IndyCar’s off-track stories to come over the next few weeks

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It might be – scratch that, is easier – to ask the questions yet to be determined in the IZOD IndyCar Series season, and silly season, over the next few weeks before the Shell Grand Prix of Houston doubleheader October 5-6.

It’s been a year for the series that has featured an excellent on-track product for the most part, save for a couple caution-infested wreck fests. Still, there’s a number of things on-and-off track to sort out here between now and Houston. We’ll just rattle them off; the on-track ones are in this linked post and the off-track below:

OFF-TRACK

  • How many for Andretti? Michael Andretti’s team is on the verge of doing its best LeBron James imitation because it could be “Not 3, not 4, not 5” and maybe as many as 6 cars in 2014. It’s likely going to be four again, or perhaps five cars from the stable. Ryan Hunter-Reay and Marco Andretti will return, and here are the question marks. James Hinchcliffe and sponsor GoDaddy are free agents. E.J. Viso is only on a one-year contract. Carlos Munoz has been rumored to step up. And several media outlets are saying the team is courting Juan Pablo Montoya from NASCAR. Six into four doesn’t go; this will be interesting to watch.
  • Hinch and TK as dominos. On the Hinchcliffe front, he is in a rare position to choose from several viable options. A shot at Chip Ganassi’s fourth car, if it returns, is possible as is a return at Andretti. Kanaan, meanwhile, has said he needs to find funding to stay for 2014, which doesn’t seem right considering he’s the Indianapolis 500 champion. He’s likely teasing a move to NASCAR as leverage.
  • Schedule angst. It’s everyone’s favorite time of year, when schedule projection is all the rage. The first report of the year regarding the 2014 calendar came from Robin Miller, with the likely addition of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course (in which configuration remains to be seen) planned and the schedule condensed to end by Labor Day. Baltimore seems the only race likely to move, assuming it stays. Stay tuned.
  • Commercial (president) movement. New Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles has moved many of the pieces in place on his leadership staff side this year, notably with the addition of Derrick Walker as INDYCAR’s President of Competition and Operations. Now, he needs to find someone who can advance INDYCAR’s commercial cause and oversee the marketing side. Easier said than done, of course, as one potential candidate, ex-San Diego Padres President Tom Garfinkel, has taken on the same role but with the NFL’s Miami Dolphins.

Nearly 25 drivers already set for 2018 Indy 500… in mid-November

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Friday’s announcement that Danica Patrick would end her full-time driving career with a run in the 102nd Indianapolis 500, after also running the Daytona 500 in January, is another shot in the arm for the 2018 marquee event of North American open-wheel racing.

Surprisingly, it keeps the grid moving forward too to where nearly 75 percent of the 33 cars are already set… in mid-November, 2017.

Early confirmations of programs for the next year’s Indianapolis 500 aren’t new, but they’re seemingly coming earlier than normal this year, with a number of expected programs getting announced in the fall of 2017.

Coupled with the fact most of the IndyCar full-season grid for 2018 is set, it’s interesting to take a look at what’s already set for next year.

CONFIRMED FULL-SEASON (19)

The only things to add here are Dale Coyne Racing’s second driver in the No. 19 Honda, the road and street course driver for Ed Carpenter Racing in its No. 20 Chevrolet who may or may not be able to get an Indianapolis 500 extra seat in a third car, and the expected confirmation of Carlin’s graduation into IndyCar after three seasons in Indy Lights.

  • Team Penske (3, Chevrolet): Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power
  • Chip Ganassi Racing (2, Honda): Scott Dixon, Ed Jones
  • Andretti Autosport (4, Honda): Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alexander Rossi, Marco Andretti, Zach Veach
  • Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (2, Honda): Graham Rahal, Takuma Sato
  • Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (2, Honda): James Hinchcliffe, Robert Wickens
  • Ed Carpenter Racing (2, Chevrolet): Spencer Pigot, Ed Carpenter (ovals)
  • A.J. Foyt Enterprises (2, Chevrolet): Tony Kanaan, Matheus Leist
  • Dale Coyne Racing (1, Honda): Sebastien Bourdais
  • Harding Racing (1, Chevrolet): Gabby Chaves

CONFIRMED PARTIAL SEASON/INDY ONLY (4)

  • Team Penske (1, Chevrolet): Helio Castroneves
  • Andretti Autosport (1, Honda): Stefan Wilson
  • Juncos Racing (1, TBD): Kyle Kaiser
  • Team TBD (1, TBD): Danica Patrick

Here’s where it gets interesting. Castroneves is Team Penske’s confirmed fourth, and Juan Pablo Montoya could be a hypothetical fifth if the stars align – but it’s not in the immediate plans at this moment.

Patrick also makes her somewhat surprising Indianapolis comeback and with Penske, Andretti Autosport and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing not fielding her, the stars are aligned for her to drive with Chip Ganassi Racing in what would be a third car. Neither Patrick nor Ganassi said it’s happening today, but Ganassi acknowledged discussions, via NASCAR Talk.

Wilson finally gets his Indianapolis 500 shot with Andretti a year later as its fifth car. The team ran six last year, with the two Indy-only entries coming in separate partnership efforts between McLaren and Honda (Fernando Alonso) and Michael Shank Racing (Jack Harvey).

Jack Harvey is a very intriguing story for how he’ll be racing next year. NBC Sports understands a working relationship is being hatched between Shank and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, and with Harvey bringing a program on behalf of AutoNation/SiriusXM to grow his role into a third-to-half season of racing, this could slot in nicely as SPM’s third car. While not “officially” confirmed, it would not be a surprise to see news revealed from the concerned parties in December.

How could Harvey become SPM three when SPM three was already announced, you ask? With the Calmels Sport with SPM program reportedly on thin ice after negative press, the unlikely union of the French team owner Didier Calmels, one-time open-wheel driver turned-sports car veteran Tristan Gommendy and SPM appears set to join the “announced and dropped before ever turning a wheel” club.

Kaiser’s four-race program with Juncos Racing was announced last month and the Indy Lights champion will likely have Chevrolet power, given the team’s existing relationship from 2017.

WHAT’S STILL TO COME

Playing it out a bit with the usual, “how many engines can each manufacturer provide” story, we know Honda ran 18 cars this year and was stretched to capacity, leaving Chevrolet with the remaining 15.

Work the math from here. Provided Carlin officially announces its entry (it still hasn’t to this point, but is known to have hired IndyCar personnel) and with Honda already stretched between its 12 previously announced full-season cars (4 Andretti, 2 Ganassi, 2 RLL, 2 SPM, 2 Coyne), with a 13th engine available at some races, Carlin would have to be at Chevrolet.

For Indianapolis, Honda already begins to work its car count further beyond those 13 (if SPM 3 gets added for more races) with Ganassi 3 (a TBD, but would be Patrick if confirmed here) and Andretti 5 (Wilson) to get to 15, which leaves just three leases at play to get to 18… again, this is in mid-November.

Provided Pippa Mann can work towards her annual appearance with Coyne, factor in a possible sixth Andretti car and an 18th Honda lease – perhaps a third car at RLL or fourth at Ganassi, SPM or Coyne – and suddenly the Honda inn would already be booked up.

Chevrolet would have the rest, and you can figure out the math from there.

It may only be mid-November, but the race to secure a berth on the grid for next May is already well underway.