Friday, January 22, 2016

A Few Pieces Remain, Why Not Start the Season Next Week?

The 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series grid is close to 90% full.

There will be about 21-22 full-time cars and 18.5 of those entries have drivers.

Takuma Sato (somehow) and Jack Hawksworth will both return to AJ Foyt Racing.

Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti and Carlos Muñoz will be back at Andretti Autosport.

Josef Newgarden will carry the CFH Racing flag while Ed Carpenter's partner in crime is still to be determined.

Chip Ganassi Racing will bring back defending champion Scott Dixon, 41-year old Tony Kanaan and Charlie Kimball.

Conor Daly has been signed by Dale Coyne Racing.

Sébastien Bourdais will be the only driver at KV Racing.

Graham Rahal returns to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.

Schmidt Peterson Motorsports' 2016 line-up will feature two returning drivers: James Hinchcliffe and Mikhail Aleshin.

Team Penske retains all four drivers from 2015: Juan Pablo Montoya, Will Power, Hélio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud.

Gabby Chaves has not been confirmed to be returning to Bryan Herta Autosport despite winning Rookie of the Year last year. The runner-up in the last two Indy Lights season Jack Harvey is reportedly in contention for that seat as well as the vacant second Dale Coyne Racing seat.

The 22nd seat is going to be a little more of a stretch. KV has already put the kibosh on a second full-time entry and is going all-in on Sébastien Bourdais (which isn't a bad bet to make). The fourth Ganassi seat is still in play but whether it will be one driver or a rotating cast of characters remains to be seen. Perhaps Andretti could run a fourth car and then there is Spencer Pigot, who is slated to be at St. Petersburg and both Indianapolis with RLLR. Pigot becoming a full-time entry is not out of the realm of possibilities.

So it appears the grid will shrink a little bit in 2016. That's not a great thing but it could be worse. I still think 22 cars would be a good grid size but there would still be a handful of talented drivers on the sidelines. Someone will always end up on the sidelines but if the grid were 24-26 full-time entries, then I think that would really benefit the series.

Grid size aside, it has been nearly five months since a bow was put on the 2015 season and while we are less than two months from the 2016 season going green, I think we are all ready for a race. NASCAR is still a month away from starting. There have been a few events over the last couple weeks but this is a crucial time in the American sports calendar. The NFL season is coming to a close. Baseball is still over two months from Opening Day. College basketball season is starting to heat up but won't catch fire until the end of February. The NBA and NHL are just over halfway through. Don't get me wrong, an IndyCar race during January or early February is going to enthrall the country and give IndyCar record-setting ratings but maybe it gets IndyCar a larger audience than normal and maybe more people stay tuned for the entire season.

The drivers want to race. They are hungry. That's why nine of the drivers listed above (Pagenaud, Aleshin, Pigot, Hunter-Reay, Dixon, Kanaan, Hawksworth, Bourdais and Rahal) are entered for the 24 Hours of Daytona and other names who has been linked to IndyCar in recent years such as Tristan Vautier, who hasn't been ruled out of returning to Coyne in 2016, Martin Plowman and Katherine Legge.

IndyCar should join the 24 Hours of Daytona bill and start there season at the one of the most famous racetracks in the world. IndyCar needs a home run of a season opener and starting the season under the lights at Daytona would do just that. Over a third of the IndyCar grid is already down there. Fans are already there. It's a slam-dunk. It's going to be a tight fit and it has pitfalls but it would be worth it.

First, IndyCar would have to accept what time IMSA gives them (if IMSA gives any at all but I am sure a deal could be made). There is time though but IndyCar would have to be creative with the scheduling. Sports cars don't hit the track until Wednesday and it is wall-to-wall sports cars from 9:30 a.m. ET to 8:00 p.m. ET Thursday.

Here is what I envision:
Monday: IndyCar Media Day from Daytona. It gives the media a chance to talk to the drivers and Dale Coyne to announce his second driver. It gives any drivers with Indianapolis 500 programs a chance to make their announcement. It's the perfect way to kick off the opening weekend.

Tuesday: Test all day. Start in the afternoon and go into the evening.

Wednesday: Sports cars, more specifically Continental Tires Sports Car Challenge, are on track until 4:45 p.m. ET. I say IndyCar has a two-hour practice session starting at 5:00 p.m. ET. Who knows? Maybe even NBCSN could show the session and have that lead into their Wednesday night NHL coverage.

Thursday: Off day. There is too much sports car action. Give the teams a day at the beach.

Friday: Sports cars are done at 4:15 p.m. ET. Have qualifying at 5:00 p.m. ET with the race starting at 7:00 p.m. ET.

Besides scheduling, weather could be a hang up for this event. While it is Florida, it is not exempt for cold weather. Looking at the forecast for next week's 24 Hours of Daytona, the high for next Friday is 63º F with a low of 46º F and 15 MPH winds. It's not the greatest weather but it's better than what the Northeast is facing this weekend and much warmer than the Midwest. However, after many years of watching the 24 Hours of Daytona, the fans in the infield will just light a fire, crack out a six-pack and enjoy the race.

Another problem is space in the infield. Would there be enough room to add close to two-dozen IndyCar haulers in the infield? Last year during Speedweeks, there were 133 entries across NASCAR's three national touring divisions. For this year's 24 Hours of Daytona, there are 54 entries and there are 37 entries for the CTSCC race. I haven't been able to locate an entry list for Ferrari Challenge; the other support series to the 24 Hours of Daytona, but last year Ferrari Challenge had 29 entries. That's 120 entries. I am not sure you could squeeze another two-dozen IndyCar haulers into the infield but worse-case scenario, IndyCar parks everything on the back straightaway considering that grandstand has been torn down.

I think it could be a big event for IndyCar and for NBCSN. It would be a big weekend for motorsports and a historic weekend.

I also think IndyCar would benefit as it would be a chance to show off to series to a lot of up-and-coming drivers. The 24 Hours of Daytona feels like a scouting combine. You have a lot of drivers heading to Daytona with balls hanging up in the air over what they will do over the rest of the year. A good showing in Daytona could earn a driver a paying ride. With drivers such as Formula Three champion Felix Rosenqvist, GP2 and GTE race winner Richie Stanaway and the liability but talented son of a billionaire that is Lance Stroll entered for Daytona, it could be a great way for IndyCar to show these drivers firsthand that there is an alternative form of single-seater racing that is more affordable than the road to Formula One.

I think IndyCar could sell a race at Daytona. I think it could be a race sponsors would want to be apart of. IndyCar would have to be really nice to IMSA to allow it to happen but I am sure they could work something out. I can't see any reason why it shouldn't happen.