Wednesday, January 17, 2018

2018 IndyCar Team Preview: Chip Ganassi Racing

There is less than two months until the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season opener from the streets of St. Petersburg. That is still a lot of time but it will disappear before we know it and with additional full-time teams on the IndyCar grid and most full-time seats occupied it is time to get ready for the new season. We start with an IndyCar stalwart that has a new, consolidated look.

2017 Chip Ganassi Racing Review:
Wins: 1 (Road America)
Poles: 2 (Indianapolis 500, Texas)
Final Championship Positions: 3rd (Scott Dixon), 10th (Tony Kanaan), 11th (Max Chilton), 17th (Charlie Kimball).

2018 Drivers:

Scott Dixon - #9 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda
For another season Scott Dixon found himself in the championship picture entering the finale. The New Zealander barely put a wheel wrong with 16 top ten finishes from 17 races. The one blemish was his nightmarish accident in the Indianapolis 500 where the car of Jay Howard launched Dixon into the catch fence on the inside of the south chute. Dixon picked up his third career Indianapolis 500 pole position and his second in three seasons. Despite being tied for the IndyCar lead in top ten finishes and being tied for second in podium finish, his only victory came at Road America. He entered the Sonoma finale second in the championship but left third, his 11th finish in the top three of the championship.

Numbers to Remember:
1: Victory in 2017, the fewest in a season for Dixon since 2005.

6: Consecutive victories for Chip Ganassi Racing.

11: Most consecutive victories by one driver for Chip Ganassi Racing (Juan Pablo Montoya 1999-2000.

141: Career top five finishes. Tied for third all-time with Al Unser, Jr., and Hélio Castroneves and eight behind A.J. Foyt for second.

Does anyone expect anything less than a championship push by Dixon? Every year you pencil him in for a top three finish at worst. He is coming off a disappointing but highly successful 2017 season. He   sits one victory behind Michael Andretti for third all-time in IndyCar victories and I expect he will get it before the season is out.

I doubt Dixon will have to carry Chip Ganassi Racing as much as he did in 2017. He was the top Ganassi finisher in 13 of 17 races and the top qualifier in 13 of 17 races. In three of the four races where Dixon was not the top finish he finished in the top ten with the exception being the Indianapolis 500 and he started in the top ten in three of the four race where he wasn't the top qualifier. The exception there was Iowa.

It is hard to look at Dixon's 2017 results and say he has to improve. Nine seasons out of ten Dixon did enough to be champion. Last year happened to be a season where Josef Newgarden and Simon Pagenaud were fractionally better. The only other thing I could say is hope not to be in the wrong position when Jay Howard slides down the racetrack.

Other things to note in 2018: Can Dixon finally win at Barber Motorsports Park? He has seven podium finishes in eight races at the track including five runner-up finishes. If he can win at Barber, can Dixon get a hot start to the season? He hasn't won multiple times in the first eight races of a season since 2009 when he picked up three victories in the first eight races. In the three years Dixon has won more than once in the first eight races he has finished first, first and second in the championship in 2003, 2008 and 2009 respectively.

Ed Jones - #10 NTT Data Honda
The start of the 2017 season saw Ed Jones as the only rookie committed to a full season and he started the year with back-to-back top ten finishes at St. Petersburg and Long Beach. He was the first driver to start a career with back-to-back top ten finishes since Neel Jani in 2007. Jones found himself at the sharp end of the field in the closing laps of the Indianapolis 500 and he remained in the top five fight until the checkered flag with the Emirati driver finishing third, the top finishing rookie and the best finish for Dale Coyne Racing in the Indianapolis 500. Jones was as high as seventh in the championship before a rough second half of the season saw only one top ten finish in the final ten races and Jones dropped to 14th in the championship but enough to win Rookie of the Year.

Numbers to Remember:
3: Of nine Rookies of the Year since reunification have won a IndyCar race (Simon Pagenaud, Carlos Muñoz, Alexander Rossi. All three also won a race in their sophomore seasons).

38: Victories by Chip Ganassi Racing drivers under the age of 30. Six drivers are responsible for those 38 victories (Alex Zanardi (3), Juan Pablo Montoya (11), Bruno Junqueira (3), Scott Dixon (15), Dan Wheldon (5) and Charlie Kimball (1).

2,436: Days between the #10 Ganassi entry's most recent victory on a road/street circuit (Toronto 2011) to the St. Petersburg season opener.

Mike Hull said Chip Ganassi Racing hired Ed Jones because they didn't want a driver who they had to teach to win races. With that said, Jones has to win a race if not races and I think he will get a victory but still have teething moments in his sophomore season. He is taking a big step forward from Dale Coyne Racing but if there is one thing we learned about Jones in 2017 is he isn't intimidated by anybody. If he wasn't starstruck by being in the same Indianapolis 500 rookie class as Fernando Alonso then I doubt he will be spooked by Dixon, an IndyCar legend. 

There will be a few races where Jones will go toe-to-toe with his teammate but I don't think we will see a change in the pecking order. Jones should finish in the top ten of the championship and finish ahead of all three Ganassi drivers that left the team after the 2017 season. Actually, I think beating the three exiting drivers will be the expectation.

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.