IndyCar 2014 Primer: Some key story lines

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There is no shortage of story lines to follow in this year’s Verizon IndyCar Series. Here are just a few…

-DIXON VS. POWER

It’s perhaps the best rivalry in the Verizon IndyCar Series. Scott Dixon and Will Power, few would argue, are two of IndyCar’s best drivers at the moment. One’s from New Zealand, the other from Australia. One drives for Target Chip Ganassi Racing, the other Team Penske.

They’ve sparred numerous times, most recently in the back-to-back races of Sonoma and Baltimore in 2013. But they haven’t yet fought head-to-head for a series championship.

Dixon’s two when Power was in the series (2008 and 2013) came when Power was in his first year under INDYCAR sanction and driving with KV Racing, and when Power was essentially eliminated last year and wasn’t able to contend as he had from 2010 through 2012.

It had been a Power-Dario Franchitti showdown those years, with Dixon’s luck taking him out of the equation. Now, with Franchitti retired, the stage is set for these two to have a potentially epic bout for the crown.

Of course, that’s unless any of their respective teammates, three of the four Andretti Autosport, or potentially another wild card, have anything to say about that…

-BIG THREE HAVE HALF THE FIELD, BUT WON’T HAVE ALL THE WINS

With 11 of the 22 full-season entries, Chip Ganassi Racing (Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Ryan Briscoe, Charlie Kimball), Team Penske (Power, Juan Pablo Montoya, Helio Castroneves) and Andretti Autosport (Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti, James Hinchcliffe, Carlos Munoz) on paper could lock out the top 10 in the final points standings. But it’s not going to be that simple, with several other top-flight operations looking to overachieve.

Any of Simon Pagenaud (Schmidt Peterson Motorsports), Justin Wilson (Dale Coyne Racing), Graham Rahal (Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing), Sebastien Bourdais (KVSH Racing), Takuma Sato (A.J. Foyt Racing) or Mike Conway (Ed Carpenter Racing) pose a true threat to the establishment on the road and street courses. Swap Ed Carpenter in for Conway on the ovals and there’s another win threat.

That’s without even projecting some of the emerging young guns – a Josef Newgarden, Sebastian Saavedra, Mikhail Aleshin or Jack Hawksworth – making strides as well.

Simply put, there is no shortage of depth in team or driver talent throughout the grid. There were 10 winners in 19 races in 2013; there could well be 10 or 11 in 2014, even with a reduction to 18 races.

-WHO’S THE “NAME” DRIVER?

With Franchitti retired, IndyCar is unfortunately down to just a handful of “big names” that are truly well known on a national stage. Penske’s Castroneves and Montoya and defending Indianapolis 500 champion Kanaan certainly qualify. But they all have at least 15 years in the North American racing sphere to fall back on.  Andretti and Rahal have the right last names, but not the overall results as yet.

One of the elements new entitlement partner Verizon may seek to work on this year is developing a true new generation of mainstream stars that can be as recognizable beyond the entrenched set of hardcore IndyCar fans. Power and Hinchcliffe are getting there, and Dixon and Hunter-Reay should be better known than they are now.

GENERATIONAL GAP

I touched on this earlier this offseason, but seeing which of the old guard versus the mid-level veterans versus young guns will take flight this year is going to be fascinating to watch. Key in this segment is how well JPM will do after an eight-year absence since his last season of Formula One, and after 14 years since his last season in North American open-wheel racing.

HANDLING THE RULES CHANGES

Whether it’s a shift from single to twin-turbo if you’re a Honda team, or whether you’re the field adapting to any of restart, pit lane opening/closings or qualifying adjustments, there are still plenty of new things teams will need to get a handle on even if the equipment basically stays the same for 2014.

-NO REST FOR THE WEARY

It’s been discussed in brief, but with the condensed schedule from the end of March through the end of August, with only one three-week gap in-between races (from Texas to Houston June 7 to June 28-29), how will the crews and drivers hold up through the relentless stretch of races? The ones who can maintain their composure and top level of performance are likeliest to succeed.

Perhaps the toughest stretch this year is from that Houston weekend June 28-29, followed in immediate succession by a 500-mile race at Pocono, 250 laps on the Iowa bullring, and another double-header in Toronto to make for six races in four weekends.

The relief comes with only a single off weekend before Mid-Ohio August 3, another off weekend, and three straight weeks in Milwaukee, Sonoma and Fontana to end the season.

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.