Friday, February 23, 2024

2024 IndyCar Team Preview: Chip Ganassi Racing

We have reached the end of our 2024 IndyCar team previews, and with 16 days to spare from the St. Petersburg season opener. The only team that remains is the defending champions. Chip Ganassi Racing is coming off a historic season, one where a Ganassi driver locked up the championship with races in hand for the first time in over 15 years. However, it wasn't just one driver that made a splash for Ganassi. It was a triumvirate that carried Ganassi in 2023, but one of those drivers is gone and the lineup has been shaken up, though the big guns remain.

At First Glance... How does Ganassi follow up 2023?
It wasn't just Álex Palou's championship that Ganassi has to be proud about from 2023. It was a total team beat down in IndyCar. 

Nine victories was the most for Ganassi since 2009. Ganassi had three top ten finishers in every race last season. It had multiple top five finishers in 11 races. The team went 1-2-6 in the championship, and it claimed rookie of the year with a driver that didn't contest any of the oval races. Last year, I wrote that Ganassi was ready to win now, and it did. Ganassi was undoubtedly the best team in 2023 and enters 2024 as the team to beat. 

All of those marks will be tough to match. Everyone will raise their game to try and usurp Ganassi from the top spot. Team Penske will look to continue its oval dominance while improving on road and street courses. Arrow McLaren had about five races it felt it should have won last year, won none, and a number of those went the team of Ganassi. Andretti Global is looking to reclaim former glory and it will do it with a former Ganassi driver. Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing looks to build upon what it accomplished in 2023 despite plenty of adversity. 

The road only becomes tougher for Ganassi, and the lineup has changed. Palou is still there. Scott Dixon is still there. The third bullet is gone. Marcus Ericsson has moved to Andretti. Ericsson wasn't some average driver. He had 47 top ten finishes in 64 starts with the team over four seasons. That is 73.4375%. He was sixth in the championship in three consecutive seasons. Oh, and he won an Indianapolis 500. Those are numbers that will be daunting to duplicate. 

Ganassi has hope primarily spread over two drivers. Marcus Armstrong will be full-time after running all the road andstreet course races in 2023. Linus Lundqvist replaces his fellow Swede Ericsson in the #8 Honda after Lundqvist made three starts last season substituting for the injured Simon Pagenaud. These are two drivers that showed promise last season. Filling the absence of Ericsson and trying to keep up with Palou and Dixon will test the ability of both. 

Ganassi will win races. With its top two drivers, it will likely have at least one driver contending for the championship, but this team has taken a significant swing into the youth, especially when you include the 19-year-old Kyffin Simpson in a fifth Ganassi entry. This is a team still looking to win now, but has an eye on the future. 

Considering the changes in the team, it will likely not be as good as last year, but it should still be a competitive season for the Ganassi gang.

2023 Chip Ganassi Racing Review
Wins: 9 (St. Petersburg, Grand Prix of Indianapolis, Detroit, Road America, Mid-Ohio, August IMS road course race, Gateway, Portland, Laguna Seca)
Poles: 2 (Indianapolis 500, Detroit)
Championship Finishes: 1st (Álex Palou), 2nd (Scott Dixon), 6th (Marcus Ericsson), 20th (Marcus Armstrong), 29th (Takuma Sato)

Kyffin Simpson - #4 Journie Rewards Honda
Numbers to Remember:
10.8461: Average finish in 13 Indy Lights starts last year.

17.8461: Average number of starters in the 13 Indy Lights races Simpson ran last year.

3.5714: Average finish in 14 LMP2 starts over IMSA, European Le Mans Series and Asian Le Mans Series in 2023.

What does a championship season look like for him?
IndyCar falls on major financial hardship that strikes the teams immediately and in a way to raise funds the series switch to LMP2 cars with three-driver pro-am lineups. Simpson has a familiar pair of drivers drafted in and he is able to continue his LMP2 success but this time in IndyCar and takes another championship.

What does a realistic season look like for him?
Of all the drivers competing in IndyCar this season, Simpson has been the hardest to project. 

Based off his Indy Lights results, this shouldn't be a good season. Simpson had a few good races last season, but it was not regular time spent at the front. He went from ninth in the Indy Lights championship in 2022 to tenth in 2023, and he was averaging about a half point fewer per start last season compared to the year before.

However, Simpson has done well in LMP2 competition. It is a multi-driver class, but ELMS is a stout series and all three drivers must be contributing to win. Simpson is also driving for Chip Ganassi Racing. This isn't going to be a cheat code that automatically puts Simpson at the front, but it is a car that is better than over half the grid.

This does feel like too much too soon for Simpson. He is only 19 years old. When you consider how much Sting Ray Robb and Benjamin Pedersen struggled, Simpson will likely race in that territory. However, Ganassi should give him a little more of a boost. It is isn't going to be a difference between eight or ten spots in the championship, but it likely could be worth two to four spots. 

Consider that in Jimmie Johnson's one full IndyCar season he was 21st in the championship with 214 points and he had a fifth and a sixth at Iowa and Texas respectively, and in Johnson's 2022 season when he just ran 12 road/street course race, he scored 201 points, an average of nine points per race with his best finish being 17th. That is the bottom for Simpson to clear. That feels more than likely.

Any top ten finishes will be impressive. He should have a few top fifteen finishes, but there will be days he is firmly in the bottom third of the field.

Linus Lundqvist - #8 American Legion Honda
Numbers to Remember:
9.34375: Average finish for Marcus Ericsson over four seasons in the #8 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda

8: Lundqvist is one of eight Swedish drivers to start an IndyCar race

50: Percentage of Swedish drivers that have started an IndyCar race to have driven for Chip Ganassi Racing once Lundqvist starts his first race with the team

What does a championship season look like for him? 
Lundqvist starts his season better than any of us expect and he is the top Ganassi finisher in the opening round with a podium result. He follows it up with another race as the top Ganassi finisher and on the podium for a second time. What does he do for his third act? Wins at Barber Motorsports Park directly ahead of Scott Dixon to add insult to injury. 

With this start, Lundqvist finds himself out front and everyone is already chasing him. A pair of top ten finishes in Indianapolis with a tough day in Detroit has everyone thinking all the air has been let out of the balloon, but Lundqvist response with a Road America victory and a podium at Laguna Seca. Another top five finish comes at Mid-Ohio.

He has one bad Iowa race, and one Iowa race like Álex Palou had last year where Lundqvist ends up eighth but that is about four spots better than where he ran the entire race. The Swede takes a top five finish at Toronto to head into the Olympic break on a high note.

When competition resumes, it is a top ten at Gateway with a top five in Portland. He is on the podium in one of the Milwaukee races with at least a top ten in the other. Lundqvist finishes the season with an emphatic victory in Nashville to take an improbable championship.

What does a realistic season look like for him?
Somewhere between sixth and 14th in the championship.

That is a wide net, but that is where Ericsson finished in this car the past three seasons and right around where Marcus Armstrong's average points per start (more on that in a moment) would have placed him in the 2023 championship had Armstrong run all the races. 

In his three cameo appearances last year, Lundqvist had some head-turning runs, even if the results didn't go his way, and that was driving for Meyer Shank Racing, which spent the entire 2023 season lost. He was likely the best driver MSR had last season. Instead of driving a car that was barely able to crack the top fifteen with someone else driving it, Lundqvist is now driving a car that has won in each of the last three seasons and was first and second in the last two Indianapolis 500s. 

A respectable season would be about eight top ten finishes, a couple top five runs and ending up around the top ten in the championship. Performing above expectations should plant him solidly in the top ten, but if he has a handful of rookie days it shouldn't nosedive his championship position. 

Scott Dixon - #9 PNC Bank Honda
Numbers to Remember:
14: Consecutive top ten finishes to close out the 2023 season

4: Consecutive podium finishes to close out the 2023 season, the longest podium streak since the 2019 season finale through the first three races of the 2020 season

5.3529: Average finish in 2023, second best in IndyCar

What does a championship season look like for him?
Dixon has won the championship six times before. He has had a handful of other seasons where he was there and just fell short, last year included. We know what Dixon has to do. In this case, it might be his hardest task yet, beating Álex Palou.

Dixon had one of his best seasons in IndyCar last year, it likely wins the championship nine times out of ten, and yet Palou clinched the championship a race early and the Catalan won the title by 78 points over Dixon. 

There was only one race where Dixon finished outside the top ten. Even with that result, his average finish was better than sixth. If you dropped the 27th from the Grand Prix of Long Beach, Dixon's average finish in the other 16 races is fourth! Palou's average finish for the 2023 season was 3.7059, and, in the sake of fairness, if you dropped Palou's worst result as well, it would be 3.4375. 

Dixon didn't do much wrong last year to lose a championship. Palou did that much more to win it.

What does a realistic season look like for him?
Last year was really a tale of two seasons for Dixon. 

In the first 13 races, he had no victories, two podium finishes, he had led only 13 laps and he had yet to be the best Ganassi finisher in a race. 

In the final four races, he won three times, was on the podium for all four events, and he led 192 laps. 

We entered August really thinking 2023 would be the year Dixon did not win a race. He ended up winning three. It should not surprise us, and yet, for the first five months of the season, Dixon didn't look all that close to victory despite having only one finish worse than seventh. 

A realistic season is something between his first 13 races and his final four races. Good runs with a victory or two spread in-between, but not necessarily being the driver controlling the championship. 

Palou has proven to be Dixon's toughest teammate since Dario Franchitti. Dixon can do everything right and that still not be enough. No one dominates forever, and we must remember Palou almost went winless in his season following his first championship in 2022. Like Dixon, Palou is human. 

In 17 of the last 18 seasons Dixon has ended up in the top five of the championship. I think that is where we start. Dixon will be somewhere in the championship top five. Is it first with three victories, eight podium finishes and over 300 laps led or is it fourth with a victory and four trips to the podium, but two untimely retirements? 

Álex Palou - #10 DHL Honda
Numbers to Remember:
9: Victories in 50 starts with Chip Ganassi Racing

24: Podium finishes in 50 starts with Chip Ganassi Racing

42: Top ten finishes in 50 starts with Chip Ganassi Racing

What does a championship season look like for him?
The man has the blueprint. With his first championship, Palou won early and was frequently on the podium even though he had a few down results. A fortunate caution at Portland after an unfortunate caution in the same race saw him swing from losing the title to controlling his destiny in the final two races. 

With his second championship, Palou strangled the competition. He lived in the top five, won three on the spin and four in five races. His worst finish was eighth and nobody could keep up. 

For three seasons, Palou has been one of the most reliable drivers in IndyCar. He does not drive over the car. He has finished 35 of the last 36 races. His lone retirement is when a teammate drove into him. This might be unfathomable for some of you to accept, but Palou is the number one driver at Ganassi at this moment. He was the rabbit no would could catch last year, and he won his championship earlier than anyone since 2007. If he has done it once, he could do it again.

What does a realistic season look like for him?
In all likelihood, Palou will come back down from earth. That doesn't mean he will not be the driver to beat, but it also doesn't mean he will finish in the top eight of every race again. The Catalan driver has 18 consecutive top ten finishes dating back to 2022. That streak will not last forever. 

He is going to win races, he is going to stand on the podium. In all likelihood, his title defense will go deep into the season, if not all the way to the season finale. Palou has had the upper hand on Dixon for the better part of three seasons. If the first step to winning a championship is beating your teammates, Palou has that covered. 

Outside of the Dixon, none of the other Ganassi drivers are a threat to Palou. When it comes to other teams, there are plenty of drivers that could match Palou, but they will have to be near flawless. Palou is not going to give them much to capitalize on. 

A title is realistic. A half-dozen victories are realistic. Another historic season is not out of the question.

Marcus Armstrong - #11 Ridgeline/Root Insurance Honda
Numbers to Remember:
17.833: Average points per start last season, on pace for 13th in the championship last year

5: Top ten finishes in 2023, more than nine full-time drivers

9: Times as the top rookie finishers in 12 starts

What does a championship season look like for him?
A quiet start with a string of top ten finishes to open the season. Nothing earth-shattering but something respectable, and in a few races he is, unexpectedly, the top Ganassi driver. This good start has everyone impressed, which includes the New Zealander taking Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year, but they aren't considering Armstrong a championship contender through the first third of the season. 

That changes with a victory at Road America, which starts a run of three consecutive podium finishes, ending with a second victory at Mid-Ohio. He has some struggles at Iowa, but he is back on the podium at Toronto. When IndyCar returns from its Olympic break at Gateway, Armstrong pulls out a top ten finish. 

In Portland, Armstrong is on the podium. He gets two top ten finishes in Milwaukee before he caps off the season with a podium finish that puts him just over the line for the championship.

What does a realistic season look like for him?
Armstrong should make a push for the championship top ten. His points pace was in that ballpark last year. His race results were far better than any of the other rookies last year. He had a few other good races get away from him and not necessarily because it was his fault. 

Eight to ten top ten finishes are realistic. Three or four top five finishes are realistic. Armstrong should probably be on the podium at least once and he is with the right team that he could pull out a victory. If the results are on the better end of expectations, Armstrong will be in the top ten of the championship, possibly pushing for the top five and he could fill in sixth in the championship where departed Ganassi driver Marcus Ericsson made a living for the last three years. 

That would be a great season for Armstrong. Anything between eighth and 13th will be a successful year in his first full campaign.

The first round of the 2024 NTT IndyCar Series season will be the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 10. Coverage will begin at noon on NBC and Peacock.