Friday, January 19, 2018

2018 IndyCar Team Preview: A.J. Foyt Racing

Our second team preview looks at the team that brought up the rear in IndyCar for a second consecutive season. A.J. Foyt Racing cleaned house prior to the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season and brought in Carlos Muñoz and Conor Daly. One year later and both those drivers are gone despite each having three top ten finishes in the final five races including Daly picking up the team's only top five finish all season with a fifth at Gateway. It was Foyt's first top five finish on an oval in the DW12-era with the team's prior top five oval finish being fifth at Iowa with Darren Manning in 2007. This shake up sees two Brazilians enter, one is a beloved IndyCar veteran and the other is a rookie who showed promise in Indy Lights.

2017 A.J. Foyt Racing Review:
Wins: 0
Best Finish: 5th (Gateway, Daly)
Poles: 0
Best Starting Position: 8th (Gateway, Muñoz)
Final Championship Positions: 16th (Carlos Muñoz), 18th (Conor Daly), 33rd (Zach Veach)

2018 Drivers:

Matheus Leist - #4 ABC Supply Co. Chevrolet
The Brazilian came to the United States fresh off collecting some silverware in the United Kingdom. Leist won the 2016 BRDC British Formula Three Championship and Carlin brought him to Indy Lights for 2017. After a slow start at St. Petersburg, Leist picked up three top five finishes in the next four races, including a third-place finish on the road course at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Leist started on pole position for his first oval start in the Freedom 100 and he would lead all 40 laps on his way to victory. He followed it up with a victory at Road America, a fourth in the second race at Elkhart Lake and a victory at Iowa. With six races remaining Leist sat second in the championship, 13 points behind Kyle Kaiser. However, Leist only picked up two top five finishes in the final six races and started four races outside the top ten. He would fall to fourth in the Indy Lights championship.

Numbers to Remember:
16: Teenagers have made an IndyCar start.

2: Teenagers have won an IndyCar race.

177: IndyCar starts by teenagers.

61: Top Ten finishes by teenagers.

14.25: Average finish for teenagers in IndyCar.

Leist had a good spell in Indy Lights but he turned 19 years old five days after the 2017 season ended. He knows a handful of these tracks but could need more time to further sharpen his skills. Seven tracks will be new to Leist in 2018, including three of the final four races, meaning it could be a tough end to his rookie season.

Leist is one of three rookies set for full-time competition and it is hard to separate one as the clear favorite and one as the weakest link. Compared to Zach Veach and Robert Wickens, Leist is driving for the worst team of the three, however Leist drove a full season in single seaters last year while Veach ran two IndyCar races and Wickens was in the Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters and has been out of single-seater racing since 2011.

It is A.J. Foyt Racing so the bar can't be set too high. I think Leist won't be an improvement over either of the two drivers Foyt had in 2017. It will be a hard season. The goal should be not to piss off his sponsors funding this seat, not piss off the Foyts to the point that they will look for somebody else's money for 2019 and complete as many laps as possible.

Tony Kanaan - #14 ABC Supply Co. Chevrolet
The Brazilian competed in his 20th IndyCar season in 2017 and it was one of the more frustrating seasons for Kanaan. He had a slow start to the season with only two top ten finishes in the first five races before he had a respectable Indianapolis 500 where he led a handful of laps and finished fifth. However, Kanaan would struggle to remain at the sharp end of the grid. He had a controversial second place finish at Texas and that was followed by a hard accident at Road America. Halfway through the season it became clear that Kanaan's time at Chip Ganassi Racing was coming to an end. He finished fifth at Pocono but was parked at Gateway after mechanical issues. Kanaan finished outside the top fifteen in the final three races and for the third consecutive season Kanaan did not pick up a victory.

Numbers to Remember:
7: This will be Kanaan's seventh IndyCar team.

144: IndyCar oval starts since A.J. Foyt Racing's most recent oval victory (Kansas 2002, Airton Daré).

343: Total IndyCar starts for Kanaan, 26 behind A.J. Foyt for second all-time.

Part of me feels this is a desperation move to stay in IndyCar by Kanaan. He is hoping for a career resurrection at IndyCar's worst team. Kanaan has not finished in the top five of the championship in the DW12-era and I don't see that changing. He has finished outside the top ten in the championship once since joining the Indy Racing League in 2003 and I fear this will be the second time he has finished outside the top ten but I don't expect him to drop out of the top fifteen.

Kanaan still has something but he isn't who he was a decade ago. He will have his races and he will capture the hearts of many and make them wish he will never retire but most races he will be fighting from the back and that will particularly be the case on road and street courses. The man will be there in the 500-mile races but outside of the ovals I don't expect Kanaan to be contending for victories. He should finish ahead of his teammate on most occasions.

This is year one of a two-year deal so Kanaan's 21st season isn't scheduled to be his last but it is the start of the farewell tour. If the results don't come at A.J. Foyt Racing, who would be willing to take him on after 2019? The only other hope is Kanaan is allowed the time to work with his crew for 2018 and have that continue into 2019 so the team can having something to build on rather than start from scratch for a third consecutive season.

The 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season opener, the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg will take place on Sunday March 11th at 12:30 p.m. ET on ABC.