(Photo: Matt Kryger/IndyStar
INDIANAPOLIS – A heavyweight championship fight, silly season and a new title sponsor highlight what’s still to come in what’s already been a fascinating 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season. Just beyond the mid point of the season, there surely has been no shortage of storylines. Some good, some not so good, and some yet to unfold. This is another in a series outlining what’s gone right, what’s gone wrong and what’s still to come in a 2018 season that’s lining up for a thrilling finish.
Josef Newgarden, middle, who won the race, celebrates with second-place Robert Wickens, left, and third-place Alexander Rossi after the INDYCAR auto race Saturday, April 7, 2018, at Phoenix International Raceway in Avondale, Ariz. (Photo: Rick Scuteri, AP)
Scott Dixon owns the championship lead with Will Power and Ryan Hunter-Reay trailing closely behind. And time is a flat circle.
For a decade, these three have fought tooth and nail for championships and often kept the rest of the series at bay in doing so. Over the past seven years, they have combined to win six titles (four for Dixon and one each for Hunter-Reay and Power), and now they are at it again, each looking to add another.
In pursuit of his fifth crown, Dixon has claimed two victories (Texas, Detroit) and built his points lead to 36 ahead of Power, this year’s Indy 500 winner, and 49 better than the Hunter-Reay, the man who split the Detroit dual with Dixon. The Ice Man is known for his late-season rampages, so with a championship lead at the halfway point, he’s sitting in the catbird seat. However, both Power and Hunter-Reay own resumes replete with monster runs of their own, and each is capable of surging past Dixon.
Of course, these three 37-year-olds aren’t the only title contenders. A pair of young guns have wedged themselves into the championship picture. One, Josef Newgarden, currently wears the crown while the other, Alexander Rossi, looks to depose him. Newgarden rattled off a pair of victories in the season’s first four races but has hit the skids recently. Since conquering Barber Motorsports Park in late April, he hasn’t recorded a top-five finish in five straight races. The last time Newgarden went fives races in a row without a top-five finish was in early 2014. Suffice to say, cold streaks don’t often last long for Newgarden, so competitors better have enjoyed the reprieve while it lasted. The young Penske star is beyond capable of making up the the 68-point gap between himself and Dixon in a hurry.
Then, of course, there’s Rossi, who’s yet to struggle this season. The 26-year-old California native has been the breakout star of the series, a threat to win at every track and the closest to Dixon at only 23 points back. Rossi has finished on the outside of the top five only twice this season while racking up a series-best five podiums and two pole positions.
With this kind of star power involved, the battle for the crown should be thrilling to watch down the stretch. And don’t forget about some of the contenders hanging around the periphery. If Graham Rahal (107 points back), Robert Wickens (-113), Simon Pagenaud (-128), Sebastien Bourdais (-139), Marco Andretti (-144) or James Hinchcliffe (-148) can start rattling off podiums, they’ll be right back in the hunt.
McLaren-Honda-Andretti IndyCar driver Fernando Alonso (29) rounds turn three during practice Monday, May 22, 2017, afternoon at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. (Photo: Matt Kryger/IndyStar)
During a recent conversation with IndyStar, INDYCAR CEO Mark Miles said there is a better than 50-50 chance the series adds two new full-season teams next year. He hinted that one might be McLaren Racing while not tipping his hand on the other.
Starting with McLaren, it’s looking more and more likely the famed Formula One team will find a spot in IndyCar next year. Most recently, CEO Zak Brown told reporters expansion into INDYCAR is “looking favorable.”
If McLaren makes the move to INDYCAR, most assume it will be in a partnership with an already established team. Will it be Andretti Autosport — the team it paired with for the 500 last year — or someone else? And will Formula One superstar Fernando Alonso be joining McLaren’s North American excursion or will he toil in F1 for another season? Another question to consider: Will McLaren run more than one car? Brown has said his dream is for McLaren’s program to feature a pair of cars, but perhaps Year 1 is too early to expect that level of commitment.
Speaking of Andretti, Indy Lights phenom Colton Herta has repeatedly said he hopes to make the jump from Lights to INDYCAR next year. Will that leap to the big time include his current team, Andretti-Steinbrenner, or perhaps just Steinbrenner in a partnership with another team?
Scuderia Corsa, which partnered with RLL for this year’s 500, is said to be examining the possibility of entering the series full time, as is Dreyer & Reinbold, which hasn’t raced Indy Cars full time since 2012.
And while this doesn’t fit under the headline of “new blood joining the series,” how big will Michael Shank and Ricardo Juncos’ expansions be for next season? Both still aim at full-time programs though that might not be in the offing for 2019. Shank has already said he hopes to boost Meyer Shank Racing to 8-10 races next year with the long-term goal of turning MSR INDYCAR in a two-car program. Meanwhile, Juncos still wants to run at least one car full-time next year, but no news has broken on that front yet.
Regardless, it appears the unprecedented growth that began last season will carry on.
Verizon IndyCar Series logo (Photo: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports)
Beginning in 2019, it will no longer be the Verizon INDYCAR Series. It will be the (Fill In The Blank) INDYCAR Series.
Miles and company are hoping to fill that blank soon, maybe even within the next 90 days, he told IndyStar. A pair of serious suitors have emerged and have made proposals, which “include NBC benefits and spots,” Miles said, while confirming that NBC is a partner at the negotiating table.
Miles would not elaborate on the prospective sponsors and added that it’s possible things fall through with both, prompting a return to the market. However, he was optimistic about reaching an agreement with one, saying they’ve had encouraging conversations.
He added that included in the conversations INDYCAR and NBC are having are the possibilities of a securing a “technology partner” as well as a presenting sponsor for the 500 and the INDYCAR Grand Prix. There are more avenues for sponsorship to be explored, but those are the series’ primary focuses at this point.
Also keep an eye out for updates regarding INDYCAR’s international TV rights.
“It’s probably next that we’ll be able to announce an arrangement with a firm that would represent us for the sale of our international media rights,” Miles said. “That won’t be who the broadcasters are, but who our agent is. That will be important, and we think this whole avenue is a big opportunity for us. INDYCAR has had broad name recognition for a long time — Fernando Alonso’s participation without a doubt kind of rekindled interest — and it’s not lost on motor sports fans outside the U.S. that INDYCAR is a great show, a great sport. So this is a really big deal to us. Economically, it’s relevant.”
Andretti Steinbrenner Racing driver Colton Herta celebrates winning the INDY Lights Race #2 with Michael Andretti,right, at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Saturday, May 12, 2018. (Photo: Matt Kryger/IndyStar)
There is almost no way for this year’s silly season to match the madness of last year. During that craziness, we saw Honda-powered team Andretti Autosport flirt with Chevrolet, which cost them one driver (then-reigning 500 winner Takuma Sato) and almost cost them another (Alexander Rossi). We witnessed the beginning stages of the downsizing to come at Chip Ganassi Racing, which resulted in a halving of the team and the exodus of three veterans (Tony Kanaan, Max Chilton and Charlie Kimball) and the eventual stunning arrival of a young one (Ed Jones). We saw Helio Castroneves fight simultaneously for his job and his first championship — only to come up short in both pursuits.
And those were just a few of the highlights. By the end, each of Michael Andretti, Roger Penske, Chip Ganassi, Rahal Letterman Lanigan, Ed Carpenter, Schmidt Peterson, Dale Coyne and A.J. Foyt teams had made significant changes.
However, the outlook of this year’s silly season appears to be tamer in terms of driver movement. A quick glance at the list of full-timers shows most have either recently inked new deals or it’s just plain difficult to imagine their teams moving on. The only seat for which a change doesn’t seem unreasonable — though perhaps unlikely — is the No. 21 car of Ed Carpenter Racing.
Spender Pigot has yet to deliver the results Carpenter sought as the team’s full-time driver this year. His average finishing position of 15.3 is a tick worse than last year (15.0), as he has yet to finish better than 10th. If that trend continues, might Pigot be on the bubble?
Remember, J.R. Hildebrand concluded last season with a pair of podiums and an average finish of 13.6, and he was removed after one season at ECR. Still, Pigot is 5 years younger than Hildebrand was last year, and Carpenter has shown patience with talented young drivers before.
Other questions that need to be answered: Will one driver emerge from the Dale Coyne Racing triumvirate (Zachary Claman De Melo, Pietro Fittipaldi and Santino Ferrucci) and lay claim to the No. 19 car full time next season? Or might another driver emerge to take the role? Perhaps Herta, who seems destined for Andretti to join his father, Bryan Herta, could consider other possibilities.
Will Kyle Kaiser and Rene Binder return to Juncos Racing next year? What about Jordan King at ECR? Is there an avenue back into the series for Conor Daly, Carlos Munoz or other INDYCAR veterans?
While silly season might not get as silly as last year, many questions need to be answered ahead of 2019.
Drivers take the green flag start of the INDYCAR auto race Saturday, Aug. 26, 2017, at Gateway Motorsports Park in Madison, Ill. (AP Photo/Scott Kane)
The Bommarito Automotive Group 500 set the bar awfully high last year. The debut race at Gateway Motorsports Park — just outside of St. Louis — was a smashing success with a capacity crowd, an electric atmosphere and a quality race.
It will be fascinating to see if INDYCAR, Bommarito Automotive Group and the track can duplicate last year’s success and put on another sensational show. It will also be interesting to see if the Grand Prix of Portland can deliver the same type of excellence in its return to the INDYCAR calendar.
Indy Cars last raced at Portland International Raceway in 2007 as part of the Champ Car Series. Prior to that, CART hosted races in Portland from 1984-2003 before Champ Car took over from 2005-07.
“We’re all stoked (for Portland),” Miles said. “The promoter tells us he was very pleased with the initial response to ticket sales and that it’s continuing. I think he’s had title sponsor opportunities, and I think he thinks if he keeps looking, it will get better. All we have really to gauge so far is the promoter’s reaction, and he’s been happy so far.”