Thursday, March 2, 2017

2017 IndyCar Team Preview: Chip Ganassi Racing

Here we are at the final team preview of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Season and we come to the second of two teams to switch manufactures. After three seasons with Chevrolet, Chip Ganassi Racing returns to Honda and retains all four drivers from 2016. However, the team returns without long-time sponsor Target and is coming off not having a driver in the top five of the championship for the first time since 2005.

2016 Chip Ganassi Racing Review:
Wins: 2 (Phoenix, Watkins Glen)
Poles: 1 (Toronto)
Final Championship Positions: 6th (Scott Dixon), 7th (Tony Kanaan), 9th (Charlie Kimball), 19th (Max Chilton).

2017 Drivers:

Max Chilton - #8 Gallagher Honda
The former Marussia F1 driver made his IndyCar debut in 2016 and ran the full slate of races for Chip Ganassi Racing. His season started with a surprise top ten run at Phoenix, where he finished ahead of the likes of Sébastien Bourdais, Juan Pablo Montoya and Ryan Hunter-Reay. The rest of his rookie season was littered with dismal performances. He qualified fourth at Iowa but a spin ruined any shot at a respectable finish. Watkins Glen would be the only other highlight of Chilton's season where he started sixth and finished tenth.

Numbers to Remember: 
2: Top ten finishes in 2016 (seventh at Phoenix, tenth at Watkins Glen).

2: Lap led in 2016, both at Iowa.

2: Retirements in 2016, both at Belle Isle.

We all know Chilton has deep and reliable backing. Unless the results get much, much worse, he will be safe for 2018 and to be fair to Chilton is he is a reliable driver who brings the car home each week with all four wheels attached.

However, Chip Ganassi doesn't give drivers a long leash. Chilton had the fourth-worst average finish for first-year Ganassi drivers who ran at least 70% of a season. Of the three below Chilton, Memo Gidley (who only raced 14 of 20 races after replacing Nicolas Minassian) and Bryan Herta didn't get a year two and Charlie Kimball got a year two despite having the worst average finish for first-year Ganassi drivers and things have been working out for Kimball. (Ironically, Chilton also had the fourth-worst average starting position for first-year Ganassi drivers and two of the bottom three didn't get a year two with Ganassi (Sage Karam and Maurício Gugelmin) and Kimball had the worst average starting position).

I am sure he wants better results but with the switch to Honda I think it will stunt any potential growth. If he can match his total top ten finishes from last year, I think that would be a big victory for him. I am not sure he can break the top fifteen in the championship.

Scott Dixon - #9 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda
He entered 2016 as the defending champion and I am not sure any other driver can have such a successful disappointing season. Dixon was the only non-Penske driver to win multiple races but he suffered his worst championship finish since 2005 and he finished sixth. I am not sure there is a year where Dixon was bit by bad luck as often as he was in 2016. The car died on him with an electrical problem at Belle Isle, his engine failed after six laps at Road America, his suspension crumbled after contact with Hélio Castroneves at Mid-Ohio and he had more electrical issues at Sonoma. However, he passed Al Unser on the all-time victories list after triumphant runs at Phoenix and Watkins Glen.

Numbers to Remember: 
12: Consecutive seasons with a victory, an IndyCar record.

40: Career victories, fourth all-time in IndyCar.

9.8: Dixon's average finish in 2016, his worst since 2005.

There isn't much Dixon has to do different. The switch to Honda is putting an anvil around his neck but Dixon will win a race or two and likely be in contention for top five in the championship. Can he contend for a fifth championship? That might be a stretch but if Graham Rahal can be in the title fight the last two years as a single-car Honda team there is no reason to think Dixon couldn't find himself in the conversation come Sonoma. I think Dixon will improve in his total of top five finishes. He had five last season.

Tony Kanaan - #10 NTT Data Honda
At 41 years old, the Brazilian showed he still has some in the tank. Kanaan had ten top ten finishes in the first 11 races with a turn one, lap one collision with Sébastien Bourdais at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis being the lone blemish to start the season. He finished tied with Simon Pagenaud for most top ten finishes in 2016 with 12. He was a contender in the Indianapolis 500 and challenged Will Power for the victory at Road America. Kanaan was in another fierce battle at Texas with Graham Rahal and James Hinchcliffe but finished third.

Numbers to Remember: 
20: 2017 marks Kanaan's 20th season in IndyCar.

37: Laps led in 2016, the second-fewest in a season for Kanaan behind zero in his rookie season in 1998.

265: Consecutive starts for Kanaan dating back to Portland 2001.

I think this will be Kanaan's final year. You don't create memorabilia celebrating your 20th season unless you are hoping to cash in on people buying it for sentimental value. We have seen it across the board in the world of sports. And I think it pays off for Kanaan and he wins an oval race in his final season. I don't necessarily think he will finish better in the championship, I actually think he will finish worse than seventh. I don't think he can match his 2016 level of consistency especially with the Honda aero package.

Charlie Kimball - #83 Tresiba Honda
If Scott Dixon had the most successful disappointing season, Charlie Kimball had the most exciting boring season in 2016. Kimball had 11 top ten finishes, tied with Will Power, Josef Newgarden, Sébastien Bourdais and Dixon for third-most. The month of May was the high point of his season as Kimball finished fifth in both Indianapolis races and was nipped by 0.0255 seconds by Kanaan for fourth in the Indianapolis 500. He had one finish outside the top fifteen, which was 16th in the second Belle Isle race. He technically didn't retire from a race a but his lone did not finish was the season opener at St. Petersburg when he spun entering turn one on the final lap and parked in the barriers and he still finished tenth in that race.

Numbers to Remember: 
2,066: Laps completed in 2016 out of 2,070, most in IndyCar.

15: Consecutive finishes, second-best active streak in IndyCar (Marco Andretti, 17).

100: IndyCar starts in Kimball's career.

Kimball has to do nothing different and change everything at the same time. He needs to keep his consistency but be in more competitive positions. If he can do that then he has a shot to be a championship contender. With the switch to Honda, I don't think Kimball will get 11 top ten finishes again but I think he will get at least seven top ten finishes, completes at least 93.5% of all laps contested and Kimball will be just outside the top ten of the championship.

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