Saturday, December 16, 2017

2017 End of Year IndyCar Silly Season Wrap Up

We have a little over two weeks left in the calendar year and we are still three months away from the 2018 IndyCar season opener from St. Petersburg. As has been the case for the last few offseasons, most of the IndyCar grid is set before Christmas and that is a good thing. Before we put up a new calendar, let's set where the IndyCar grid is and let's start with IndyCar's newest addition.

Carlin confirmed its long rumored entrance to IndyCar and unsurprisingly the team will field two cars for Max Chilton and Charlie Kimball and use Chevrolet engines. In other good news, Carlin will continue to field two cars in Indy Lights so the team's move to IndyCar isn't robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Besides the two Carlin Chevrolets, we know Team Penske has retained Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud and Will Power with Hélio Castroneves scaling back to an Indianapolis 500 entry and possibly running other rounds of the championship. A.J. Foyt Racing will field an all-Brazilian line up with Tony Kanaan moving over from Chip Ganassi Racing and Matheus Leist moving up from Indy Lights, where he drove for Carlin. Ed Carpenter Racing will have Spencer Pigot as the team's full-time driver with Ed Carpenter still in #20 Chevrolet with a road/street course driver to be announced later.

Carlin won't be the only new Chevrolet team full-time in 2018. Harding Racing appears to be set for a full-time entry, especially after hiring Brian Barnhart to be team president. Gabby Chaves ran three races for the team last year and picking up two top ten finishes including a ninth in the Indianapolis 500 and a fifth at Texas. Chaves has not been confirmed for the Harding Racing seat but he seems to be the only driver in the discussion.

While Carlin and Harding will be new full-time entries, there is another possible new full-time Chevrolet entry but at worst it will be part-time. Kyle Kaiser will move up with Juncos Racing for at least four races, including the Indianapolis 500. The team has not ruled out a possible full-time program. Juncos Racing has not confirmed it will run Chevrolet entries but the team ran two Chevrolets when it made its IndyCar debut last season in the Indianapolis 500.

With the Carlin and Harding entries, Chevrolet's total of full-time cars will be around ten, two more than in 2017, with an 11th entry for a handful of races, whether it be Kaiser and Juncos or Castroneves in the fourth Penske entry.

On the Honda side of things, Andretti Autosport will field an all-American line up with four drivers. Ryan Hunter-Reay returns, Alexander Rossi and Marco Andretti swap numbers and Zach Veach enters after running two races in 2017, including making his Indianapolis 500 debut.

While Andretti Autosport will run four cars, the rest of Honda's line up is made up of four two-car teams. Chip Ganassi Racing downsizes from four cars to two with Scott Dixon's new teammate being Ed Jones. Takuma Sato moves over from Andretti Autosport to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing where he will team with Graham Rahal. Robert Wickens enters the series to form an all-Canadian line up at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports with James Hinchcliffe. Sébastien Bourdais will return at Dale Coyne Racing and the second seat at Coyne is the only open full-time Honda remaining.

There will be a part-time Honda entry for a portion of the 2017 season. Jack Harvey will drive the #60 Honda in a partnership between Michael Shank Racing and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. Harvey will attempt St. Petersburg, Long Beach and the Indianapolis 500 with at least three more unconfirmed races and a possibility of running as many as eight races in 2018.

Honda's full-time line up appears set at 12 entries, down one from last year but a 13th entry will be around for at least six races and possibly eight.

The IndyCar grid is looking good for full-time and regular competition. We are looking at 22 cars full-time with possibly 24 cars at other events. It is a small step in the right direction.

Since it is the Christmas season, let's look at the Indianapolis 500.

All 25 cars above, the 12 Chevrolets and 13 Hondas, are tentatively set to attempt the Indianapolis 500.

Let's go down the Honda's first. Stefan Wilson has a deal with Andretti Autosport. That's 26.

Schmidt Peterson Motorsports had a deal to run Tristan Gommendy in partnership with former Larrousse F1 team owner Didier Calmels, however that deal has fallen through. I would still count on SPM running an addition entry. That would be 27.

Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing has fielded an additional car in recent years at the Indianapolis 500 but with a second car full-time an additional entry in May could be harder to pull off. However, I think the team will do it for the right person, say Oriol Servià. That's 28.

Dale Coyne Racing has field a third car the last few years and usually for Pippa Mann. I think the team will run an additional car once again and that would be 29 entries.

Let's move over to the Chevrolet side.

A.J. Foyt Racing always runs a third car, even when the team says it isn't going to run a third car. That's 30.

All signs point to Dreyer & Reinbold Racing returning for Indianapolis as they have as a one-off for the last few years. That would be 31.

Buddy Lazier has made ends meet the last few years and though all has been quiet for the little team that could, normally we don't hear anything from Lazier and company until April at the earliest. I will pencil him in and that would be 32.

Now is where it gets hard.

Team Penske ran five cars in 2017 but it appears unlikely the team will run more than four in 2018. Ed Carpenter Racing didn't run a third car last year. Juncos Racing ran two cars last year. If Juncos runs a second car again and Ed Carpenter Racing dusts off a third car that would be 34 Indianapolis 500 entries with 17 Chevrolet entries and 17 Honda entries, which would be a change from 2017 where Honda entries outnumbered Chevrolet 18-15.

Where could other entries come from? Andretti Autosport did have a hand in six entries last year. I am not sure Carlin or Harding Racing would want to take on an extra car in their first seasons as full-time teams but never say never. Team Penske isn't going to run a fifth and I don't think Chip Ganassi Racing would run a fourth. Maybe Dreyer & Reinbold could field a second car. There is a path to 33 and there could be more than 33 but it will probably take a lot of effort to make that happen.

As for drivers, where do we start? Full-timers from 2017 currently on the outside are Conor Daly, Carlos Muñoz, J.R. Hildebrand; 2017 regular Mikhail Aleshin is also available; Sebastián Saavedra, Esteban Gutiérrez, Zachary Claman DeMelo, RC Enerson and Sage Karam are other potential full-time options. Not only are the drivers listed above possible Indianapolis 500 entries but also they lead a list of potential one-offs that also includes Oriol Servià, James Davison, Tristan Vautier and maybe even Juan Pablo Montoya but that seems less likely due to his Team Penske connection.

Then there is Danica Patrick. She intends on contesting the Indianapolis 500 one final before entering retirement as well as the Daytona 500 in February. Where could she land? Patrick likely has a longer list of demands than most other Indianapolis 500 one-offs. She is going to need a high quality team and one with an established crew, not a piecemeal effort with a pit crew showing up for the first time on Carb Day.

Andretti Autosport has already been ruled out to running Patrick. Team Penske has ruled itself out. Dale Coyne Racing is too small. She would never consider A.J. Foyt Racing. Carlin, Harding and Juncos are too new.

I see four possibilities. The first is Chip Ganassi Racing. This makes the most sense because it would be the easiest option when it comes to running both Daytona and Indianapolis, plus it is an Indianapolis 500 winning team and it would give her a great shot at victory. Ganassi has not ruled himself out but he has suggested it is possible she will not be driving for his team.

Option number two is a returned to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. She joined the team in the Barber Dodge Pro Series and with the team she moved up the ladder to Atlantics and finally IndyCar. Her career would come full circle. However, Bobby Rahal has said he is not part of the plans but would do it if it worked out for the RLLR organization.

The third option is Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. It might be a team she doesn't have much connection to but it is a quality team. While the team has lacked the Indianapolis 500 results, the team has been regularly at the sharp end of the grid in qualifying for the race. The team's lack of results could prevent her from choosing SPM.

The final option is the only Chevrolet option and that is Ed Carpenter Racing. It might be one of the smaller IndyCar teams but it has been one of the top teams at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway since the start of the DW12-era. While the team hasn't won the race, it could be argued that ECR has been the third-best team at the Speedway in the DW12-era behind Andretti Autosport and Team Penske. Plus, the Chevrolet connection could solve her need for the Daytona 500 as well. I also think Tony George wouldn't pass up this opportunity if push comes to shove and she is having trouble securing a ride.

I think we have covered all the bases. There is a long way to go until St. Petersburg and an even longer way until the 102nd Indianapolis 500. All that is in the way is another Christmas, New Year's Day, Valentine's Day, Spring Equinox and Easter. The full-time IndyCar grid is near completion and the Indianapolis 500 is setting up nicely. There are probably a handful of other drivers off the radar who could sneak in but they will have to wait until 2018 to be noticed.