Thursday, February 28, 2019

This Month in Motorsports Headlines: February 2019

Two months are complete in 2019, we are a sixth of the way through the year and the ball is starting pick up some speed. The month started with a cracking endurance race from Bathurst. Then Speedweeks closed from Daytona in what was a more unforgettable few races. Testing has been taking place all over the world, from the heart of Texas to the hills of Catalonia to desert of Qatar on two wheels. Between it all there has been news, both good and bad and it is time to go over what was the month of February 2019.

Once again, this is just for fun. In case you are new, this is my gut reaction to headlines without reading the article. Of course, the gripes I have may be answered in the article.

We start with IndyCar...

Dixon: Rosenqvist could be this year's Wickens in IndyCar
I touched upon what to expect from Rosenqvist in 2019 in the Chip Ganassi Racing team preview. He could be great this year but there is something I don't like about using Robert Wickens or any driver as a benchmark. I don't think it is fair to Rosenqvist and I don't think it is fair to Wickens. A great season is going to be a great season and I think we set the bar that Rosenqvist has to meet for each race. He probably isn't going to win pole position on debut. He probably isn't going to finish second in his first oval race. When he is pegged against Wickens that is what we are hold him to and every year is different.

There are going to be things that are out of Rosenqvist's control that happen and those things didn't happen to Wickens. And this is coming from his teammate of all people. Geez, Scott, talking about putting pressure on a guy.

Barnhart: Harding Steinbrenner Racing isn't going anywhere
Yet... What once was the underdog team that everyone pulled for has turned into a bit of a snake of a team that no one trusts. For a team entering its second full season it has pissed off a fair number of people.

It left Gabby Chaves on the curb, it pissed off Santiago Urrutia and now Patricio O'Ward was screwed. Is this a bad time to point out the coincidence that all these drivers are Latin Americans? I am sure it is just a coincidence but it doesn't look good.

The team is likely fine now that George Michael Steinbrenner IV is a partner but if Steinbrenner is responsible for Colton Herta's entry and Mike Harding was responsible for O'Ward's ride and failed to make it happen, why is Harding's name on the door? This team might not be going anywhere but if Steinbrenner can figure this out on his own we may be dropping the "H" from HSR in the near future.

HSR won't immediately fill second seat
But if you have a check for $5,000,000 we will get you in that car as soon as humanly possibly. HSR might even put your last name on the door and add another letter to the acronym.

Rahal: Other series can't match IndyCar's recent rise
Formula E came from nothing and has television deals around the world as well as manufactures such as Audi, BMW, Citroën, Nissan and Jaguar in the series while Mercedes-Benz and Porsche will be joining the series next year.

So I think Formula E has an argument.

I get what Rahal is trying to say and IndyCar has come a long way over the last five and ten years. I have written plenty of times that IndyCar is in a much better place and atmosphere around the series is positive. It wasn't long ago that every race was a headache and something seemed to go wrong. That is not the case now. I think everyone is having a good time. There is no need to gloat and call every other series out.

Rahal is an ambassador for IndyCar. I am glad he is proud of what the series is doing but I think this could have been said differently.

Staying in the United States...

'Making of Mustang' looks at Ford's design process
They took the Ford body and just put Mustang decals on it. That's it. That is all it takes. It could have been a Ford Focus or Ford Fiesta or even a Ford Pinto. It all comes down to the decals. Ford wants to push the Mustang to the NASCAR market, especially when Chevrolet is racing the Camaro.

Harvick calls Johnson "one of the most disrespected great drivers"
Kevin Harvick has a point. Johnson is disrespected. It is unfortunate Johnson's success came at the same time of Dale Earnhardt, Jr.'s career and while many wanted to see Earnhardt, Jr. match the level his father instead NASCAR fans got a first-generation NASCAR driver from California dominant the start of the 21st century. I think that is part of the reason people despise Johnson. If his success had come 15 years later and if the championship system not had been changed a half dozen times people would look at Johnson differently.

I think a better term is most unappreciated. I don't think fans appreciate the success of Johnson. Yes, the championship format is different from the time of Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt but Johnson found a way to win the championship each year. He has won over 80 races, which only a handful of drivers has accomplished. The championship format change didn't change what it takes to win a race and Johnson is at another level in that department.

I think ten years after Johnson has retired people will start to realize how great he was especially if NASCAR doesn't have a driver that has won four or five championships and none of the drivers are approaching 50 victories.

Roger Penske gives 'solid B' on debut of NASCAR's aero package
What would have been a failure? The Atlanta race was similar to the 2018 race.

This package should not be graded based off one race. The Fox booth sounded daft for saying it was an outstanding success before the Atlanta race was over. It was like crowning a baseball team divisional champion after six innings of scoreless baseball on opening day.

There should be no grading at this point. There are 34 more races to go and people could be livid come July. How is that "solid B" going to stand up?

Moving to international land...

Haas title sponsor likens doubters to moon landing truthers
Not really the same thing at all. This is hyperbole, boys and girls.

Haas makes it really difficult to pull for the American Formula One team. Can this team be likable at all? It gets a break for year one when the brakes kept failing. It accomplished a lot in its first two races but the team has a poor image. From saying there was no American ready for Formula One when Alexander Rossi was winning races in GP2 and eventually ended up on the Formula One grid to Guenther Steiner not having a filter to the team constantly saying it can't stay in Formula One at the rate the team is spending to it signing a sponsor that just comes off like a jerk, can the team do one thing that gets people behind it?

I wish this could be a fun team but it isn't.

Bottas hasn't "achieved anything" in F1
This is a bit harsh. Bottas hasn't won a World Drivers' Championship like his teammate Lewis Hamilton but other than Hamilton only two other drivers on the grid have won the World Drivers' Championship.

Bottas has won three races, a handful of pole position and he has had a fair share of podium finishes. No one is saying Bottas is one of the 50 greatest drivers ever or even the greatest Finnish drivers but he has been good.

He has achieved a whole hell of a lot more than a lot of drivers and this is garbage saying he hasn't achieved a thing.

Ticktum pulls out of Asian F3 Winter Series
This might be my favorite story of the year to date. Dan Ticktum entered this series hoping to get the last few points he needed to earn a FIA Super License and potentially get into the Toro Rosso at some point this year because Alexander Albon and Daniil Kvyat were never in the team's top two options for 2019 and Ticktum is this year's young driver that Red Bull is rushing through the pipeline.

It was bad enough that Ticktum was doing poorly in the series and wasn't going to finish high enough to get the necessary Super License points but he wasn't going to get the points anyway because the series did not meet the standards necessary to give away Super License points, as the Asian F3 Winter Series only ran on two different circuits and there has to be at least five different circuits for a series to qualify.

This is actually a great idea for a series and I think Indy Lights could use this to make it more attractive to drivers. Indy Lights pays 15 Super License points to the champion, the same as a regional F3 championship. For some reason the Asian F3 Championship pays 18 Super License points to the champion but 15 points is a good chunk of points.

Indy Lights could easily put together a five-round winter series over January and February. It could run at Sebring, Laguna Seca, Sonoma, the Homestead oval and/or road course, Austin, Barber, the series could run into March and end the season at St. Petersburg if it wanted to.

There are options and Indy Lights should take advantage of this. If it can get Formula One teams to pay for a development driver or two to get Super License points than it should do it. The teams could make money off this and Formula One teams should want this. There is a market for winter series now. Instead of having a driver have to bank on one season, whether it be Formula Two or Formula Three, a winter series could get a driver 15 or 12 or ten points and then lower the number for when the main season starts. Imagine if a driver won the Indy Lights winter series championship and got 15 points, now he or she only needs 25 points to qualify for a Super License.

Formula One teams should want this and it should be pushing for more of these winter series that take no more than two months to complete and Indy Lights and Andersen Promotion should see the opportunity, especially for a series that is still struggling to stand on its own two feet.

Now on to two other series to close this month...

Porsche: GTE-Pro "Still Healthy" if Ford, BMW Exit
And it is still healthy because Porsche will still be there and two fewer manufactures means fewer competitors to beat. Porsche is all about winning races and adding to its decorated trophy cabinet. It doesn't care about Ford or BMW. It would be happier if those two manufactures weren't in GTE-Pro. Porsche counts all its Porsche Supercup and Porsche Carrera Cup races from around the globe in its yearly total of victories. It doesn't care. Porsche just wants to win races and Ford and BMW not being in the class increases its chances of collecting more trophies. Porsche knows it isn't going anywhere and it is fine with manufactures coming and going.

Has (Formula E) created motorsport's best racing rules?
No! Do not feed Formula E's ego. That is the last thing we need. Formula E does some things right and Formula E does some things wrong. Formula E needs to be kept in check, not get more sunshine blown up its backside.

The shortest month is behind us and spring is coming up. Warmer days should be ahead of us and with the warmth comes more motorsports. IndyCar, Formula One, MotoGP and Supercars all start their seasons while the FIA World Endurance Championship returns to competition at Sebring in a doubleheader with the 12 Hours of Sebring.

2019 IndyCar Team Preview: Chip Ganassi Racing

We have made it to the 11th and final 2019 IndyCar team preview and we end with our defending champions. Chip Ganassi Racing and Scott Dixon did it again in 2018 and the pairing's fifth championship has set Dixon two championships behind A.J. Foyt for most in IndyCar history. Along with the title, Dixon achieved a few other milestones. He moved to third all-time in victories, he made his 300th start, 100th podium finish and 150th top five finish. For a driver who already had himself in the conversation for greatest of all-time, he made a strong case why he may belong at the head of the table. This year, Dixon looks to continue piling up the numbers but he will do it with a new teammate, his fifth different teammate in three seasons but this one could give him a challenge in-house that he has not had in a long time.

2018 Chip Ganassi Racing Review
Wins: 3 (Belle Isle I, Texas, Toronto)
Poles: 0 (Scott Dixon started first at Gateway, where owners' points set the field after qualifying was rained out).
Championship Finishes: 1st (Scott Dixon), 13th (Ed Jones)

2019 Drivers:

Scott Dixon - #9 PNC Bank Honda
The 2018 season did not start the way we would expect from Scott Dixon. At St. Petersburg, he ran into the back of Takuma Sato and was handed a penalty because of it. Later in that race he would be handed a pit lane speeding penalty. Those two strikes against him were not the end of the world and he still drove his way up to sixth. It set the tone for his season.

It felt like a Scott Dixon season. He didn't blow the doors off the competition from the start but rather engages in a lengthy foreplay throughout spring and then got down to business when the heat of summer set in.  He turned a poor starting position into a fourth place finish at Phoenix through well-executed pit strategy. Long Beach went against him when he was unable to make it to pit lane before the caution came out and in the next race at Barber he missed a top five finish by 0.0871 seconds after Sébastien Bourdais beat him in a drag race to the line.

At the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, he started 18th but again worked his way to the front and finished second. Dixon and crew rolled the dice in the Indianapolis 500 deciding to make the team's final pit stop with 39 laps to go. He not only made it to the finish but made home in third position.

From there, Dixon won two of the next three races with a fourth place finish in between. At the first Belle Isle race, he sat on Marco Andretti's rear wing during the first stint and jumped pass him after the first round of pit stops. His Texas victory came after he used the first half of the race to get to the front but he led the final 119 laps in what would be the 100th podium finish of his IndyCar career. It also gave him the championship lead.

Another podium finish followed at Road America with Dixon coming in third. Iowa didn't go his way but he won at Toronto when he kept his nose clean while all his challengers had an issue whether it was contact with a barrier, another car or both. Returning to America, he held a 62-point lead in the championship. Not insurmountable but a comfortable gap with a few of his stronger tracks still ahead of him.

Mid-Ohio was his 300th start and he finished fifth, his 150th top five finish. He picked a pair of third-place finishes on the ovals of Pocono and Gateway. Then came Dixon's great escape. He was in the middle of four wrecked race cars and he was able to drive away with a smudge on his nose. With his dusty car back on track Dixon had to work from the back and with the championship slipping out of his control he suffered another blow with a pit lane speeding penalty. However, just like St. Petersburg, things turned around. A pair of cautions kept Dixon on the lead lap, moved him to the front and knocked his title rival Alexander Rossi from the lead to behind Dixon. The New Zealander would extend his championship lead with a fifth place finish.

It still came down to Sonoma and while he qualified second with Rossi in sixth. Rossi damaged his front wing and cut a tire down in turn one on lap one. Dixon cruised from there and remained in second. It got him his fifth championship.

Numbers to Remember:
25: Consecutive races running at the finish.

28: Most consecutive races Dixon has been running at the finish of in his career. That was from Watkins Glen in 2005 to Mid-Ohio in 2007. He also had a streak of 26 consecutive finishes from Edmonton 2010 to Barber 2012.

10: Consecutive seasons without winning more than two pole positions in a season.

17: If Dixon wins one race this season it would be his 17th season with a victory, breaking a tie with Mario Andretti for second-most seasons with a victory and he would only trail A.J. Foyt, who won a race in 18 seasons.

14: Dixon has won at least one race in 14 consecutive seasons, the longest streak in IndyCar history.

There is no goal other than the championship. There is nothing Dixon really has to improve on because every year he goes out, gets a dozen top five finishes and has one or two finishes outside the top ten and that gets him one of the top four positions in the championship depending on if he wins three or four races or if another driver wins three or four times and gets eight podium finishes while Dixon only wins twice and has six podium finishes.

Dixon is going to be great and if he doesn't win the championship he is still going to have a great year.

If there is one place where he could improve it is pole positions. Dixon has not won more than two pole positions in a season since 2008 when he had six pole positions! However, the only other season he won more than two pole positions was 2003 when he had five. We know he doesn't have to start first to win races. His starting position isn't a hindrance that he has to overcome but I think Dixon wouldn't mind having a season where he gets four or five pole positions and have that complement a typical Dixon season of three victories, six podium finishes and 15 top ten finishes while finishing in one of the top three spots in the championship.

The crazy thing is you know somewhere down the line someone is going to use Dixon's lack of pole positions, of which he has 26 in his career, good enough for 11th all-time, as a slight against him because Andretti won 67 and Foyt had 53 and Will Power has 54 and counting and very well could be the all-time leader when his career is over.

I guess the one thing we have to prepare for is when Scott Dixon doesn't have a Scott Dixon-esque season. He has finished in the top four of the championship for 12 of the last 13 seasons with sixth in 2016 being the one blemish. It is foolish to think Dixon is always going to have a handful of victories and always be in the title conversation. A year will come where he isn't there. He might still win a race or two but he could have a year with four horrible races where he has two engine failures, cuts a tire and falls off the lead lap and another race where he gets caught in an accident not of his making and that could drop him to eighth or ninth in the championship.

We have to prepare for that season because it is going to happen and we should not fall into the crowd of people that ask what is wrong with Dixon just because he finished outside the top three. If there is one guy that can have a bad year it is Dixon. It is bound to happen and it could be this year.

The grid keeps getting better. All of Power, Rossi, Bourdais, Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Graham Rahal and James Hinchcliffe could finish in the top five of the championship along with Dixon. If Dixon finished behind all those drivers it would be a surprise but that is a pretty good group to finish behind and that list is only growing. This rookie class is bringing in a lot of hype. Colton Herta led the Austin test. Marcus Ericsson should be a competent driver and get some results. Santino Ferrucci did well in the Austin test, where he was faster than Bourdais and we will get to Dixon's teammate in depth in a second but Felix Rosenqvist is coming into IndyCar with the expectation that he will be at the front immediately.

Dixon isn't going to fall off the face of the earth. He is immeasurably talented and he will get a few victories and be at the front. No matter how much talent enters IndyCar, Dixon is going to be at the front more times than not.

Felix Rosenqvist - #10 NTT Data Honda
The best prospect in motorsports is about to make the biggest move of his career.

The Swede spent six seasons in Formula Three and he finished in the top five of the championship in five of those seasons. In 2012, he finished third in the FIA Formula 3 European championship behind Daniel Juncadella and Raffaele Marciello and ahead of Pascal Wehrlein and Carlos Sainz, Jr. The following year he was vice-champion to Marciello with Alex Lynn, Lucas Auer, Harry Tincknell, Jordan King, Tom Blomqvist and Pipo Derani taking the next six positions in the championship.

Rosenqvist suffered a down year in 2014 when he finished eighth in the championship in a season when Esteban Ocon took the title and Max Verstappen third while Rosenqvist's teammate Auer was fourth. While having a disappointing championship finish, Rosenqvist took pole position for the Macau Grand Prix by nearly a quarter of a second over Ocon and Verstappen and he went on to win the qualifying race. He won the 15-lap main event by 4.372 seconds over Auer.

For 2015, Rosenqvist switched to Prema Powerteam after previously driving for Mücke Motorsport and he took the championship by 105.5 points over Antonio Giovinazzi with Jake Dennis, Charles Leclerc, Lance Stroll, George Russell and Alexander Albon rounding out the top seven and Santino Ferrucci was 11th in the championship that year. He capped off his championship year with his second consecutive Macau Grand Prix victory where he again won after winning pole position and the qualifying race.

His first trip to America was in Indy Lights with Belardi Auto Racing in a 2016 season that including a lot of experimenting. Not only did he run Indy Lights but he ran the Blancpain GT Series Sprint Cup with Tristan Vautier and he was given an opportunity to run in the Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters with Mercedes-Benz after Ocon moved to Formula One with Manor Racing. His entry into the DTM shortened his Indy Lights season to ten races and he won three of them, including the second race of the season at St. Petersburg and he swept the Toronto races. He returned to Macau but could not do the unprecedented and win the race for a third consecutive year. He qualified eighth and finished sixth in the qualifying race but worked his way to second in the final race behind António Félix da Costa.

At the end of 2016, he joined Formula E with Mahindra Racing. He started on pole position in his second start at Marrakesh and finished third. He got his first victory in his seventh start at Berlin and he had three runner-up finishes in the final five races on his way to finishing third in the championship. He won two of the first three races of 2017-18 season but he had many tough days including retirements at Mexico City and Rome, two races where he started on pole position.

Between his two Formula E seasons, he ran in Super Formula in 2017 and finished third in the championship five points behind champion Hiroaki Ishiura and like Pierre Gasly, he did not have the opportunity to take the title after the season finale doubleheader at Suzuka was cancelled due to a typhoon. In 2018, Rosenqvist remained in Japan and ran in Super GT with Lexus. He and co-driver Kazuya Oshima were tenth in the championship with their best result being second at Buriram.

Numbers to Remember:
3: There have been three races in IndyCar history with multiple Swedes starting. On all three occasions the Swedes were Stefan Johansson and Fredrik Ekblom. The first was at Belle Isle in 1994, the second what at Laguna Seca in 1995 and the third was the U.S. 500 at Michigan in 1996. Those were Ekblom's only three IndyCar starts.

76: Victories in Rosenqvist's career from 2007 to the present between Asian Formula Renault Challenge, Formula Renault 2.0 Asia, Formula Renault 2.0 Sweden, Formula Renault 2.0 North European Zone, Formula Palmer Audi, German Formula 3 Championship, Formula 3 Euro Series, Masters of Formula 3, FIA Formula 3 European Championship, the Macau Grand Prix, Formula Acceleration 1, Indy Lights, Blancpain GT Sprint Cup, Intercontinental GT Challenge, Formula E and Porsche Carrea Cup Scandinavia.

14: Different series he has won in listed above.

7.1309: Dario Franchitti's average finish in the #10 entry in 84 starts.

10.809: The average finish of the #10 entry in the 84 races from 2014-2018.

The goal is rookie of the year but get close to matching the success of Robert Wickens.

It is unfortunate that Rosenqvist is going to be held to the level of Wickens but we had not seen a rookie of Wickens' level since Bourdais in 2003 and Rosenqvist comes in with heightened expectations. He has been seen as the best young driver not in Formula One for the last four years. He has won everywhere and now he is in a major series. This is his shot to prove himself on a higher level.

This feels like the first driver that can push Dixon since Dario Franchitti. Franchitti's pre-mature exit from IndyCar led to Dixon taking the sole role as Ganassi team leader and that title has never been challenged for that honor. Dixon has carried the team for five seasons. Ganassi hasn't been fielding one good car all those years. I think he has finally brought in a driver that can get the most out of the second car and if Rosenqvist does that he should match Wickens results, if not exceed them.

He could win a race or two. The one area he is known for excelling at is street courses and all three of his Indy Lights victories were on street courses. There are only five street course races on the 2019 schedule but if he gets a victory or two and runs at the front in the other races that sets him up in a promising position for the rest of the season.

Juan Pablo Montoya won the championship 20 years ago as a rookie and Rosenqvist could do mirror that achievement. It doesn't mean he will do it but it is set up to happen. He is driving for a championship team and he has experience on five of the track, which isn't a lot but it is more than none and he might not have much oval experience but he has a diverse résumé. It has not taken Rosenqvist long to pick up whatever he is driving. The infrastructure is around him to succeed. He will have Franchitti on the pit stand to work with. He could not ask for a better setting to succeed.

Despite his knowledge and experience with a vast number of different types of race cars in series from around the world, there will be things that Rosenqvist will have to learn and adjust to accordingly. He still hasn't raced at Long Beach and Belle Isle, two street courses and Belle Isle is as rough as they come. The qualifying format will be different. It will be similar to what he experienced in Formula E but it is different enough where it will be multiple runs and multiple rounds and choosing tire compounds at the right time while also balancing tires and making sure to have enough tires in the later rounds. His Formula E experience could play into his favor as he has driven in conservation mode for the better part of two full seasons and we know IndyCar can have races come down to fuel mileage, something Rosenqvist's teammate has mastered.

He should be in the top ten of the championship but it should not be a surprise if he is pushing for the top five of the championship.

The 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season opens on Sunday March 10th with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. NBCSN's coverage will begin at 1:00 p.m. ET.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

2019 IndyCar Team Preview: The Part-Timers

The tenth and penultimate IndyCar team preview will look at the teams that will not be running full-time but will be around quite a bit in 2019. This is a mixture of teams. One team is returning to IndyCar and is expanding to run more races. Another is returning and its schedule is still unknown. Two are new to the series and one is an American team with a sports car background. The other isn't entirely new but unlike 2017, it will be attempting Indianapolis mostly on its own.

2018 DragonSpeed Review
New Team For 2019!

2019 Driver:

Ben Hanley - #81 DragonSpeed Chevrolet
This is not a name familiar to the IndyCar fanbase but Hanley has spent the last three years competing in sports cars after he spent a few seasons out of racing.

Hanley was a promising single-seater driver and was named to Renault's young driver program in 2008 after he won three races in two Formula Renault 3.5 Series seasons, which included Hanley scoring a runner-up finish in the championship in 2007. He made 12 starts between the GP2 Asia Series and GP2 Series but he scored a combined seven points, six of which came after a third place finish in the Sentul feature race behind Sébastien Buemi and Adrián Vallés and ahead of Romain Grosjean and Vitaly Petrov.

After two years between Euroseries 3000 and Superleague Formula with some success, Hanley was out of racing but he has served as a test driver for Pirelli for tires for GP2, GP3, Formula Two and Formula Three.

Hanley returned to racing in the European Le Mans Series in 2016 with DragonSpeed. He ran all six races and he along with Henrik Hedman and Nicolas Lapierre won at Spa-Francorchamps while finishing fourth in the championship. The following year he expanded his career to the FIA World Endurance Championship while remaining with DragonSpeed in ELMS. In 2018, he ran for DragonSpeed in both the WEC and ELMS while he ran the 24 Hours of Daytona this past January and finished third in the LMP2 class.

Hanley is scheduled to compete at St. Petersburg, Long Beach, Indianapolis, Road America and Mid-Ohio.

Numbers to Remember:
3,059: Days between Hanley's most recent single-seater start at Navarre in Superleague Formula on October 24, 2010 and the St. Petersburg season opener.

38: Starts between the FIA World Endurance Championship, European Le Mans Series and IMSA since 2016.

11: Victories in his single-seater career from 2005 to 2010 between Formula Renault 2.0 Italia, Formula Renault 3.5 Series, Euroseries 3000 and Superleague Formula.

7: Of his 11 victories came in Italy with three victories at Misano, two at Monza and two at Mugello. His other five victories came at Magny-Cours, Catalunya, Spa-Francorchamps and Ordos.

Not embarrass himself and keep the car out of the barriers.

I don't think many have any expectations for Hanley, in fact I think many have already written him off as some kind of hack. But I am not going to do that because Hanley has been respectable in sports cars and he wasn't some schlub who ended up in sports cars and is now going to take a crack at IndyCar. This isn't Milka Duno coming in with SAMAX.

Hanley was runner-up in the 2007 Formula Renault 3.5 Series championship behind Álvaro Parente and ahead of the likes of Filipe Albuquerque, Giedo van der Garde, Miguel Molina, Mikhail Aleshin and Bertrand Baguette. He also handily outscored Charlie Kimball and Pippa Mann that season, though Kimball's season ended two rounds early. He was a driver who got as far as he could in single-seater racing and raced until he no longer had a budget. He is one of dozens of driver to run that career path. Nearly a decade after he reached the end of that path he has found a second wind and it has brought him to IndyCar.

I don't think Hanley will be terrible. He is not going to be miles off the rest of the field. He might be toward the rear but I think he will be around other slower drivers. He just need to complete laps, especially for a new team. It does DragonSpeed no good in its long-term ambition of joining IndyCar if it starts piling up a crash damage bill. I think his aim should be to be around 15th in qualifying and all of his road and street course races and just make the Indianapolis 500. A lot of people will pencil him in as one of the bumped drivers but we have seen these underestimated entries come in, focus on making the race and do it while shoe-ins end up fighting until the gun and some end up on the outside.

2018 Juncos Racing Review
Wins: 0
Best Finish: 16th (Barber)
Poles: 0
Championship Finishes: 28th (René Binder), 30th (Kyle Kaiser), 36th (Alfonso Celis, Jr.)

2019 Driver:

Kyle Kaiser - #32 NPF Partners Chevrolet
Fresh off the 2017 Indy Lights championship, Kaiser moved up to IndyCar and he was able to put together a program of four races starting with the first oval of the season at Phoenix.

He was running well at Phoenix but his race ended early after he brushed the wall exiting turn four. The Californian was at Long Beach and he finished a lap down in 16th after he started 24th. The Grand Prix of Indianapolis started on a tough note with him starting 24th and he led two laps through pit cycle but that was his only time at the front. He could not manage anything better than 19th in the final results. He made his Indianapolis 500 debut two weeks later and he qualified a strong 17th for the young team that many were placing in the bumping discussion. In the race, Kaiser was running well and didn't seem out of his element but his race ended after 110 laps due to a mechanical issue.

Kaiser did not make another start for the rest of the season but Juncos Racing had René Binder in the car at Belle Isle, Toronto and Mid-Ohio after he ran at St. Petersburg and Barber. Alfonso Celis, Jr. made two starts at Road America and Portland. Neither driver finished better than 16th.

Numbers to Remember:
0: Lead lap finishes in fours starts in 2018.

2: Retirements in 2018, both at ovals, Phoenix and Indianapolis.

10.75: Points per race averaged by Juncos' three drivers through 12 races in 2018.

We aren't sure of Kaiser's schedule. He was confirmed for Austin of all races first of all and he did test for the team at Laguna Seca. Whether Kaiser is entered for Laguna Seca or Indianapolis or whether or not Juncos Racing runs other drivers throughout the season still remains to be seen.

I think the goal for Kaiser is just get a few more races put together. Of course, Indianapolis is the no-brainer and Laguna Seca makes sense because it is his home race, with Kaiser calling Santa Clara home but I think he needs more than four races. He had four races last year and he did ok. I think he should be aiming for six or seven races. I would love to see him get a crack at Road America, Iowa, Mid-Ohio and Pocono.

Regardless of how many races Kaiser puts together or where those races are he needs to do better. He needs to get better results and that is difficult with a single-car, part-time program. But he has no other choice. It is the only way a sponsor or team is going to bite the bullet on him.

2018 McLaren Review
New team for 2019!

2019 Driver:

Fernando Alonso - #66 McLaren Chevrolet
Alonso and McLaren focused on Formula One in 2018 after the pairing attempted the Indianapolis 500 in 2017.

Alonso started off the season with a fifth place finish at the Australian Grand Prix and he would finish in the points in the first five races but he would not match that top five finish and he scored points in only four of the final 16 races.

While the Formula One thing was not great, Alonso started off his FIA World Endurance Championship campaign with Toyota and it kicked off with a victory at Spa-Francorchamps. A victory at Le Mans followed with Sébastien Buemi and Kazuki Nakajima. He had a third victory at Silverstone stripped after both Toyotas were disqualified for excessive skid plank wear. The #8 Toyota has finished runner-up in the next two races and with three races remaining in the 2018-19 season at Sebring, Spa-Francorchamps and Le Mans, the #8 Toyota leads its teammate by five points.

To start off 2019, Alonso had a fantastic outing at the 24 Hours of Daytona in the #10 Cadillac for Wayne Taylor Racing and he along with Jordan Taylor, Renger van der Zande and Kamui Kobayashi took the overall victory in the rain-stricken event.

Numbers to Remember:
30,000,000: Alonso's reported salary in U.S. dollars for the 2018 Formula season with McLaren, fourth highest behind Sebastian Vettel, Lewis Hamilton and Kimi Räikkönen.

50: Points scored in 2018, good enough for 11th in the World Drivers' Championship and he failed to score a point in the final six races of the season.

96.648: Percentage of laps Alonso was in the top ten of the 179 laps he completed in the 2017 Indianapolis 500.

4.949: Alonso's average running position over the 179 laps he completed in the 2017 Indianapolis 500.

Win the Indianapolis 500.

Alonso isn't coming to the Indianapolis 500 for the root beer floats and breaded tenderloin. He isn't coming because he likes the Midwestern hospitality. He is here to win and join Graham Hill as the only drivers to complete the Motorsports Triple Crown.

How will he do? This year is going to be different compared to 2017 and it could be an eye opener for Alonso. He and McLaren might come to realize how easy and fortunate they were to have done the 2017 race with Andretti Autosport. They do not have that partnership in 2019 and will be working with Carlin instead. Carlin and McLaren are both professional organization but at Indianapolis Carlin is not in Andretti Autosport's zip code.

McLaren is not going to be tripped up when it comes to the smaller stuff. McLaren did its homework. It has prepared for this race but there is always something that you cannot plan for and can only learn through experience. Those could be the things that catch this team out.

I am not worried about Alonso. We have seen the Spaniard take on challenge after challenge the last two years and he has never been unprepared. He doesn't think he has got it and tries to figure it out on the fly. The dedication he put into his 2017 program was outstanding and that was with six weeks of preparation. He has been working on 2019 since he left the banquet on Memorial Day 2017. He stepped into sports cars and won Le Mans on debut and won the 24 Hours of Daytona in his second shot at it. He is not going to be a problem and after all, he is going to have the most to gain out of everybody in that race. This isn't some type of bucket list event for him. This is attempting to ascend to a higher level.

Bob Fernley has been placed as head of McLaren's IndyCar effort. Fernley had previously worked as team principal at Force India. It would be more surprising if McLaren struggles than if McLaren succeeds. I don't think McLaren is going to come in and be 26th but I don't see the team replicating what it did in 2017 and, as I said before, that has nothing to do with Alonso. It is a new car, it is a new engine manufacture and it will be a new group working on the car. There are too many differences to expect Alonso to waltz back in and be back in the top five. I think he is going to have to work harder this time around and even if that is the case I think he can be competitive and be in the top ten.

2018 Meyer Shank Racing Review
Wins: 0
Best Finish: 12th (Long Beach)
Poles: 0
Championship Finish: 24th (Jack Harvey)

2019 Driver:

Jack Harvey - #60 SiriusXM/Auto Nation Honda
After making his IndyCar debut and three total starts, Harvey doubled that total while Meyer Shank Racing went from one to six races in 2018.

The year did not start off well as Harvey had a hard accident exiting turn 12. He returned at Long Beach and he started 17th but was fighting for a top ten finish before settling for 12th. Harvey started on the 11th row for the Indianapolis 500 but he worked himself into a position where he was running second with five laps to go though it was all with a pit stop needed to make it to the finish. He did complete all 500 miles and finished 16th.

Unfortunately for the team its home race at Mid-Ohio did not go well where Harvey started and finished 20th. After a few cars had been taken out on lap one put him in the top ten and he appeared set for a career-best finish before he was caught out by a caution and shuffled back. He had to settle for a 16th place finish. The season ended with a lackluster 17th at Sonoma.

Numbers to Remember:
18.555: Average finish through nine career IndyCar starts. His best finish of 12th at Long Beach last year occurred on his birthday.

17.555: Dario Franchitti's average finish through the first nine starts of his IndyCar career with his best finish being ninth at Surfers Paradise.

19.333: Josef Newgarden's average finish through the first nine start of his IndyCar career with his best finish being 11th at St. Petersburg.

Just keep doing what he is doing.

Harvey is in a great position. The team has expanded its schedule to ten races in 2019, all signs point to full-time status in the near future and Harvey is its guy. He just has to keep up the results and he will get a full-time opportunity. I am sure he is going to want to improve in year two of this part-time program. I don't think anyone is satisfied with 12th being the team's best finish but it had to start somewhere.

Part-time teams are always fighting from behind. There are too many great full-time teams to think Harvey will come into a race and just end up qualifying ninth and finishing fourth. It is difficult and it takes time. I think Harvey can improve and I think he will improve this year. Though he will run majority of the season, he still is not a full-time guy and will not have as much seat time. The one thing on Harvey's side is he will run the first six races and that is a big opportunity to improve results and get some momentum going before he runs at Road America, Mid-Ohio, Portland and Laguna Seca to close out his season.

I think realistic goals for Harvey include advancing to the second round of qualifying at least one or twice and picking up two or three top ten finishes. That seems low but IndyCar is difficult. You cannot expect someone to get seven top ten finishes from ten starts. You cannot expect Harvey to qualify in the top eight on six occasions when he is going against three Penske cars, four Andretti cars, two Ganassi cars, two from Schmidt Peterson, Sébastien Bourdais at Dale Coyne Racing and two Rahal Letterman Lanigan cars. You would not be surprised if those 14 cars took the top 14 spots on the grid in every race.

Harvey can only hope to breakthrough on a few occasions against such tough opposition and he has the ability to do it just not every time he enters a race.

The 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season opens on Sunday March 10th with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. NBCSN's coverage will begin at 1:00 p.m. ET.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

2019 IndyCar Team Preview: Carlin

We have made it to the final week of the IndyCar team previews and the ninth preview will take a look at the sophomore season for Carlin. The British team's debut season in IndyCar was productive in checking off many of the basic milestones for a team. The team crawled before it walked and now it is putting one foot in front of the other. With running being the next step it will have to do it with a slightly altered driver lineup. Max Chilton will be back but Charlie Kimball will have a reduced role and it is uncertain if one or more drivers will cycle through the team. One familiar face to IndyCar fans has tested for the team but has yet to be confirmed for any races.

2018 Carlin Review
Wins: 0
Best Finish: 5th (Toronto)
Poles: 0
Championship Finishes: 17th (Charlie Kimball), 19th (Max Chilton)

2019 Drivers:

Charlie Kimball - #23 Novo Nordisk Chevrolet
There were some difficult days for Kimball in his first IndyCar season without Chip Ganassi Racing. He qualified outside the top twenty in the first three races of the season but he worked his way from 20th to tenth at Long Beach, giving Carlin its first top ten finish in IndyCar. At Barber, Kimball was the only driver not to restart the race on Monday after he spun into the barrier on lap 11.

The Grand Prix of Indianapolis did not go well but Kimball was respectable in the Indianapolis 500 with a starting position of 15th and a lead lap finish in 18th. He got the team another top ten finish in the second Belle Isle race after starting 21st and working his way to eighth. He ended spring with a solid performance at Texas, starting 12th and finishing tenth.

Two below-average performances kicked off the summer at Road America and Iowa but things went Kimball's way at Toronto. Despite starting 20th on the grid, Kimball got into the top five and pushed James Hinchcliffe but he had to settle for fifth, the first top five finish for Carlin.

Kimball traded good and bad results for the rest of the season with a 16th at Mid-Ohio before he kept turning laps at Pocono and finished ninth. Gateway was not a good race but at Portland he started 25th, dead last on the grid, and finished seventh. Sonoma was an abysmal day with Kimball finishing nine laps down in 22nd.

Numbers to Remember:
106: Consecutive IndyCar races starts. The last race Kimball missed was Mid-Ohio 2012 with a wrist injury.

14.5: Kimball's average championship finish after eight IndyCar seasons.

19.4: Kimball average starting position in 2018, the worst of his career and the worst of all regular drivers in 2018

Make the most of his five starts.

Kimball might not be a fan favorite and nor is he one of top five or six drivers on the grid but he has been a competent driver and we know he can get good results out of a race car. He may have only one victory to his IndyCar career but he has finished in the top ten of the championship twice and he has his scattering of top five finishes.

He will be at St. Petersburg, the Indianapolis 500, Texas, Pocono and Laguna Seca. There is part of me that hopes he can get a few more races out of this season. I doubt we will see him pull out a full season but it would be nice to see him at Road America or Mid-Ohio.

The one thing Kimball has been good at is living up to the expectations. No one goes into a race weekend thinking he is going to be in the top five and competing for a victory but we know he could be a top ten driver and we also know that he can take an average car and get a good result out of it. We don't expect anything spectacular from him but he gets sufficient results and that is what will probably happen with his five scheduled races.

Kimball isn't going to win at St. Petersburg or the three ovals but if he qualified 14th at the season opener and finished 11th, that seems about right. If he qualified 19th for the Indianapolis 500 and finished 12th on the lead lap that checks out. If he went from 17th to eighth at Texas, no one should be surprised.

I think he will do well but this is a crossroads without a clear landmark in either direction for Kimball's career. He turned 34 years old last week, young enough to spend at least another five to seven years in IndyCar but it appears that is not likely. Where does he go? Are sports cars an option? Could he spend the next decade running the Indianapolis 500 only? Why not NASCAR? He has plenty of time left in his career and it is tough to see him in such an uncertain position.

RC Enerson - #23 Carlin Chevrolet... Maybe?
Here is a name that has been out of the spotlight for the last few years.

Enerson was a successful Indy Lights driver, having finished fourth in the championship in 2015 after he skipped Pro Mazda and entered the series straight from U.S. F2000. He started the 2016 season with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports before dropping out of the series to save his budget for future IndyCar opportunities and he made his debut later that year.

His IndyCar debut came at Mid-Ohio and he qualified 18th but worked his way into the top ten. What killed a promising was result was he ran out of fuel while coming in for a pit stop and he stalled the car, costing him a lap. His second start came at Watkins Glen and he qualified 11th but after an early incident he was up to sixth and running competitively. One caution came before he was able to make a pit stop and it dropped him down the order but he was able to run hard on the final stint and got back to finish ninth. He started 22nd for the Sonoma finale and finished 19th in that race.

Enerson tested for the team during the early portion of the offseason at Austin in autumn 2018 and he participated again for the team at the Laguna Seca test and the first official open test of the season a few weeks ago, which was also held at Austin. He recently participated in a test with the team at Sebring.

Numbers to Remember:
917: Days between Emerson's most recent IndyCar start at the 2016 season finale at Sonoma on September 18, 2016 and the Austin IndyCar race, the earliest he could appear in the 2019 season.

6.0833: Average finish in 24 Indy Lights starts.

12: Races uncounted for in Carlin's second entry.

Get enough funding to make one start.

There are some things I still don't understand about motorsports and one of those is Enerson has found the funding to make two tests at Austin, a test at Laguna Seca and he tested at Sebring last week but we are not sure he is going to run any races. I understand the bills have to be paid but how does he get the funding for tests but not races? What company would pay for a test where there is no one watching over a race or two?

Either way, it seems like he will be in the car but for how many races and where those races will be remains unseen.

It is kind of hard to fathom it will have been two and a half years since Enerson ran in IndyCar and he has been on the sidelines since the 2017 24 Hours of Daytona. He may have been helping out with the Lucas Oil Racing School but he has not been in a race seat and that is a disappointing fact based on the currently state of motorsports. Someone like Enerson should have been running somewhere if it wasn't IndyCar. Sports cars, touring cars, somewhere!

Enerson had a respectable test at Austin and he was faster than Max Chilton. Depending on how many races he gets, we will have to set standards accordingly. If he only gets two or three races then the expectations will not be as great as if he was running the other 12 races. I think the little thing to ask for is for Enerson to re-create his 2016 outings that got people excited about him potentially being a full-time driver. Of course, he should want to improve over the those 19th place results but the one thing we took away from those three races was Enerson was not that far off the rest of the field and could hold his own.

He will only be 22 years old when the season starts and there is still a lot of time for him to make that next step to full-time IndyCar driver. The least he can do is go out in the races he will be in and finish ahead of his teammate.

Max Chilton - #59 Gallagher Chevrolet
This was not a great season and it can be summarized quite quickly.

Chilton did not finish on the lead lap in the first four races of the season and when he finally did manage to complete every lap in a race it was the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, where he started and finished 16th. He qualified 20th in the Indianapolis 500 and finished two laps down in 22nd.

It appeared something was going right in the first Belle Isle race where he started tenth but he dropped like a rock from the start and finished 20th. In the second race, things were better and he finished 11th. Texas was not a bad race but he still finished a lap down in 12th and he finished 17th, 15th and 23rd over the next three races.

The big boost for Chilton was qualifying sixth at Mid-Ohio but he tossed it away on lap three when he spun Takuma Sato and was handed a penalty. So long for a good day and he finished two laps down in 24th, dead last. By process of avoiding being eliminated he picked up a 13th place finish at Pocono and followed it with 17th at Gateway. Portland was the only other race where it appeared things were going his way and he was in contention for a top ten finish but he was the only driver who was unable to make it to pit lane when Santino Ferrucci stopped on circuit. He stayed out and led 10 laps but that was only a consolation in what was an 18th place finish. He started and finished 21st at Sonoma.

Numbers to Remember:
17.9: Average finish in 2018, the worst average finish for a driver to start all the races in a season since Stefano Coletti's 18.5 in 2016.

5: Lead lap finishes in 2018.

2,243: Laps completed in 2018, eighth-most. His 19th place championship finish is the worst for a driver to finish a season in the top ten of most laps completed since 2001 when Oriol Servià completed the second-most laps but finished 19th in the championship, Shinji Nakano completed the eighth-most laps but was 26th in the championship and Michel Jourdain, Jr. completed the ninth-most laps and finished 20th in the championship.

Improve everywhere, get a top ten finish, be in the conversation at a few races.

Last year was rough and Chilton really has only one way to go.

For the first two years of his career Chilton was respectable. There were races he qualified at the front and a few other outings where he was competitive and in the top ten. We haven't seen Chilton really be in contention for a race victory or run with the big boys other than the Indianapolis 500 in 2017 but pit strategy went in his favor that day. We haven't seen a race where Chilton started at the front and stayed at the front. That likely will not change in 2019 with Carlin entering year two. Don't prepare to see Chilton having a race where he is in the top five with Will Power, Scott Dixon, Alexander Rossi and Josef Newgarden.

He just needs a few good days but he really needs a top ten finish. Chilton could finish 12th or 11th in the first eight races but that isn't going to do it. He needs a day where he finished ninth or eighth. It doesn't have to be an impressive day. It just has to be a day where he qualifies 13th or 14th and through pit strategy or attrition gets into the top ten and he can build on his season from there.

Chilton isn't a terrible driver. He is far from a travesty. It was just a case where 2018 was a horrible season. He could mix it for a spot in the top fifteen in the championship but that seems like the best he can do. The grid is tough and Carlin still has a lot to prove. The one hope is Chilton's testing pace at Laguna Seca is a true indicator. He was fastest in what was an abbreviated session but some teams were using push-to-pass at that test and others were not. It could be a case Chilton's lap time was inflated but if he is a fraction better it will take him forward in 2019.

The 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season opens on Sunday March 10th with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. NBCSN's coverage will begin at 1:00 p.m. ET.

Monday, February 25, 2019

Musings From the Weekend: Who Isn't Going to Have a Ride Come May?

Brad Keselowski got his 60th victory for Team Penske, breaking a tie with Mark Donohue for most all-time in the history of the organization. Elsewhere in the world, the 2019 World Superbike title might not be Jonathan Rea's after all. The Asian Le Mans Series closed its 2018-19 season at Sepang and crowded three new champions. Supercross had its second Triple Crown race of the season. Formula One and MotoGP have been testing. Here is a run down of what got me thinking.

Who Isn't Going to Have Ride Come May?
We are ending February and the IndyCar season is upon us.

Unlike previous years when it seemed the season was still an eternity away at this time of the year, we are less than two weeks away from the St. Petersburg season opener. We know what the grid will look like for that race and we can pencil in what the grid will be at the other 16 races. There are still a few openings. Carlin has a few races open in its second entry. We aren't sure how many races Juncos Racing will be participating in. Most of it is known. There is not going to be any major surprises. This feels a lot different then some of those years in Champ Car and the IRL when we would reach this time of the year and half the seats were unaccounted for.

With the full-time grid in good standing, we turn to the Indianapolis 500 and since the last time we took roll call, a few more drivers have confirmed their plans for May.

Conor Daly will drive a fifth Andretti Autosport entry. We got confirmation that Charlie Kimball will drive the second Carlin entry.

With March approaching, there are 28 confirmed and complete Indianapolis 500 entries and while Patricio O'Ward will not be full-time at Harding Steinbrenner Racing, he still has his scholarship money, which includes an Indianapolis 500 entry. Right there, we have 29 entries.

It has been quiet over the last month but the concern isn't about a full field. We are going to get 33 cars, we will likely equal last year's entry list of 35 and it cannot be ruled out there will be an additional entry or two to bring the total to three-dozen or more. If there are still possibly six spots up for grabs we have to start asking, who will not be entered this May?

There are going to be a lot of new faces at the Speedway this year. We already have six Indianapolis 500 rookies entered, from the full-time drivers Colton Herta, Felix Rosenqvist, Marcus Ericsson and Santino Ferrucci to two part-time Brits in Ben Hanley and Jordan King. Fernando Alonso is returning for his sophomore appearance after a year at Monaco. There were 35 drivers entered last year and they can't all return in 2019.

Jay Howard, Danica Patrick, Zachary Claman De Melo, Sage Karam, Stefan Wilson, Carlos Muñoz, Kyle Kaiser, James Davison, Pippa Mann, Oriol Servià, J.R. Hildebrand and Gabby Chaves are 12 entries from 2018 that have yet to announce a 2019 return. We know Patrick is retired but that still means there are 11 drivers competing for six or seven seats and those aren't the only drivers that have to mentioned for the remaining openings.

Aaron Telitz and Victor Franzoni are two Indy Lights drivers from 2018 that have not confirmed returns to the junior series in 2019. Santiago Urrutia had three successful seasons in Indy Lights but he didn't win the championship. Unfortunately, it appears Urrutia is moving on to touring cars, as he has announced a ride in the TCR Europe Series, although maybe he has a sock full of change set aside for an Indianapolis 500 attempt. Either way, those could be three additional names in the game of musical chairs.

Who should feel comfortable about getting a seat?

Sage Karam has a history with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing and we have not heard about those two going in separate directions. It would be more of a surprise if Karam wasn't driving for D&R than if he were.

Juncos Racing is still piecing together its season and the only confirmed race is Austin of all races with Kyle Kaiser. Kaiser made his Indianapolis 500 debut with the team last year and he has a long history with the team. If Juncos Racing returns, which seems likely, Kaiser is the sensible choice and if Juncos has two cars then one of those would have to be Kaiser.

Let's pencil those two in and that gets us to 31 entries. Where else are rides going to come from?

Dreyer & Reinbold and Juncos would add two to the Chevrolet total and bring it to 14 with Honda responsible for another 16 and the one unknown being the landing place of O'Ward. Last year, Honda led the way with 19 entries to Chevrolet's 16.

Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, Dale Coyne Racing and Chip Ganassi Racing are the three Honda teams that have yet to announce an additional entry. SPM and DCR have a history of running an extra car. Ganassi doesn't. The one place where that 19th Honda could come from is Harding Steinbrenner Racing. While O'Ward will not be full-time there, it appears that could be a prime one-off seat with HSR in alliance with Andretti Autosport.

When it comes to Chevrolet, A.J. Foyt Racing always runs an additional car, even when it says it will not. Carlin is still a young team and an additional entry would be a new endeavor. Dreyer & Reinbold Racing ran two cars last year and that could not be ruled out for 2019 while Juncos Racing ran two cars in 2017 and the team has a second car that could be used for an additional entry.

I think we will see SPM, DCR and HSR rounding out the Honda camp and Chevrolet will have Foyt and D&R run an extra car. Whether or not the 103rd Indianapolis 500 will have 35 or 36 entries comes down Juncos running a second car.

One of those possible six entries will likely be where O'Ward lands behind the wheel of a race car and this is where it gets interesting.

It is hard to see O'Ward going back to HSR. That seems like a bridge burned after the failed execution of putting together a full-time program. The bad news for O'Ward is that seat could be the best of the open seats. It is going to be a seat with Andretti Autosport fingerprints all over it. DCR's third car is not known for being the most prepared entry. That historically is the pieced together program that doesn't get on track until Wednesday practice at the earliest. Sometimes that car has to wait until Thursday to hit the track. Foyt isn't much better. D&R could be good but one-off entries can be shaky. Juncos Racing is a good team and gets the job done but does it with limited resources. That could be a turn off for O'Ward but there is a feeling the best anyone could do with Juncos Racing is 15th.

The best landing spot for O'Ward would be SPM and Honda should want to keep O'Ward under its roof and not let him go to Chevrolet. The problem is SPM is team that will accept all suitors. It has options and it will not necessarily accommodate O'Ward for the sake of Honda.

At this point it would be easier to rule out who will likely not be back for 2019: Zachary Claman De Melo has returned to Indy Lights for 2019 with Belardi Auto Racing. Belardi partnered on Foyt's additional car in last year's race but I think Claman De Melo's focus will be on Indy Lights. Stefan Wilson's program was really two years in the making after Wilson step aside when Alonso and McLaren came knocking on Andretti Autosport's door in 2017. It was a great story and Wilson had a respectable sophomore run but it doesn't appear 2019 will be in the card. I am not sure Jay Howard can comeback for a third consecutive year, especially with the increased depth of the grid.

That leaves Muñoz, Davison, Mann, Servià, Hildebrand and Chaves and nothing much has been said from any of those six drivers. All six have been quiet. Servià has made the most noise and even that has been a whimper. He has been linked to running this year with former Conquest Racing owner Éric Bachelart looking to be a part of that program. Servià has raced everywhere. He has raced with either 15 or 16 teams, depending on how you look at his entry last year with the Scuderia Corsa-Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing partnership. He has raced with SPM, DCR and D&R already. He might be 44 years old but Servià is still an openly sought driver and it is hard to see this being the year when the grid moves on from the Catalan driver.

The other five drivers are a mystery. Four of them were unemployed most of 2018 and Chaves was sidelined late in the IndyCar season. If a team has the money it should hire Muñoz. Of the drivers with at least five Indianapolis 500 starts, Muñoz has the sixth-best average finish all-time at 7.5, behind only Bill Holland, Ted Horn, Jimmy Murphy, Harry Hartz and Dan Wheldon. He has three top five finishes and five top ten finishes in six starts. With that second HSR seat open and with his ties to Andretti Autosport, I think Muñoz is the prime candidate for that ride.

Hildebrand had a good run with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing last year and he is another driver who runs well at Indianapolis. Similar to Karam, Hildebrand returning with D&R seems to make the most sense. It isn't set that D&R will run two cars but Chevrolet's additional entries have to come from somewhere and Penske isn't going to run five cars.

There would still be possibly two or three seats open with Davison, Mann and Chaves all available from the 2018 lot of drivers but it could be the case where time will not be on their side in 2019. Not everyone can return every year. There has to be some fluctuation. Davison seems to rise from the back of the room and get a seat every time he is in a seat for the Indianapolis 500 so he might come out of nowhere in April. Chaves is young and he is a smart driver. He doesn't have accidents and that would be a favorable trait for a team that doesn't want to repair a car that it otherwise would not run in any race other than the Indianapolis 500. Chaves would be a suitable candidate should Coyne run an extra car.

Unfortunately, Mann could be on the outside one year after failing to qualify for the race and missing one year could be the end for good. It is an unintended consequence of competition in motorsports and when each year is a roll of the dice for sponsors all it takes one year to go bust. Mann is a likable person and I am sure she will continue to be searching avenues to get back to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to try and make the Indianapolis 500 for the seventh time in her career but the nature of motorsports could mean her career is over even if it isn't her time. (Update: Of course news comes out hours after posting that Mann is working with Clauson-Marshall Racing to field an entry in partnership with A.J. Foyt Racing). 

Each year, there is a familiar face that we do not see in May. Ryan Briscoe has not been in the last three races and if James Hinchcliffe had not been injured it would have been four. Alex Tagliani was not in last year's race and he had led at least one lap in the six prior Indianapolis 500s. Juan Pablo Montoya was not in last year's race and he likely isn't going to be there this year even though we would pencil him in as one of the top five favorites if he were entered. Buddy Lazier has made 20 starts and yet we somehow went from comfortable with him being there to not comfortable when he wasn't and back to comfortable only to be wondering where he was in 2018 and somehow missing that scrappy team that really would not have had a chance against 35 other cars.

Drivers come and go and the race goes on. A day will come soon when neither Hélio Castroneves nor Tony Kanaan are in the Indianapolis 500 and we will be fine the same way the race still happened in 1995 despite that race not featuring A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Al Unser and Rick Mears.

We are going to miss people and that is ok. It is part of life. Someone else will come in and it will never be the same but that doesn't mean it will be worse. We should cherish the time and savory the memories each May. The following year will be different.

Champions From the Weekend
The #22 United Autosport Ligier-Nissan of Paul di Resta and Philip Hanson clinched the Asian Le Mans Series LMP2 championship with a runner-up finish at Sepang.

The #13 Inter Europol Competition Ligier-Nissan of Jakub Smiechowski and Martin Hippe clinched the Asian Le Mans Series LMP3 championship with a class victory at Sepang, the second of the season for the team.

The #11 CarGuy Racing Ferrari of James Calado, Kei Cozzolino and Takeshi Kimura clinched the Asian Le Mans Series GT championship with a class victory at Sepang and the #11 Ferrari swept the season winning all four races in the GT class.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Brad Keselowski and two of the three class winners from the 4 Hours of Sepang but did you know...

The #24 Algarve Pro Racing Ligier-Judd of Harrison Newey, Andrea Pizzitola and Ate de Jong won the 4 Hours of Sepang. It was Newey and Pizzitola's second victory of the season.

Christopher Bell won the NASCAR Grand National Series race from Atlanta. Kyle Busch won the Truck race.

Álvaro Bautista swept the World Superbike races from Phillip Island with Jonathan Rea finishing second all three times. Randy Krummenacher won the Supersport race.

Eli Tomac won the second Supercross Triple Crown weekend of the season from Detroit. He won the first two races and finished sixth in the final race. His eight points was one better than Cooper Webb, who won the final race of the night.

Coming Up This Weekend
The newly renamed Blancpain GT World Challenge America starts its season at Austin.
Supercars opens another season in Adelaide.
One week after NASCAR was in town, Supercross will be in Atlanta.
NASCAR is back in Las Vegas.

Friday, February 22, 2019

2019 IndyCar Team Preview: Andretti Autosport

The eighth IndyCar team preview looks at Andretti Autosport, which had a strong year and it had not one but two drivers who were in the championship discussion. It had not two but three drivers finish in the top ten of the championship. It has not three but four drivers returning for 2019 and each driver could take a step forward. It has a veteran backbone with Ryan Hunter-Reay and Marco Andretti while the younger drivers Alexander Rossi and Zach Veach have not taken long to get to the front.

2018 Andretti Autosport Review
Wins: 5 (Long Beach, Belle Isle II, Mid-Ohio, Pocono, Sonoma)
Poles: 5 (Long Beach, Belle Isle I, Belle Isle II, Mid-Ohio, Sonoma)
Championship Finishes: 2nd (Alexander Rossi), 4th (Ryan Hunter-Reay), 9th (Marco Andretti), 15th (Zach Veach)

2019 Drivers:

Zach Veach - #26 Group One Thousand One/Gainbridge Honda
Veach's tenure with Andretti Autosport did not start off great. His first two starts ended with him finishing one lap down in 16th position. Third time was the charm and while Veach might not have been solidly in the front from the start he put himself in position to finish fourth and challenge Ed Jones for third down the stretch.

The bad news for Veach is he would hit a rough patch of results and be the worst finishing Andretti Autosport's car in the next eight races, which included a few fires along the way and a great run at Texas, where he was making up ground early but his race ended before the sun had disappeared behind the grandstands after he slapped the wall on the back straightaway.

In the middle of summer, Veach found his groove at Toronto when Andretti Autosport was having its worst race of the season and his seventh place finish earned him the best result of the four drivers. His first time racing in his home state was another good day with Veach coming home in tenth at Mid-Ohio. The final two oval races were standout performances. He was quick all weekend at Pocono and finished sixth while he had to start 16th at Gateway because the field was set by points but Veach charged up to fifth and if qualifying had taken place he might have been contending for the victory from the start.

It appeared the momentum would carry out west and he started sixth at Portland but an off-track excursion derail a good start and he was only ok at Sonoma, ending the season in 14th.

Numbers to Remember:
2.236: Improvement in average finish from the first nine races of 2018 (15.111) to the final eight races of the season (12.875).

4: Veach was one of four drivers to be running at the finish of every race in 2018 along with Scott Dixon, Alexander Rossi and Josef Newgarden.

8: Lead lap finishes in 2018, tied for 16th with Charlie Kimball and ahead of only Spencer Pigot (seven) and Max Chilton (five) amongst full-time drivers.

Keep up what he was doing at the end of 2018.

Veach's season turned around in the second half of the season. He still had bad days. He threw away a top ten finish at Portland when he went off course but that came after four consecutive top ten finishes and two impressive races at Pocono and Gateway but the mistakes were reduced over the course of the season.

There is a sense that Veach could win a race in 2019, especially at an oval. Besides Pocono and Gateway, Veach was quick at Texas and worked his way into the top five before he brushed the wall and forced his team to make repairs. We know Andretti Autosport will have it figured out at the Indianapolis 500. This is a great position for the Ohioan, who seemed to get a handle on ovals in 2018.

One area thing Veach has to improve on or at least prevent from happening again is being the worst Andretti Autosport finisher in races. To no fault of his own, Veach was the worst Andretti Autosport finish in ten of the first 11 races of the season with the exception being his fourth place finish at Long Beach. Some of those results came after rough days but there were other races where he held his own and his three teammates were just better. He had finishes of 12th and 13th at Belle Isle. Andretti Autosport is a good team but what are the odds that it would have three cars in the top ten in both races? And Veach started seventh in that second Belle Isle race.

Could Veach improve and fight for the top ten in the championship? It isn't inconceivable. If Veach starts 2019 how he ended 2018 and keeps that up throughout this season then he will be fighting for tenth. I think Veach moves up a few positions and he will be hanging around tenth. He should aim to get eight to ten top ten finishes and have at least three in the first eight races of the season. When it comes to qualifying, he should aim to lower his average starting position from 14.5 to around 10.5.

Alexander Rossi - #27 NAPA Auto Parts Honda
Rossi was everyone's dark horse for the championship at the start of the season, which means it was no surprise when he worked his way from 12th to second at St. Petersburg and found himself chipping away at the gap to Robert Wickens. We know how it played out. Rossi ran deep into turn one, there was contact, Wickens spun and Rossi dropped to third.

The next race Rossi again was at the front and looked to be in the discussion for race victory but a penalty for contact with a crew member on his first stop dropped him to the rear. It set up one of Rossi's many spectacular performances of the season with the Californian picking people off at a track that otherwise was seen as too difficult for passing. He got back on the lead lap all on his own under green flag conditions. He couldn't get to the lead but he finished third.

Like Veach, third time was the charm for Rossi and from pole position he led 71 of 85 laps on his way to victory and the points lead. He would drop to second in the championship at Barber but he remained second over the next three races, which included a breathtaking performance from 32nd on the grid at the Indianapolis 500 with passes on the outside while many others did not have a handle of their car. Rossi worked his way up to fourth and a third in the first Belle Isle race allowed him to re-take the championship lead.

He gave away at least second in the second Belle Isle race when he locked up while leading and his right front tire subsequently failed. He pulled off a 12th place finish but gave up a lot of points. He couldn't get around Simon Pagenaud for second at Texas and settled for third but he suffered one more blow at Road America when camber issues at the left front force him off the podium and to 16th.

After two mediocre results at Iowa and Toronto, Rossi found his stride with another beat down from pole position at Mid-Ohio and a historic beat down from third on the grid at Pocono. He preached patience at the start of the Gateway race and he was one of the few drivers to stretch fuel on the final stint. He didn't win the race but had enough to finish second.

It appeared the championship was falling into his lap at Portland when Scott Dixon was caught in the first lap accident and then had a pit lane speeding penalty. He was dominating again until the caution came out before a pit stop. This shuffled him back and behind Dixon. Instead of gaining ground he fell a few pegs back after finishing eighth. To make it worse, he shot himself in the foot at Sonoma after he ran into the back of Marco Andretti and cut down his own tire. He was able to get it changed and a caution allowed him to get back on the lead lap. He charged to the front but didn't have enough to catch Dixon.

Numbers to Remember:
11: It has been 11 seasons since the runner-up in a season won the championship the following year. Scott Dixon did it in 2008 after finishing second to Dario Franchitti in 2007.

7: Times has a driver gone from championship runner-up to champion in successive season (Jimmy Bryan 1955, A.J. Foyt 1962, Mario Andretti 1969, Al Unser 1970, Michael Andretti 1991, Bobby Rahal 1992, Scott Dixon 2008).

3: Rossi was never lower than third in the championship during 2018.

Championship. That is the goal. Rossi had a hand on the Astor Cup in 2018. Scott Dixon didn't blow Rossi out of the water and the title came down to a roll of the dice. Dixon didn't have it easily in his hands and just had to come home in the top 18 at Sonoma. Rossi pushed Dixon to the finale and we are a pair of cautions at Portland away from Rossi heading into Sonoma as the championship leader with the ball in his court.

Rossi made his mistakes. He coughed up points at St. Petersburg, Phoenix, Barber, Belle Isle II and Road America. He all could have finished better at those races. At St. Petersburg, if he doesn't get into Wickens, he finishes second and that is five more points to his total. If he doesn't make contact with a pit crew member at Phoenix, he might win that race. At Barber, he slid off in the wet and went from eighth to 11th. If he settles for second at Belle Isle he scores 20 more points. Road America he had a mechanical issue, those are going to happen.

In the second half of the season, Rossi didn't cough up as many points because of his own mistakes. Toronto is really the only case where he boned himself when he drove into Will Power and had to make a pit stop to change a front wing. Portland was out of his control. He should have won that race but a caution fell before his pit stop. He shot himself in the foot at Sonoma but had five of the seven races listed above gone his way then he likely enters as the championship leader and his entire approach to the start of that Sonoma race is different.

If Rossi limits the mistakes and keeps up the pace he is going to be in the championship fight again, he is going to win three or four or five races and he is going to be on the podium close to ten times.

Ryan Hunter-Reay - #28 DHL Honda
The year started with back-to-back fifth place finishes at St. Petersburg and Phoenix but Long Beach was a rough race for Hunter-Reay. He was forced to stop early to change a front wing and after he found himself back in the top ten Takuma Sato made contact and cut down a tire. He was able to work his back on the lead lap but Sébastien Bourdais' spin in hairpin impeded Hunter-Reay and contact with the barrier ended his race.

He was the second-best car at Barber but a sour engine kept him from being competitive in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis. This year everything lasted 500 miles for Hunter-Reay at Indianapolis and he finished fifth. He followed it up with a strong performance in the first Belle Isle race but a caution kept his three-stop strategy vaulting him to the lead and he finished in second behind Scott Dixon. In the second race, Hunter-Reay was able to run a three-stop strategy in full and he chased down Rossi, running over a second and a half faster, forcing an error and allowing Hunter-Reay to pick up his first victory since 2016.

Another top five followed at Texas and he was running in Josef Newgarden's shadow all day at Road America but just couldn't find a way through and finished second. Iowa was a difficult race as he had no radio communication throughout almost all of it and the team could not make the necessary adjustments on the car. He remained in the top ten despite this until the left rear camber shims fell out and made his car uncontrollable. Toronto did not go better as Hunter-Reay locked up into the turn three tire barrier all on his own while running third.

He came back with a seventh at Mid-Ohio but he was in the early accident at Pocono and he lost fuel pressure while in the top five at Gateway. While three stops were his call at Belle Isle, Hunter-Reay went with a two-stop strategy at Portland and he put him in second but the need to save fuel limited his chances to attack Takuma Sato. He made one great push late but Sato held on while Hunter-Reay took second. The season ended with Hunter-Reay winning the Sonoma finale from pole position and him finish fourth in the championship, his best result since he took the title in 2012.

Numbers to Remember:
11: Consecutive top ten starting positions to end 2018.

8.7: Hunter-Reay's average finish in 2018, the second-best of his career behind 8.4 in 2010.

6: Podium finishes in 2018, matching Hunter-Reay's most podium finishes in a season with 2012, 2013 and 2014.

9: Hunter-Reay has had either three podium finishes in a season or six podium finishes in a season for nine consecutive seasons. He had three in 2010-11 and 2015-17 and he had six podium finishes in 2012-14 and 2018.

Say his prayers that the mechanical issues do not bite him like they always seem to do.

Hunter-Reay was great in 2018 and going into 2018 I felt it was a year where Hunter-Reay's role of head of the table at Andretti Autosport was going to be challenge if not taken away by Rossi. That was the case but Hunter-Reay didn't give it up. Rossi might have finished second in the championship but Hunter-Reay had his hand on Rossi's shoulder every step of the way.

He finished fourth in the championship despite having mechanical issues cost him at Long Beach, the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, Iowa and Gateway and then there were races where he had accidents, most notably Toronto and Pocono. In a lot of these races, Hunter-Reay was in the top ten if not better when it all went wrong and that seems to be the case 95% of the time it goes wrong. Will Power might be the only driver who can challenge Hunter-Reay when it comes to average running position when everything hit the fan and even then Hunter-Reay likely has him beat comfortably.

Hunter-Reay lost the championship by 112 points and that is a gap larger than just making sure the car is reliable. Even if the car keeps running, Hunter-Reay still needs to finish in the top five on a regular basis if he wants to beat Dixon, Rossi, Power, Josef Newgarden and Simon Pagenaud.

The good news for Hunter-Reay is he enters 2019 coming off strong qualifying form in 2018. He started in the top ten in 15 of 17 races with the exceptions being 13th and 14th in the two Indianapolis races. He qualified in the top five in eight of those remaining races and he started in the top five at Gateway because qualifying was rained out. It isn't Will Power's record but it isn't worth trading.

After getting a desperately needed top five championship result in 2018, I think Hunter-Reay will still be strong and the intra-team battle with Rossi will be interesting to watch. Andretti Autosport is strong enough that Rossi and Hunter-Reay fighting will not somehow let Dixon or one of the Penske teams run away with the championship. I think Hunter-Reay will be fighting for the top five again.

Marco Andretti - #98 U.S. Concrete/Curb Honda
Andretti might have started 18th at St. Petersburg but he was in the top ten for most of this race and came home in ninth. Phoenix never quite suited Andretti but he worked his was from 20th to 12th last year. He had another poor starting position at Long Beach but went from 20th to 14th early. The cautions went his way but he did have a solid race car on his way to finishing sixth.

Neither Indianapolis race was all that impressive with finishes of 13th and 12th. Andretti took a surprise pole position in changing conditions at Belle Isle. He led the first stint but could not open a gap over Scott Dixon and after the first pit stop the New Zealander had leapfrogged ahead of Andretti. He fell back a few more positions but still finished fourth. He was not as challenging in the second race with a finish of ninth.

The next three races saw Andretti struggle with finishes of 14th, 11th and 16th with his Texas race hampered after clutch issues on one pit stop. He was running fourth late at Toronto but the team did not get the car full of fuel on the pit stop and a splash-and-go relegated him to tenth. After an 11th at Mid-Ohio, Andretti was running well at Pocono but he couldn't get the same fuel mileage as the other drivers at the front and finished seventh. He was in the top ten at Gateway before a caution a few laps after a pit stop trapped him two laps down.

At Portland, Andretti had nowhere to go on lap one after three cars spun in front of him and he didn't even make it to turn four. Andretti Autosport was on its A-Game at Sonoma and Andretti qualified fourth, stayed in the top five for most of this one and closed the year with a fifth place finish.

Numbers to Remember:
11: Andretti has had 11 lead lap finishes in three consecutive seasons.

9: Andretti's ninth-place championship finish in 2018 was the ninth time he finished in the top ten of the championship in 13 seasons.

14: This could be Andretti's 14th Indianapolis 500 start. Sam Hanks holds the record of most starts before first Indianapolis 500 victory with 13 starts.

0: Andretti was the top Andretti Autosport finish in zero of the 17 races while Rossi led the way with ten, Hunter-Reay was second with six and Veach had one.

Continue what he was doing in 2018 but focus on the troubled areas.

Andretti is a good driver. He can bring the car home, he get a handful of top ten finishes and if it gets him ninth in the championship every year then good for him but he isn't going to be satisfied with that. Not when Rossi and Hunter-Reay are each winning multiple times a season and are in the top five of the championship.

His qualifying form improved noticeably from 2016 to 2018 going from 17.4 to 12.4 but Andretti still has some more to gain when it comes to qualifying results. His career best average starting position was 8.9 in 2013 and that might be asking a lot for Andretti but three times in 2018 was Andretti the first car to miss out on advancing from round one of road/street course qualifying. Right there is where he could make up one to three positions on the grid. The good news for Andretti is his starting position improved in every race from Iowa, where he started 19th, to Sonoma, where he started fourth. If he can continue that trend into 2019 then he will start the season on a good note.

With improved starting position should come more opportunities to run at the front of the field. There were a few races where Andretti went from the back to the front and if he starts 11th instead of 18th it puts him in a spot where he could be fighting for a top five result instead of settling for eighth or ninth. Those extra few positions go a long way in the championship.

One area Andretti has been consistent on is bringing the car home. Last year, his only retirement was Portland where he was caught in an accident where he had nowhere to go. In 2017, he had two retirements and one was for an electrical issue. He was running at the finish of every race in 2016 and his only retirement in 2015 was an accident at Pocono, which unfortunately came when he was toward the front of the field.

If there is one area Andretti has to work on it is, surprisingly, his oval form. In 2018, his only lead lap finish on an oval was Indianapolis. The only time he finished off the lead lap on a road/street course was his retirement at Portland, where he didn't complete three corners let alone an entire lap. You are not going to finish well when you are a lap down at any of the ovals. There are only five oval races this season but those are valuable places to make up points and we know Andretti Autosport is one of the best teams when it comes to oval programs.

The problem with Andretti is it is hard to project a great improvement. He could finish ninth again in the championship or he could fall to 14th and neither would be surprising but with the depth of the grid it is hard to see him shooting up the championship any higher than 7th or 8th. He had that great year in 2013 and he could replicate that again but it is hard to say he is going to do that before a season starts. We almost have to get through eight or nine races and look at the results then before we could seriously say Andretti will challenge for the top five in the championship.

The 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season opens on Sunday March 10th with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. NBCSN's coverage will begin at 1:00 p.m. ET.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

2019 IndyCar Team Preview: Harding Steinbrenner Racing

The seventh IndyCar team preview has us looking at a team that really has turned into a bit of a villain in the latter days of the IndyCar off-season. Harding Steinbrenner Racing opened up the 2018-19 offseason with a bang announcing a two-car effort with 2018 Indy Lights champion Patricio O'Ward and 2018 Indy Lights vice-champion Colton Herta, in essence becoming Andretti Autosport's B-Team. The day before testing commenced from Austin it was announced that O'Ward was leaving the team due to lack of funding and now many have accosted HSR for failing to live up to its own hype. It will have the difficult task of winning back fans with a driver that some have soured on because of the perception that nepotism won out over ability.

2018 Harding Racing Review
Wins: 0
Best Finish: 9th (Sonoma)
Poles: 0
Championship Finishes: 21st (Gabby Chaves), 29th (Conor Daly), 31st (Patricio O'Ward), 37th (Colton Herta)

2019 Driver:

Colton Herta - #88 Harding Steinbrenner Racing Honda
At 14 years old, Herta was in U.S. F2000 and in 12 starts he had six top ten finishes with his best finish being fifth on two occasions. He was 15th in the championship, finishing ten points behind Austin Cindric despite missing the first two races. In 2015, Herta headed to England and ran in the MSA Formula Championship, now known as the F4 British Championship. He was teammate to current McLaren driver Lando Norris and Norris won the title but Herta finished third in the championship with Ricky Collard splitting the Carlin teammates. Norris won eight races to Herta's four.

The 2016 season was split between BRDC British Formula Three and the Euroformula Open Championship with the latter being his main draw. He was third in that championship behind Leonardo Pulcini and Ferdinand Habsburg with his four victories coming in a weekend sweep at Red Bull Ring, one victory at Jerez and one victory at Barcelona. In England, he made six starts and won a race on the Brands Hatch grand prix circuit while he had a pair of thirds and a sixth at Oulton Park.

Herta returned to American for 2017 to run in Indy Lights and he opened the season with a second and a first at St. Petersburg and a victory in the second Barber race gave him two victories from his first four starts. However, he would not win another race for the remainder of the season despite winning five more pole positions. He did pick up four more podium finishes and was third in the championship behind Indy Lights-experienced drivers Kyle Kaiser and Santiago Urrutia.

For 2018, he had nine podium finishes from the first ten races, including four consecutive victories with a sweep of the races on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, the Freedom 100 and a victory at Road America. However, his season turned at Toronto where a collision with the barrier in the first race broke his wrist and he was not 100% in the second race. He would be fine for the rest of the season but could not win another race while O'Ward won four of the final five and took the championship by 44 points over Herta.

Numbers to Remember:
17: Starts it took for Bryan Herta to get his first IndyCar podium finish (second at Cleveland in 1995).

71: Starts it took for Bryan Herta to get his first IndyCar victory (Laguna Seca 1998).

57.57: Percentage of podium finishes in Herta's 33 Indy Lights starts.

24,381: Days between the only victory for the #88 car in American open-wheel racing history and the St. Petersburg season opener. Al Keller won a NASCAR Speedway Division race on June 8, 1952 at Lakewood Speedway outside Atlanta.

How things have changed after O'Ward and HSR split the day before testing began. I was going to say the goal for Herta should be to beat his teammate because if he does that than he is either getting a lot of good results or something went horribly wrong for O'Ward. Something did go horribly wrong for O'Ward and now Herta doesn't have a measuring stick within the team. He is still going have to a tough rookie class to contend with but while Felix Rosenqvist is with Ganassi, Marcus Ericsson is with Schmidt Peterson and Santino Ferrucci is with Dale Coyne, Herta is still on a fairly new team with no pedigree of success. If Herta had a teammate we would at least get a head-to-head comparison in case the team is off the pace compared to the rest of the grid.

The good news for Herta is the preseason test at Austin shows that Harding Steinbrenner Racing has found some speed. He topped three of the four sessions and was second in the other. Herta ended with the top time of the test. All four rookies had encouraging results at the Austin test but Herta's confidence probably increased the most of the four after an entire offseason of uncertainty and the bad buzz that hung around the team leading into the test.

I was going to write that Herta needs to take back some of the luster. Many pegged Herta to be the championship favorite for Indy Lights in 2018 but O'Ward stole the show. It is not that O'Ward handily beat Herta in Indy Lights. Herta was leading the championship after ten races but one poor weekend at Toronto, where he also broke his wrist, gave O'Ward the championship lead and Herta could not retake momentum in the final five races.

O'Ward did not make mistakes and Herta made plenty of mistakes in his two Indy Lights seasons. Herta cannot afford to do that in IndyCar. There were a lot of races where Herta had the pace but stepped over the boundary and it caught him out. He had better control in 2018 despite the few occasions where he did tear up the car but with the increased power of an IndyCar it would not be a surprise if Herta has a hard time handling it and makes a mistake or two while he tries to get used to wrestling something of this magnitude.

Now that he does not have a teammate Herta should aim for six or seven top ten finishes and six or seven top ten starts but more importantly Herta needs to get laps. He is only going to be 18 years old when the season begins. He could spend another two years in Indy Lights truth be told. There is a lot of career ahead of him and it is important that he completes laps and gains the experience necessary in his youth to set him on the right course for the future. He could be in IndyCar for the next two decades. He is not going to make his career in this season but this year sets up the dominoes.

I was going to write that the one concern with this team carrying into 2019 is funding. Harding Racing was out of money last year and ran with some older equipment compared to the rest of the grid. The partnership with George Michael Steinbrenner IV was thought to have been the saving grace but that only got Herta on the grid and the great ambition to field the top two drivers from Indy Lights proved to be a bust. An added emphasis will be on Herta not getting into accidents especially if the team cannot afford spares. This may reign him in a bit and instead of pushing to qualify in the top six he could be starting races 12th or 13th or he may settle for seventh in a race even if sixth is right in front of him.

The first test from Circuit of the Americas shows the team has pace and Herta's stock shot up immensely after two days. One test can be misleading and there will be rough patches as he is a teenager and there hasn't been a teenager that has entered IndyCar and never put a wheel wrong. Herta will have bad days but he is ready for this level and could turn this opportunity into great success for a developing team.

The 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season opens on Sunday March 10th with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. NBCSN's coverage will begin at 1:00 p.m. ET.