within 31 laps of Super Tex's home race.

Kanaan would not start in the top ten again in 2018 and his only top ten finish would be sixth at Toronto, a race where he had cautions and attrition go in his favor. A throttle issue ended his day at Pocono after 16 laps and he ended the year with the worst average starting position and second-worst average finishing position of his IndyCar career.

Numbers to Remember:
4: Top ten finishes in 2018, the fewest in a single season in Kanaan's 21 seasons.

10: Starts away from passing A.J. Foyt for second most starts in IndyCar history.

20: Consecutive races without a top five finish entering 2019.

27: Longest drought in Kanaan's career between top five finishes (Michigan 1999 to Motegi 2001).

I think the goal is to end that top five drought as soon as possible but I do not think that will be the case and I think Kanaan will surpass his longest drought in that category. His one saving grace may be the Indianapolis 500 and last year it would not have been a surprise if he had finished in the top five. Kanaan had a really good car at Indianapolis before he had to make that extra pit stop. Foyt produced two really good cars for Indianapolis last year and they don't have to give Kanaan a car that puts him on the front row, the team just needs to give him a decent car and Kanaan will do the rest.

It is hard to come up with goals and predictions for a man nearing the end of his career. The results aren't close to where they were ten years ago. I want to be realistic and that is I think Kanaan can improve over his 2018 results but he isn't going to break back into the top ten of the championship, not after what we saw last year. In his final year with Ganassi in 2017, Kanaan cracked the top ten in the championship by seven points over Max Chilton and his only top five finishes were fifth at Indianapolis, second at Texas after he took out half the field and fifth at Pocono. Chilton's only top five finish that season was fourth at Indianapolis.

In 2018, Kanaan had the worst average starting position of his career at 14.9 and second-worst average finishing position of his career at 13.8. The field is getting younger and faster each year. It would not be crazy if all the full-time rookies finished ahead of Kanaan in the championship. I do not think that will be the case but Kanaan at best may improve to 14th in the championship but that might be asking much.

I hate to say it but after the year Kanaan had in 2018, unless he has a big swing upward, I think it is going to be difficult to justify bringing him back full-time in 2020 especially if the likes of Marcus Ericsson, Colton Herta and Santino Ferrucci all finish ahead of him in the championship.

If I hate saying Kanaan's days may be numbered, I despise saying that, but after changing both drivers three years ago and changing both drivers again two years ago, Foyt may have to change both drivers going into 2020 and I despise saying that because I doubt the team is going to get it right. It needs to keep up with the rest of IndyCar and yet even its most ambitious moves leaves the team three steps behind.

The 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season opens on Sunday March 10th with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. NBCSN's coverage will begin at 1:00 p.m. ET.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Musings From the Weekend: Do Start Times Matter?

Rain keeps stealing the show in Daytona. William Byron won pole position for the Daytona 500 but a teammate took top honors in a rain-shortened Clash. A pair of winter series concluded this weekend, one in a stadium and the other during a sunny day in the Southern Hemisphere. Ken Roczen took the Supercross championship lead in Minneapolis but he has yet to win a race this season. IndyCar tested at Laguna Seca, where rain forced that session to be cut short but IndyCar will be back on track tomorrow for the first official test of the season from Circuit of the Americas. Here is a run down of what got me thinking.

Do Start Times Matters?
It is that time of the year when you scan over the schedules that you have been looking at for five or six months and actually start digesting what it says.

When it is first released, we are focused on where we are. Is there a new venue? Is there a returning venue? Then we focus on the dates. Is a race shifting toward the front of the schedule or closer to the end? Will one race be held during the heat of summer and feel like it is the face of the sun or will one race be early enough or late enough in the year where you will need to bring a heavy jacket and gloves? Then comes the start times and that is the point I reached over the past few days.

I have been pretty staunch when it comes to start times. If it is a Sunday and it either the Eastern or Central time zones, then there is no reason why it shouldn't be a 1:00 p.m. ET start and I would not mind if it was earlier than that. Most series do not share that same sentiment.

IndyCar is close on a few occasions. St. Petersburg and Austin will each start at 1:30 p.m. ET. The Road America race will be at 12:30 p.m. ET. The Indianapolis 500 will start at noon. Outside of that, the times are consistent but all over the board.

Six races will start at 3:30 p.m. ET this year for IndyCar. Laguna Seca will start at 3:00 p.m. and Pocono will start a half-hour earlier than that. Barber and Long Beach each start at 4:30 p.m. There are three Saturday night races and Iowa will start at 7:30 p.m. with Texas and Gateway each starting at 8:30 p.m.

NASCAR doesn't come close this year. The earliest start for a Cup race is 2:00 p.m. ET. Fourteen races will start at either 2:00 p.m. or 2:30 p.m. Thirteen of 36 races will start at either 3:00 p.m. or 3:30 p.m. The other nine races will either start at 6:00 p.m. (the 600 and the Southern 500), 7:00 p.m. (the Las Vegas Chase race) or 7:30 p.m. (both Richmond races, the first Kansas race, the July Daytona race, Kentucky and the August Bristol race).

Start times do matter. There is a reason why they are chosen but between the battle for television audience and at-track attendance, when you look at the size of both you wonder who is really winning?

Motorsports fans travel but they also don't travel. People will drive 300 miles round trip to see a race but if that race starts too late then they will not even bother. It is the one issue with all these series. Sometimes series and tracks rely too much on that crowd instead of branching out and trying to draw from the swarm of local people who are not going.

This group of people who have to make it to work on Monday but do not want to arrive home at midnight stay in and the television ratings are not spectacular but we are told the start time is selected for the best possible viewing audience. But is it really that much better? Granted, it is not like NASCAR ratings are down three million viewers because Pocono starts at 3:00 p.m. instead of 1:00 p.m. The problems run deeper than that but how many more people are actually watching? It is the same gripe we have had for over a decade now.

The start times aren't always for television. Tracks get a say. Barber seems like it should start earlier than 4:30 p.m. but that later start time allows for all the Road to Indy races to get in and it gives fans a full-day of racing. The same could be said for Toronto. Long Beach has to start at 4:30 p.m. It is on the West Coast. The Grand Prix of Indianapolis starts at 3:30 p.m. but that is also on a Saturday and people are more flexible when it comes to Saturdays.

Something about this offseason hit me and maybe this is acceptance kicking in after all these years of fighting the fruitless fight. Do the start times really matter? Do I really care if a race starts at 4:30 p.m.? Is it really killing me that Pocono is at 2:30 p.m. for IndyCar? I am going to watch anyway, same goes for most NASCAR races. What is the big deal with the start being two hours later than desired?

I have said it before; there are advantages to earlier start times. If you are staying home, a race ends, you can have dinner and you can enjoy your evening. If you are going to a race you will likely get home earlier and likely get home before sunset. In some cases it could be the difference between getting a hotel or not depending on how long the drive is.

But later start times are all that bad. You have the morning. You can get chores done, go get groceries and then end your day with the race.

It is also comes down to the type of person you are. I am a morning person and I prefer earlier race starts. I am up early. I don't want to have to wait nine hours between opening my eyes for the day and the green flag. I would rather wake up and know in six hours the race is going to start. But plenty of people wake up late and do not mind having a race start at 3:00 p.m. because they got up at 10:00 p.m.

Maybe it is a bit of acceptance that this isn't going to change and while I wish it were different it is not the end of the world.

There are still a few issues and I think these are reasonable qualms. For example, why is the NASCAR race from Pocono in July starting at 3:00 p.m. and the IndyCar race at Mid-Ohio starting at 3:30 p.m. on the same day? I know the IndyCar race will be on NBC but why split the deck? Either start the IndyCar race at 12:30 p.m. or 1:00 p.m. or have the NASCAR race start at that time. NBC could set itself up for a full day of racing with one race leading into another. Wouldn't it be better for both races if they were at separate times than simultaneous? I am sure there is a reason this is happening again and I am sure Mid-Ohio likes having the IndyCar race end the day.

But while there is still this one conflict, the schedules do avoid conflicts as much as possible, especially when both are on NBC. The IndyCar finale will be on NBC with no NASCAR race conflict, as the Cup race is the day before at Richmond.

In the 21st century, nothing seems set. Everything changes every five minutes. Every change is calculated to be better and each calculation seems to be just slightly different. Who knows? In three years every race might be starting at 10:00 a.m. ET or studies will say the best time to start a race is 6:00 p.m. on Saturday night and schedules will be shaken up massively.

There is no point in letting it bother you.

Champion From the Weekend

Liam Lawson won the Toyota Racing Series championship with a victory in the New Zealand Grand Prix.

Jean-Baptiste Dubourg clinched his fourth consecutive Andros Trophy championship with a third place finish at Stade de France.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Liam Lawson and Jean-Baptiste Dubourg but did you know...

Jimmie Johnson won the NASCAR Cup Series exhibition race, the Clash from Daytona, his second time winning the event.

Marcus Armstrong and American Cameron Das split the first two Toyota Racing Series races from Feilding.

Olivier Panis and Aurélien Panis won the Andros Trophy race from Stade de France outside Paris.

Cooper Webb won the Supercross race from Minneapolis, his third victory of the season.

Coming Up This Weekend
Daytona 500 but before that two qualifying races where two cars will go home on Thursday night.
Rally Sweden.
Mexico ePrix.
Supercross is in Arlington.

Friday, February 8, 2019

2019 IndyCar Team Preview: Dale Coyne Racing

Our third IndyCar team preview takes us to everybody's favorite little team, Dale Coyne Racing. Year two with Sébastien Bourdais proved to be a successful season after the 2017 season was abbreviated after Bourdais' accident and subsequently injuries qualifying for the Indianapolis 500. Bourdais did not have one teammate for this season with the likes of Pietro Fittipaldi, Zachary Claman De Melo and Santino Ferrucci splitting the second full-time car throughout the season. This year, Ferrucci will be full-time.

2018 Dale Coyne Racing Review
Wins: 1 (St. Petersburg)
Poles: 1 (Phoenix)
Championship Finishes: 7th (Sébastien Bourdais). 23rd (Zachary Claman De Melo), 26th (Pietro Fittipaldi), 27th (Santino Ferrucci)

Sébastien Bourdais - #18 Seal Masters Honda
It was a new year but same result when it came to St. Petersburg. While it was not the thrashing Bourdais put on in 2017, he did have to fight from behind, this year from 14th on the grid. He set himself up to be third on the final restart and when Robert Wickens and Alexander Rossi came together, the door opened for Bourdais to take the victory. The momentum continued into Phoenix where he took a surprise pole position. The race started well but on his first pit stop he slid into a crew member and left him with a penalty he could not over come. At Long Beach, Bourdais was in the top five and when his teammate Claman De Melo got into the barrier, Bourdais tried to dive into the pit lane but he missed making it before the pit lane was closed and his service forced him to serve another penalty, dropping him to a 13th place finish.

He had a hard fought battle at Barber for fifth in the closing laps with Scott Dixon and he beat the New Zealander to the line. A fourth place finish followed in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and one year after an accident while setting the fastest time for the first qualifying day, Bourdais qualified fifth for the Indianapolis 500. Unfortunately, in the race Bourdais had an accident end his day and begin a rough summer. His only top ten finish over the seven races from Indianapolis to Toronto was eighth at Texas.

It appeared Bourdais was not going to get out of his funk at Mid-Ohio. He started 24th after bringing out a red flag on his first lap of the qualifying session. There were no cautions in the race but that did not stop from going from 24th to sixth in one of the best performances of the 2018 season. He followed this with a fourth place finish at Pocono and another battle with Dixon, this one going to the New Zealander. He spun out on lap one at Gateway. Wing damage at the start of Portland shuffled him back but every caution went in his favor and he finished third. The year closed with a sixth place finish at Sonoma.

Numbers to Remember:
108: Laps led in 2018, only the second time Bourdais has led over 100 laps in a season since returning to IndyCar in 2011.

0: Laps led in the final 11 races of 2018.

23: The most consecutive starts without a lap led in Bourdais' career from Barber 2011 to São Paulo 2013.

We have heralded Bourdais and Coyne for shooting above their combined weight the last two seasons and after coming off seventh in the championship, the best non-big three team, there is only one way to go but entering that mighty title fight is not for the faint of heart. It is difficult and we see very infrequent non-big three teams fighting for the title.

Bourdais can do it with Coyne but as I said last year it means Bourdais and the team has to be perfect in every race. The Frenchman has to win three to four times, have eight to ten podium finishes and cannot afford to have more than two results outside the top ten. That cannot be the expectation. That is not realistic. We know bad days happen and we know Coyne is a few steps behind the likes of Penske, Ganassi and Andretti.

If there is one thing that cost Bourdais a title shot last year was the imbalance of his season. He started on fire but a bobble and collision with the barrier in the Indianapolis 500 started the rough patch to his season. He had one top ten finish in seven races from Indianapolis to Toronto. In that span he dropped from third to 11th in the championship and right when it seemed the slide would continue at Mid-Ohio when he started 24th out of 24 cars he put on one of the performances of the season and drove to sixth in a caution-free race. He ended the year with four top ten finishes from the final five races.

Bourdais cannot have that kind of slide again. He pretty much needs to start every road and street course race in the top ten or at least make it out of the first round of qualifying. The team carried over its oval prowess from 2017 to 2018 but the poor results came from self-inflicted wounds and those have to be limited. The team did not make many mistakes in 2018 and a few were solely on the shoulders of Bourdais. He has to hit his marks and not his crew members when it comes to pit stops especially when he is leading a race or in the top five.

A top ten championship finish is likely but it will be difficult to ascend higher than seventh when you have three Penskes, four Andrettis, Scott Dixon with the anticipated arrival of Felix Rosenqvist at Ganassi and then the likes of Graham Rahal and James Hinchcliffe all out on track as well. Bourdais could finish behind all those drivers above and that would put him 12th in the championship. The middle is tight in IndyCar and one or two bad results can swing you from a push for a top five spot to outside the top ten.

Santino Ferrucci - #19 Dale Coyne Racing Honda
Ferrucci started the 2018 season in Formula Two with Trident Racing. He did not score any points in his first three races but went on to finish sixth in the sprint race from Baku. He would not score any points in the next six races but he would score points in both races from the Red Bull Ring with a tenth in the feature race and seventh in the sprint.

The next round would be Ferrucci's last in Formula Two. At Silverstone, he finished 16th in the feature race and was disqualified from the sprint race after being deemed to have deliberately forced teammate Arjun Maini off track. He also made contact with Maini's car on the cool down lap and was found to have been driving whilst texting in the paddock. On top of all this, Ferrucci missed a mandatory FIA drug test. Ferrucci was fired from Trident after the incident and ordered to pay €502,000 to the team after failed payments.

Ferrucci did make his IndyCar debut at Belle Isle in-between the Monaco and France Formula Two rounds. He was running well in the first race before Charlie Kimball made contact with him in turn seven. He qualified ahead of Bourdais in the second Belle Isle race and the race was going better but Ferrucci spun on cold tires exiting the pit lane. He kept the car going but a possible top ten finish was only a 20th place result.

After his unceremonious Formula Two exit, he returned for the final two IndyCar races. He was holding his own at Portland before fuel pressure issues ruined his race. In the Sonoma finale, he ran respectable on his way to an 11th place finish.

Numbers to Remember:
16: Retirements out of 100 starts between European Formula 3, GP3 and Formula Two.

11.566: Average finish over the 83 races finished in Ferrucci's European junior formula career.

1,484: Days between Ferrucci's most recent victory, a Toyota Racing Series race at Manfeild Autocourse on February 15, 2015 and the St. Petersburg season opener.

In his few appearances during the 2019 season, Ferrucci showed flashes of promise. He stepped into the car at Belle Isle, one of the roughest circuits on the schedule with a draining doubleheader format to boot, and his debut weekend went respectably well. He qualified next to Bourdais on row nine and was three positions ahead of him on the grid for race two. At Portland, Ferrucci was keeping up with Bouradis and Pietro Fittipaldi and was on the cusp of the top ten when a fuel pressure issue derailed his race. In the finale, Ferrucci went from 20th to 11th. 

Robert Wickens has set the benchmark for rookies for the next three or four seasons especially for drivers coming from European backgrounds. Wickens didn't just hop into an IndyCar and light the world on fire. Remember when he was sitting in for Mikhail Aleshin during Friday at Road America in 2017? Wickens was toward the bottom of the timesheet and it makes sense for a guy whose only laps in the car was in a less than competitive ride swap with James Hinchcliffe. However, after he was formally given the ride, spent time with the team and got testing miles, he rose to the top. 

I am not saying Ferrucci is going to be regularly in the top ten after limited testing but this will be his seat and he will get more time in the car. Ferrucci held his own with a physically battered Pietro Fittipaldi in the final two rounds of 2018 and Fittipaldi had a few tests under his belt but likely less seat time than originally planned before his injury. 

This is going to be a fascinating rookie class with the likes of Ferrucci, Rosenqvist and Marcus Ericsson all entered with lengthy stints in Europe and other international series while Patricio O'Ward and Colton Herta enter fresh off the Road to Indy. 

Fittipaldi averaged 15.1667 points a race last year while Claman De Melo averaged 13.555 points. In Ferrucci's four starts he averaged 16.5 points. The double points from the Sonoma race significantly bumps that number as 38 of Ferrucci's 66 points came from the finale and he averaged 9.333 points through his first three starts. I think Ferrucci has to be shooting to get around 19 points a race, similar to the pace Zach Veach posted last year and he should aim to be in the top three of the rookies. There is no shame if Rosenqvist tops him. Many think Rosenqvist could very well mirror Wickens' 2018 season but if Ferrucci can top both Road to Indy graduates and possibly even the Formula One veteran in Ericsson then that should quiet many critics. 

Dale Coyne Racing has taken on the underdog role quite well and it will continue to be trying to punch above its weight in 2019. Bourdais will continue fighting with the big boys and Ferrucci may surprise some people. Nothing will come easy for this team and it has nothing to hang its head about if it gets the most it can out of its resources.

The 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season opens on Sunday March 10th with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. NBCSN's coverage will begin at 1:00 p.m. ET.