Wednesday, November 1, 2017

IndyCar Wrap-Up: Chip Ganassi Racing's 2017 Season

We have reached the penultimate IndyCar team review and it is Chip Ganassi Racing. In the team's first season back with Honda, it remained in championship contention but the team's four-car armada was really one ship taking on the rest of IndyCar's best with the other three unable to show any might.

Scott Dixon carried Chip Ganassi Racing in 2017
Scott Dixon
The New Zealander entered the 2017 season coming off his worst season in over a decade after he finished sixth in the championship in 2016. It did not take long for Dixon to get back to the front of the field. The debris caution at St. Petersburg dropped him outside of the top ten but he picked his way through the field and ended up with a third place finish. Dixon took the lead early at Long Beach but an untimely pit stop when he thought a caution would come out dropped him behind the likes of Ryan Hunter-Reay and Alexander Rossi. Then he was caught out when Rossi had an engine failure and he finished fourth. He finished second again at Barber, his fifth runner-up finish at the track. He finished fifth at Phoenix, the top of the Honda entries.

In the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, Dixon started fourth but had a better run than the likes of Hélio Castroneves and Josef Newgarden and he finished second. He was the third-fastest qualifier on Saturday qualifying for the Indianapolis 500. After Sébastien Bourdais had his accident in qualifying, the door was open for anybody to take the pole position and Dixon took it on Sunday with a four-lap average of 231.442 MPH. In the race, Dixon was at the front and it looked he would be at the front all race. He happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time as Jay Howard's car slid across the race track after brushing the wall in turn one. Dixon launched over the Brit, collided with the catch fence on the inside of the south chute and slammed into the earth. Dixon walked away but with a 32nd-place finish.

He may have been a little sore at Belle Isle but he did not let it slow him down. He couldn't challenge Graham Rahal in race one but he worked his way to second and he took the championship lead. He went with a three-stop strategy in race two instead of repeating the two-stop strategy he played in race one. He started eighth, ran in the top ten all race and finished sixth. Dixon was on Will Power's gearbox for most of the night at Texas and when it came time to challenge for the victory, Dixon was clipped from behind when Takuma Sato was a little too ambitious. It cost him at least a top five finish but he was still classified in ninth.

Team Penske swept the top four positions in qualifying at Road America and it appeared any one of those four would win the race. However, Dixon ran 14 laps on the first two stints and that got him to second position. He got his one opportunity at the lead on the first restart and he made the most of it as he took the lead from Josef Newgarden. He started 17th at Iowa and he had to really work just to get an eighth place finish. He had a strong run going at Toronto but he was one of many caught out when his teammate Tony Kanaan ended up in the turn one tires. Dixon had to fight for a tenth place finish.

Dixon could not re-create his Mid-Ohio magic. He finished ninth but he dropped to third in the championship after leading for six races. He had another strong run in another 500-mile race and he led the most laps at Pocono but Power, Newgarden and Alexander Rossi were better late in the race and Dixon dropped to a sixth-place finish. Gateway was always going to be a struggle for the Hondas but Dixon had a smart race. He wasn't going to run down the Penskes but he stayed in their tracks, had great in and out laps, great pit stops and was there any time a gap open. He started seventh but found himself in second place when the checkered flag was waved. He was always going to be second best at Watkins Glen but he did give Rossi a run for it. He entered the finale second in the championship with a shot at his fifth-title with him trailing Newgarden by three points. However, Dixon could not break the Penske stranglehold and could not put pressure on Newgarden. He finished fourth and dropped to third in the final championship standings.

Scott Dixon's 2017 Statistics
Championship Positions: 3rd (621 points)
Wins: 1
Podiums: 7
Top Fives: 10
Top Tens: 16
Laps Led: 131
Poles: 1
Fast Sixes: 9
Fast Twelves: 9
Average Start: 5.29
Average Finish: 6.294

The Tony Kanaan-era came to an end at CGR
Tony Kanaan
The Brazilian celebrated his 20th season in IndyCar and his season started with a little bad luck as his contact with Mikhail Aleshin caused a caution and it had him stuck in the middle of the field. He finished 12th in the season opener at St. Petersburg. A cut tire likely cost him a top ten finish at Long Beach, as he finished 15th. Two solid results followed the two poor runs with Kanaan starting tenth and finishing seventh at Barber and he was the top Honda qualifier at Phoenix in sixth and he finished that race in sixth.

Kanaan was spun in turn seven on the first lap of the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and that killed his day. He had to settle for 20th-place finish. For the Indianapolis 500, he started seventh and he quickly found himself at the front of the field and leading laps with his teammate Dixon. However, as we got into the second quarter of the race the Andretti Autosport cars took control and Kanaan fell back. Then cautions shuffled everything up and the best he could do was fifth. He finished 15th in race one at Belle Isle and a pass on the final restart in race two gave him a tenth place finish. Texas was the race where Kanaan raised a few eyebrows and pissed off about a third of the grid because of his antics that caused the big accident on lap 152. He was handed a two-lap penalty but because of competition cautions over concerns for tire life, Kanaan was waved around and found himself on the lead lap for the final restart. The fortunate break allowed him to charge to a second place finish.

Things came back and bit him at Road America as slight contact with Alexander Rossi in the kink ended his race with 11 laps to go. He ran at the back of the top ten all race at Iowa and he finished ninth. He was in the top ten at Toronto before he locked up his tires in turn one after making a pit stop. He lost two laps and finished 19th. Things did not improve at Mid-Ohio and he finished 16th.

Pocono saw Kanaan at the front for a portion of the race, including a memorable 12-lap rotation of the lead with him and Graham Rahal. He was the best on restarts but he didn't have the best car over long runs and he settled for fifth. Kanaan's season could not have ended on a worse note. Mechanical issues caused the team to park the car early at Gateway and Kanaan was not happy. He slid into the pit wall on exit immediately after Josef Newgarden did it, except Kanaan's race was over after that. He season and his tenure at Chip Ganassi Racing ended with a 16th-place finish at Sonoma.

Tony Kanaan's 2017 Statistics
Championship Positions: 10th (403 points)
Wins: 0
Podiums: 1
Top Fives: 3
Top Tens: 7
Laps Led: 55
Poles: 0
Fast Sixes: 1
Fast Twelves: 5
Average Start: 0.0
Average Finish: 0.0

Max Chilton made a step forward in his sophomore season
Max Chilton
The Brit's sophomore season started slow but progressed. Chilton started seventh but a late pit stop for fuel dropped him to a 16th-place finish in the season opener at St. Petersburg. He had to start at the back at Long Beach and the best he could do was 14th. He started in the top ten again at Barber but he fell back to a 12th-place finish. He was one of the many cars collected in the first turn first lap accident at Phoenix.

He started 14th in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis but he had a clean race, made some moves and he finished seventh. He started 15th in the Indianapolis 500 and he was one of the drivers who went off strategy and had a caution keep him at the front of the field and in contention for the victory. He led the most laps in the race, 50 laps, but he fell back and finished fourth. He had two average races at Belle Isle with finishes of 11th and 15th. He was once again in the top ten at Texas but he was collateral damage in the accident between Takuma Sato and Scott Dixon. Despite not completing three laps, Chilton still finished eighth.

Chilton ran a three-stop strategy at Road America and it got him a ninth place finish. He had a rough day at Iowa and finished 14th. He bounced back at Toronto with a smart strategy and he made up a few positions during pit cycles to get him a seventh place finish. After a good run through the early part of the summer, Chilton hit a rough patch with a 15th-place finish at Mid-Ohio followed by mechanical issues at Pocono ending his race early and a spin at Gateway in turn four was the cherry on top of that three-race stretch. He stopped under the first caution at Watkins Glen and it benefitted him as he finished eighth. He concluded the season with a 12th-place finish at Sonoma.

Max Chilton's 2017 Statistics
Championship Positions: 11th (396 points)
Wins: 0
Podiums: 0
Top Fives: 1
Top Tens: 6
Laps Led: 64
Poles: 0
Fast Sixes: 0
Fast Twelves: 4
Average Start: 12.588
Average Finish: 12.176

While Chilton took a step forward, Charlie Kimball took two steps back
Charlie Kimball
The one-time IndyCar race winner could not get through lap one for the first two races of the season. He made contact early on at St. Petersburg but he completed 105 of 110 laps. At Long Beach, he only completed one lap before his race was over after contact with Will Power. He went off strategy at Barber but other then leading 11 laps it did not work out and he finished where he started in 15th. He avoided the first lap first turn accident at Phoenix and that was all he had to do to get an eighth place finish.

The month of May did not go well for Kimball despite recent success at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. His Grand Prix of Indianapolis ended after 32 laps due to a mechanical failure. He started 16th for the Indianapolis 500 and pit strategy and cautions shuffled him to the front and he led five laps but he was one of the many Hondas to suffer an engine failure while running in the top five. Kimball started tenth for race one at Belle Isle but he made contact with Conor Daly after Daly's car lost power. Kimball had to change his front wing and he finished 21st, one lap down. In race two, things turned around a bit and he finished eighth. Things really looked positive at Texas where Charlie Kimball picked up his first career pole position. He led 26 laps but his race ended after 41 laps due to a leak.

Road America was the first good weekend start to finish for Kimball. He started tenth and finished sixth. He was not a factor at Iowa and finished 15th. An early call to go off strategy did not benefit Kimball at Toronto and he finished 12th. He started 13th and finished 13th at Mid-Ohio. Kimball had to make an early front wing change at Pocono and he finished 16th. At Gateway, he made some questionable moves, most notably blocking Conor Daly exiting turn two, but he still finished seventh. He followed that up with another seventh place finish at Watkins Glen. He closed the season with an 11th-place finish at Sonoma.

Charlie Kimball's 2017 Statistics
Championship Positions: 17th (327 points)
Wins: 0
Podiums: 0
Top Fives: 0
Top Tens: 5
Laps Led: 53
Poles: 1
Fast Sixes: 1
Fast Twelves: 4
Average Start: 11.647
Average Finish: 14.411

This was a year when anyone of three drivers should have won the championship and Dixon was one of those three drivers. His only result outside the top ten was an unfortunate accident at Indianapolis, a double points race nonetheless. Dixon was probably going to finish in the top five at Indianapolis. If he finished fifth instead of 32nd in that race, Dixon would have won the title with room to breathe.

While he finished third in the championship, you could argue this was another bad year for Scott Dixon by Scott Dixon's standards. Last year was bad because he finished sixth in the championship and Dixon is so used to finishing in the top three. This year Dixon only had one victory, the fewest he has had since 2005. Don't get me wrong, Dixon probably could have won St. Petersburg, Long Beach, Indianapolis, Texas and Pocono and any one who thinks this season is the sign of a decline in Dixon because he only won once has their head in the sand. This man will have the third-most victories in IndyCar history by this time next year.

The issue this year for Chip Ganassi Racing was it was Scott Dixon versus the world. Dixon was the top Ganassi finisher 13 times. He was the top Ganassi qualifier 13 times. This was a bad year for Tony Kanaan and his best result arguably came in a race where he should have been parked. Charlie Kimball had a disastrous season after constantly being in the top ten last year. Max Chilton did well and made progress from year one but when it came time for Dixon to have a teammate, a wingman if you will, to be by his side in the final races, he didn't have that. Teammates are what helped him win the championship in 2015. When Juan Pablo Montoya and Will Power got together and fell back, teammates Kanaan and Kimball were there to take up positions and stay in front of Montoya, allowing Dixon to win the race and win the championship on tiebreaker.

Ganassi appeared to have his plans for 2018 laid out at the end of September. It appeared the team would contract to two cars and Dixon's new teammate would be Porsche driver Brendon Hartley. However, Hartley caught the eye of Scuderia Toro Rosso and it seemed Ganassi's offseason sunk into the depths of uncertainty and then Plan B came out of nowhere. Plan B turned out to be Ganassi hiring Ed Jones from Dale Coyne Racing in a surprising silly season move.

As covered before, Jones had a really good start to the season but regressed in the second half of the season. It is hard to pin why Jones declined but whatever Ganassi saw was enough to get him a job. Ganassi is either getting a promising driver who could be with the team for the next ten to 15 years or someone who had three and a half good months and the team's roll of the dice could lead the team to cut the strings in a year or two.

Ganassi's decision to contract to two cars was in hopes to recapture the magic of years gone by of the days of Vasser/Zanardi and Dixon/Franchitti. There are no worries about Dixon but there will be a weight of expectations on Jones to keep up with his teammate and not only provide support when needed but be the best of the two once in a while.