Francesco Dracone set for Dale Coyne test at Sebring

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Francesco Dracone is testing for Dale Coyne Racing at Sebring on December 3-4, which is reason number 723 why I love Dale Coyne.

Coyne hasn’t made a living in 30-plus years as an IndyCar driver, then team owner, by making foolish business decisions. The oft-heard knock on Dale – or “bad rap” as it is – has always been that he will look to take a driver who brings money in exchange for a chance to drive.

But in reality, it’s actually a smart business move that pays dividends for all parties. It gives said driver a chance to live their dream, to prove his or herself in an IndyCar, and it provides Coyne’s team the necessary budget to hire a top-tier driver and/or engineer (as he has done every year since 2006, in Champ Car).

Some of the most ardent IndyCar observers will remember Dracone from his two-race cameo with Conquest Racing in the previous generation Dallara-Honda at two road course races, Mid-Ohio and Sonoma, in 2010.

Dracone, 30, is an Italian with a less than distinguished career in European junior formulas. He was realistically only quicker than Milka Duno – also a member of the Coyne honor roll – in those two starts.

He was slated to drive a P2 class Morgan Judd for Conquest at the 12 Hours of Sebring in 2012, but couldn’t get up to speed and was replaced race morning by Jan Heylen, who, you guessed it, is also a graduate of the Coyne School of American Open-Wheel Racing.

And while I highly doubt this is anything more than a chance for Dracone to pay a little bit in exchange for two days at Sebring, it’s always fun to see an obscure blast from the past back in an IndyCar.

The “surprise drivers” who’ve tested an IndyCar this offseason, once Dracone does his laps, include Arie Luyendyk Jr. (also for Coyne), Mikael Grenier (KV) and Mikhail Aleshin (SMP Racing via Schmidt Peterson Motorsports). The latter in that quartet is a Russian former World Series by Renault champ, and the story of his test was reported by RACER earlier this week.

Meanwhile the current IndyCar fan base – at least the relative few who pay attention to the Mazda Road to Indy ladder – await the first IndyCar tests for Indy Lights top five finishers Sage Karam, Gabby Chaves and Peter Dempsey. Carlos Munoz has already been announced for Andretti Autosport, and Jack Hawksworth has tested for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.

IndyCar’s 2018 full-field grid nearing completion

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Following Wednesday’s confirmation of the all-Canadian tandem at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, each of the eight full-time teams in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season have announced at least one driver for 2018, leaving very few remaining question marks.

What stands confirmed is below:

CONFIRMED

  • Team Penske (3, Chevrolet): Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power
  • Chip Ganassi Racing (1, Honda): Scott Dixon
  • 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 (1, Chevrolet): Tony Kanaan
  • Dale Coyne Racing (1, Honda): Sebastien Bourdais
  • Harding Racing (1, Chevrolet): Gabby Chaves

There are four additional drivers confirmed for selected races or an month of May program:

  • Team Penske (1, Chevrolet): Helio Castroneves
  • Andretti Autosport (1, Honda): Stefan Wilson
  • Calmels Sport with SPM (1, Honda): Tristan Gommendy
  • Team TBD (1, TBD): Kyle Kaiser

All told that’s 17 full-season driver and team combinations confirmed and four additional part-time programs, at least, that are set. Several of those driver/team combinations will have engineering and strategist changes, as well.

In a minor note since our last update at Sonoma, Marco Andretti confirmed he won’t run No. 27 next year. Of note, Bryan Herta served as Andretti’s race strategist this year, although the car he was an entrant on was Alexander Rossi’s No. 98 car. Herta will continue his relationship with Andretti Autosport again next season.

WHAT’S LEFT TO SORT? NOT MUCH

Elsewhere, there’s only a handful of remaining question marks as the series hits mid-October, a rarity from past years and an illustration of the urgency to fill seats to get as much preparation time in testing with the new 2018 Dallara universal aero kit as possible.

NBC Sports expects 2016 Indy Lights champion and 2017 IndyCar rookie-of-the-year Ed Jones to be confirmed soon as second driver in Dale Coyne Racing’s No. 19 Honda alongside Sebastien Bourdais, with team personnel and Bourdais both having indicated a preference in keeping the Dubai-based Brit for a second year.

NBC Sports also expects Jones’ successor as Indy Lights champion, Kyle Kaiser, to have his future announced shortly in terms of which team he’ll step up to IndyCar with. It would not be a surprise if Kaiser does graduate along with Juncos Racing, although Kaiser is known to have talked to multiple teams. The Mazda Motorsports scholarship nets him $1 million for a three-race program, including the 102nd Indianapolis 500, with the driver then needing to secure additional funding for further races, as Jones and Pigot both have each of the last two years.

The status of Brendon Hartley has now been thrown up as a slight question mark dependent on how his Formula 1 debut with Scuderia Toro Rosso goes at this weekend’s United States Grand Prix, and if Toro Rosso provides him a further race opportunity in one of the remaining three Grands Prix thereafter. Having been all-but-earmarked for Chip Ganassi Racing’s second seat in 2018, if an F1 offer comes, Hartley’s potential IndyCar bow could get delayed.

A McLaren-named entry competing either in the Indianapolis 500 or full-time seems further off than realistic for next year, McLaren’s Zak Brown told reporters on a teleconference this week. McLaren maintains an IndyCar technical presence though, via its McLaren Applied Technologies outfit.

What’s left then are the dominoes of whether Carlin’s IndyCar plans officially come to fruition as the team has gotten closer than it ever has to doing so, and who emerges in the second seats at A.J. Foyt Enterprises and Ed Carpenter Racing (road and street courses), respectively.

A number of young IndyCar veterans – Max Chilton, Charlie Kimball, Carlos Munoz and Conor Daly namely – are yet to land for 2018 and there’s no guarantee all four of them will be back in IndyCar next season.

There’s also a handful of young drivers, namely RC Enerson, Jack Harvey, Esteban Gutierrez, Santiago Urrutia, Zachary Claman DeMelo, Sage Karam and Matthew Brabham among others, who could well emerge in the frame for seats.

Gutierrez’s status seemed dependent on Mexico City being added to the 2018 calendar, and although the race still could be added, the fact neither is in place at this point doesn’t inspire as much confidence about his presence as a regular on the grid as it did earlier this summer.

All told, there’s not nearly that much to sort out as IndyCar’s grid for 2018 is looking very much close to set at this early stage of a long offseason.