Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Wednesday Wrap-Up: Chip Ganassi Racing's 2015 Season

The final Wednesday Wrap-Up has brought us to the championships winning team, Chip Ganassi Racing. Only one of the teams drivers won a race in 2015 but in a year when no team dominated, no team took the title by the throat and ran away with it, three wins is all the team needed for their best driver to take the title on the final day of the season.

Scott Dixon took his fourth championship in 2015
Scott Dixon
It was a tough start to the 2015 season for Scott Dixon. Pneumatic jack problems at St. Petersburg cost Dixon a decent finish as lengthy pit stops always dropped him to the rear of the field. He had to start at the back at NOLA and he could only manage an 11th place finish. He would score his first career Grand Prix of Long Beach victory in the third race of the season. He used pit strategy to jump Hélio Castroneves for the lead. Dixon kept up his perfect attendance of Barber podiums as he finished third behind Josef Newgarden and Graham Rahal.

He was punted in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis by Castroneves on lap one and was set behind the eight ball when the race restarted after only two laps of caution. Dixon would recover a tenth place finish. Dixon won his second career Indianapolis 500 pole-position and led 84 of 200 laps, more than any other driver. However, the Penskes of Juan Pablo Montoya and Will Power drove away and Dixon even slipped behind Charlie Kimball, dropping Dixon to fourth. He botched the tire strategy in Belle Isle 1 but finished fifth. In the second race at Belle Isle, Dixon was in the top ten when contact with Kimball would end his day.

He started the second half of the season with a victory at Texas. Dixon led the most laps (97) from seventh on the grid and won by over seven seconds to Tony Kanaan in second. He also lapped up to sixth position in the race. A subtle eighth place in Toronto and sixth at Fontana would follow his Texas victory. He would cap off the third quarter of the IndyCar season with a sixth at Milwaukee.

Scott Dixon owns Mid-Ohio. He started on pole position and led the first 22 laps before needing to pit under caution. He dropped back while Juan Pablo Montoya dominated the second third of the race and it appeared Dixon would lose a hefty margin to Montoya in the championship. However, Sage Karam spun right after Dixon made his final pit stop and Montoya was caught out. Dixon ended up finishing fourth while Montoya couldn't get back inside the top ten. While many had some type of issue at Pocono, Dixon brought the car home in ninth and kept his championship hopes alive. At Sonoma, Dixon started ninth and four championship contenders started in front of him. Dixon worked his way to the front while the other championship contenders faltered. His Ganassi teammates worked in Dixon's best interest. His pit crew made up ground in the pit lane and Dixon got to the lead, making Montoya chase down the title. Montoya got even with Dixon but Dixon took the checkered flag first and in doing so, took the tiebreaker and won his fourth IndyCar championship.

A solid season but not a spectacular season for Tony Kanaan
Tony Kanaan
The 2004 IndyCar champion was the top non-Penske driver at the season opener in St. Petersburg. The Brazilian finished third but couldn't challenge the Penske contingent at the front. At NOLA, Kanaan went off-roading but still managed a sixth place finish. He finished fifth at Long Beach but his streak of top tens would end at Barber when he came home in 13th.

He kept his nose clean in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and had a notable battle with Stefano Coletti with Kanaan finishing seventh. He started fourth in the Indianapolis 500 and was at the front, contending for the victory until one pit stop. Until he got caught out on cold tires and his race ended with 49 laps to go. There was no rebound at Belle Isle. He was collateral damage when James Jakes and Coletti made contact that also took out Graham Rahal. He finished on the lead lap in race two but started and finished 13th and was a non-factor.

The rebound would occur at Texas and it would start a pattern in the third quarter of the season. He led 57 laps and had a good battle with Scott Dixon before the Kiwi pulled away. Kanaan would come home in second in a Ganassi 1-2. At Toronto, Kanaan finished sixth after hanging around in the top ten all race. His return to Fontana would see him fall short of making it consecutive victories at the track as Rahal took the win and Kanaan came home in second. He ran at the front all day at Milwaukee but could only settle for sixth.

Kanaan had another great race going at Iowa. Only this time, mechanical gremlins ended his night, a theme for Ganassi in the Hawkeye State. He benefitted from Sage Karam's caution at Mid-Ohio and ended up finishing in the top five. Kanaan's poor track record at Pocono continued. Another race where he found himself at the front, another result that didn't match. He, like many, found the barrier at Pocono. Kanaan worked his way to the front at Sonoma and ran block for Dixon, making sure he put himself between Dixon and the Penskes of Juan Pablo Montoya and Will Power. It worked and he finished fourth.

Charlie Kimball had a Charlie Kimball-esque season
Charlie Kimball
The American's season started rough. A tire rub and contact with Graham Rahal with a wounded car buried his race and put him down in 21st. However, it was all up hill from there for Kimball. A 14th at NOLA followed with a slight dip at his home race of Long Beach where he finished 15th after starting 15th. At Barber, he started 11th and finished 12th, just ahead of Tony Kanaan.

He started 14th in both Indianapolis races. In the Grand Prix, Kimball worked his way to the front and finished fifth. In the Indianapolis 500, Kimball worked his way into the top ten and benefitted from Tony Kanaan's accident. He was the leader because of the pit cycle and was on the pit lane when the accident occurred. He exited just before Simon Pagenaud, Scott Dixon and Juan Pablo Montoya came by on the front straightaway. Kimball would lead ten laps and fell back on the restart but would comeback and work his way to third passing Dixon along the way.

He slapped the barrier in race one from Belle Isle and he took out Dixon in race two but ended up finishing 11th. He ran in the top ten all race at Texas after qualifying ninth, a rare feat to see Kimball start in the top ten, and finished seventh. A 20th at Toronto was followed by an eighth at Fontana and 12th at Milwaukee.

The final quarter of the season did not go well for Kimball He had an accident at Iowa and finished 22rd. At Mid-Ohio, he qualified sixth but two spins but him three laps down and he finished 23rd. At Pocono, Kimball had to overcome an accident that had him graze the catch fence exiting turn three and contact damage from an incident with Jack Hawksworth during the race. Due to attrition, he finished 12th but retired, seven laps down. In the season finale, Kimball started seventh and ran up front. He worked his was on to the podium to close out the season.

Sage Karam's rookie season had bright spots and dark spots
Sage Karam
The rookie had an up and down first season in IndyCar. Sage Karam's first three races were disappointing. He finished a lap down in the first two races and at Barber, he started 12th but faded to 18th, matching his best finish in the first three races. After sitting out the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, Karam returned to the Indianapolis 500 a year after a spectacular rookie driver that arguably was worthy of Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year honors. He improved his starting position by ten spots in 2015, rolling off from the outside of row seven but he didn't make it to the second turn of the race after Takuma Sato made contact with him exiting turn one.

At Belle Isle, Karam finished a lap down in race one in 16th and pinballed off Jack Hawksworth and Stefano Coletti in race two and was handed a penalty for his actions but ended up finishing 12th. At Texas, he started tenth but finished three laps down in 12th, a position ahead of Will Power. After missing Toronto, Karam returned for Fontana and started tenth for a second consecutive start. He faded to the back but recovered and fought his way to fifth, his first career top-five finish. He started third at Milwaukee but brushed the wall while running in the top and retired and finished 19th. Aggression paid off at Iowa for Karam. He blocked Hawksworth, he raced Ed Carpenter to the limit but he didn't go over it and finished third, his first career podium.

He had a rough weekend at Mid-Ohio. He started 19th and was never in contention. He had a suspicious spin just after his teammates Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan made pit stops and that caution caught out Juan Pablo Montoya and Will Power. The spin was questioned but Karam was absolved of any wrongdoing. Karam finally got to race at his home track, Pocono. He started 20th but worked his way through the final and found himself leading the race late. He had led seven laps when he spun exiting turn one while in the lead. That was Karam's final act in the 2015 IndyCar season.

Sebastián Saavedra drove for Ganassi. Never thought you'd hear that did you?
Sebastián Saavedra
Perhaps one of the biggest surprises of the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series season was Sebastián Saavedra driving five races for Chip Ganassi Racing. The Colombian driver ran four races in place of Sage Karam in the #8 Chevrolet when Automatic Fire Sprinklers sponsored the car and he ran the #17 Chevrolet in the Indianapolis 500.

At Long Beach, Saavedra made his debut for the team and started 11th and hung around the outside of the top ten all race and would finish tenth, his fourth career top ten in 57 starts. His next race would be the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and Saavedra started eighth but faded to 17th in the race. In the Indianapolis 500, he started 27th and was never a contender in the race. Unfortunately, he made contact with Jack Hawksworth and then the wall and slid into the path of Stefano Coletti who hit the Colombian square in the side. Saavedra would be sidelined with a left foot contusion. His fourth race was at Toronto where he started 17th and finished 16th. He would be on the sidelines until the Sonoma season finale, where he started tenth and led 12 laps on pit cycle and would ultimately finish 13th.

What does the championship winning team need to work on?

For Scott Dixon, nothing. Nothing. If he were a football club, he would be Bayern München. He has finished in the top three of the championship nine consecutive years and has finished in the top four for the last ten championships. He is looking to make history in 2016. Dixon has won at least one IndyCar race in 11 consecutive seasons. No one has every won a race in a dozen consecutive seasons. Bobby Unser was the first to do it and his streak ended after a terrible 1977 season that saw him score one top ten in ten starts, an eighth in the season finale in Phoenix. Emerson Fittipaldi's shot at making it to a dozen ended when he broke his back at Michigan. Hélio Castroneves' streak snapped in 2011 even though he came close with two second place finishes that season at Edmonton and Sonoma.

It seems inevitable Dixon will get a dozen. His name is penciled next to Mid-Ohio. He could win any of the ovals. How many races will Dixon win next year? He is fifth all-time, one behind Al Unser, three behind Michael Andretti. History will happen in 2016. When and where is still up in the air.

I am preparing for 2016 to be Tony Kanaan's final IndyCar season. He turns 41 this New Years' Eve. He has made 310 career starts, 249 in a row. Should he start all the races on the 2016 schedule, those numbers will reach 326 and 265 respectively. He is bound to pass Michael Andretti and Al Unser on the list for most IndyCar starts. Kanaan is good. He isn't great. He can hold his own but he just doesn't have it on road and street courses to compete for the title. He can get top tens on those circuits but he can't find that extra gear to find victories on road and street circuits.

Charlie Kimball does a solid job bringing the car home in one piece and he is rewarded with a smattering of top tens with the occasional top five and podium. If Kimball could improve in qualifying, perhaps he would be in more battles for race victories and maybe he could find himself in a championship battle. While he isn't a sexy driver, he is a reliable driver. He is someone Ganassi can count on and someone I think Ganassi will be willing to keep for many years to come.

Sage Karam had a good rookie season but there is plenty of room for improvement. Ganassi seems to be uncommitted to running a fourth car in 2016 but he seems to want Karam for the long haul. Karam turns 21 in March. There is much more time ahead of him than behind him. IndyCar needs Sage Karam. He is the future. He is someone fans are drawn to, especially that younger demographic can relate to. At Pocono, he won a lot of fans over. The Andretti's might be the motorsports family of that Lehigh Valley-area but Karam could definitely carve out a fan base in that community. Especially with IndyCar returning to Pocono, Karam needs to be there and he needs to be on the grid full-time.

I didn't think Sebastián Saavedra would have ever ended up at Chip Ganassi Racing so I can't rule him out returning for a second season with the team. But once again, Ganassi hasn't been enthusiastic about a fourth car and Karam is also in the pipeline. The only advantage Saavedra has is Gary Peterson supports him with the AFS sponsorship. I don't understand what Peterson sees in Saavedra. Sixty-one starts, 0 victories, 0 podiums, 0 top fives, four top tens, one pole position that he won in the wet after the session was red flagged for a Ryan Hunter-Reay accident that ended the session. To be fair, Saavedra is only 25 and I have always pointed out that the likes of Marco Andretti and Graham Rahal are young and guys such as Dario Franchitti didn't start winning titles and Indianapolis 500s until he was 34.

The difference is Saavedra has never been there. Compare Saavedra to Josef Newgarden. Newgarden is turning 25 this Christmas Eve and has six more starts than Saavedra but Newgarden has two victories, six podiums, 11 top fives, 23 top tens and a pole position. I just don't understand why Peterson stays behind Saavedra while another driver he sponsored to an Indy Lights title JR Hildebrand is on the outside looking in and other top young drivers such as Karam, Conor Daly and Matthew Brabham struggle to get a foothold in IndyCar.

Regardless of what Ganassi does this offseason the team will be back in contention at the end of next season. Dixon will be there. Kanaan won't fade away. They will be there come the season finale at Sonoma. They are always there.