Franchitti’s ride appears down to Briscoe or Tagliani vs. the field

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Target Chip Ganassi Racing appears close to unwrapping an early Christmas present, in the form of the replacement for the retired Dario Franchitti in its No. 10 Target Chevrolet for 2014 in the very near future.

Reports from both Autosport and RACER this week have more or less narrowed the field of contenders, at least for 2014, down to two drivers: Ryan Briscoe and Alex Tagliani. TCGR managing director Mike Hull told Autosport’s Mark Glendenning the decision “will be before the holidays.”

Briscoe has not spoken outwardly about the possibility – or any possibility – regarding his 2014 future in IndyCar. He and wife Nicole just welcomed their first child, daughter Finley, last week. He has been tweeting some with Franchitti, Hull and Scott Dixon lately… so make of that what you will.

Tagliani has been a little more candid, as he filled in for Franchitti both at the Fontana season finale and at last week’s Sebring test, the first for the team with Chevrolet power. His development expertise was sought, and his full focus is on securing the seat.

“I think you need to be integrated and have good chemistry and the technical ability is important to them with changing from Honda to Chevy,” Tagliani said via IndyCar.com. “There are a lot of pieces of the puzzle that it changes their whole dynamic.

“Dario was a big part of this team. He was a very technical driver and when it happened to him it threw a big curveball to the team and they’re going to take their time to assess this whole thing. In that respect it’s a process, but just the fact that I’m in the car is a big statement.”

While it appears highly likely one of these two will get the seat – these two were top candidates when MST first identified the contenders for the No. 10 – the nature and length of a contract will be the thing to watch from here.

Briscoe has already spent five full seasons with Team Penske (2008-’12) and one with Ganassi (2005) in his career, with seven career wins and 12 pole positions. On his day he can be excellent. If he was to get the No. 10 car he’d probably provide consistent support to Dixon, Tony Kanaan and Charlie Kimball with a win or two over the course of the season.

Tagliani’s never truly had a full-season, top flight opportunity in his extended career dating to 2000. You could argue Player’s/Forsythe Racing, when he was there from 2000 to 2002, had the equipment necessary to contend for championships, but Tagliani was coming into his own as a driver and hadn’t fully maximized his potential. He has his flashes – and his second half of 2012 was excellent – but he’d need to convert that into regular results if he gets the 10.

The bottom line is while either would be a decent short-term fix for 2014, they’d be increasingly under the microscope with the prospect of more attractive free agents entering the market in 2015. James Hinchcliffe is on a one-year deal with a team option at Andretti Autosport, Justin Wilson has long deserved a top flight ride to match his talent, and Josef Newgarden could play himself into contention if he grows and matures even more than he did this year with Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing.

The Target ride, as team boss Chip Ganassi said during a November teleconference, is much more than just a car on the grid. It also means being the face of a national brand and it means providing ample support to teammates.

So, the waiting period might be at an end. But rather than building up to the excitement of seeing what new blood could do in the car, it appears as though the Target car is heading toward old memory lane…

Teammates James Hinchcliffe and Robert Wickens earn top-fives at Barber

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For the first time this season, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports teammates James Hinchcilffe and Robert Wickens earned top-five finishes in the same race at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Ala.

Hinchcliffe finished third in the Grand Prix of Alabama; Wickens was one spot behind in fourth.

Wickens had one previous podium at Phoenix with his second-place finish. Hinchcliffe’s best result was a fourth in the season-opener in St Petersburg, Fla., so this marked his first podium of the year.

Both drivers needed a little help from the rain.

As precipitation began to fall in the closing stages of the race, Hinchliffe asked his team on a couple of occasions if it was wet enough to pit for rain tires. He was told twice to stay out and was then called into to the pits at the optimal time.

“Solid weekend for us after coming here before – not a great test,” Hinchcliffe said. “Two cars in the top 10 qualifying; two cars, top five in the race. Pretty proud of these boys, everybody on the Arrow car.”

The rain helped Wickens’ race strategy come together.

“I was having to save a lot of fuel in that second stint,” Wickens said. “So once (Scott) Dixon starting getting close to me I was thinking ‘Oh God, I’m going to actually have to give this one up.’ And then the rain came, so the fuel mileage happened naturally. So, yeah, it saved us a bit.”

And while both were pleased with their top-five finishes, drivers are rarely satisfied unless they are standing on the top step of the podium.

Wickens’ top-five finish was hard-fought. After winning the pole at St Petersburg and starting sixth at Phoenix, he failed to advance to the Fast 6 in back-to-back races at Long Beach and Barber – qualifying 10th both times.

“I was a little gutted that we came out in a big bunch of traffic,” Wickens continued. “It made the race fun, but a little frustrating as well because of people off sequence and whatnot. We lost a lot of track position there. Both of us could have been fighting for higher steps on the podium, but we need to do a little better job in qualifying. “