Analysis: Carpenter, Fisher merger beneficial; also puts single-car teams on notice

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In a Verizon IndyCar Series world where several teams have acronyms – CGR, SPM, KVSH, BHA and RLL to name but a few – there’s been another new acronym added to the lexicon as of this weekend, with the announcement of CFH Racing for 2015.

C in this case is not for cookie, but for Ed Carpenter; the F for Sarah Fisher and the H for Fisher’s team co-owner Wink Hartman, who formalized their partnership going forward this weekend.

It means the end of the road for ECR (Ed Carpenter Racing) and SFHR (Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing) as separate entities after this season’s finale at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana.

The process of merging the teams makes a lot of sense on paper, and at first reaction should be a general positive for both organizations.

Fisher and Carpenter are throwbacks in a sense; they have ties to the previous all-oval era of the IndyCar series, and both grew up racing short track and dirt track ovals before they made their debuts in 2000 and 2003, respectively.

Since then, their driving commitments have scaled back. Fisher stepped out of the cockpit of her own team after 2010 to focus on family and business; Carpenter’s full-time driving career was temporarily halted in 2010 but then reborn, a bit, when he drove for Fisher’s team in 2011. Together, they won their first race at Kentucky Speedway, in a popular upset triumph over Dario Franchitti.

Carpenter branched out on his own to form ECR in 2012, with Fisher then bringing Hartman in as team co-owner that year, and the team signing Indy Lights champion Josef Newgarden to a three-year deal.

Both teams stand at the crossroads in 2014, which is why the move makes sense now.

For Carpenter this year, he opted in the best interest of his team, thinking in a business sense, to bring in a road/street course ace in the form of Mike Conway. And Conway’s delivered with a pair of wins in Long Beach and Toronto; Carpenter, with a win of his own at Texas, has won on his own.

Fisher, meanwhile, has continuously struggled to garner and maintain a primary sponsor for each of Newgarden’s three seasons beyond a handful of one-off races. Hartman, who’s provided financial stability for the team for three years, can’t continue to do this forever on his own.

So, we’re partying like it’s 2011 all over again as these two come together. Newgarden, a free agent, has impressed this year and the potential of him being part of this at least two-car operation is a good one.

Here’s Carpenter and Fisher, in separate interviews with MotorSportsTalk, on how they plan to move forward from here, with Carpenter offering a bit more insight:

“I don’t know if we envisioned (a second car) it happening like this, but we’re excited. We have a lot of respect for one another. It was a group effort to bring us together,” Carpenter said.

Carpenter admitted this came together “relatively quickly” but was born of discussions they’d had for years.

“You have all sorts of discussions, but this happened relatively quickly,” Carpenter said. “Going back to the 2013 season even, it didn’t really make sense with where each team was, with certain contracts. I don’t think either of us were interested back then. The stars are aligning right now.”

Fisher added, “We’re only going to get stronger from here.”

Both spoke highly of Newgarden.

“Josef has been so great for us as an organization, and we’re still working to keep him. We’ve built a stellar team,” Fisher said.

Carpenter added, “I think Josef’s a really special talent. I’ve been so impressed with how he has developed on a single car team. I hope we can get a deal done with Josef. I think I can help him a lot on the ovals. Hopefully Mike or whoever can come through on the streets too. But all of that is just speculation right now.”

The things to iron out from here, of course, are personnel, engine manufacturers, sponsorship and moving shops. It promises to be a busy time period and in some respects, having a “longer” offseason should help.

If there is a cautionary tale in this story though, it’s that single-car teams in IndyCar may soon be on borrowed time.

With this merger, it leaves just three teams who have fielded a single car full-time in 2014: Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, A.J. Foyt Enterprises and Bryan Herta Autosport.

Both RLL (National Guard) and BHA (Integrity Energee Drink) will have lost their primary sponsor by the end of the season. Foyt, fortunately, has enjoyed a healthy, long-term relationship with ABC Supply Co., and frequently mentions the possibility of a second full-time car.

Still though, the merger reduces the number of full-time teams from 11 to 10, and it also combines two of the three newest teams in the sport. Fisher founded her own team in 2008 and Carpenter in 2012; Herta’s team made its IndyCar debut in 2010.

The long-term problem IndyCar faces, if not the existing teams gaining more cars, is that there don’t appear to be any new teams entering on the horizon. And from that standpoint, it creates a domino effect where fewer seats become available, and fewer drivers get chances. The ones who do, as ever, largely need to bring budget.

Newgarden is now the last Indy Lights champion with staying power. Tristan Vautier got only one season before his funding ran out and Sage Karam has had only one appearance, this year’s Indianapolis 500.

So in this offseason, the CFH Racing announcement should serve as a wakeup call to the business model of sustainability for smaller teams in IndyCar, but it appears to be a boon for the organization in most aspects.

IndyCar 2015 Driver Review: Tony Kanaan

Tony Kanaan
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MotorSportsTalk continues its run through the driver-by-driver lineup in the Verizon IndyCar Series, after the 2015 season, with eighth-placed Tony Kanaan.

Tony Kanaan, No. 10 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet

  • 2014: 7th Place, 1 Win, Best Start 2nd, 6 Podiums, 6 Top-5, 12 Top-10, 407 Laps Led, 9.2 Avg. Start, 9.3 Avg. Finish
  • 2015: 8th Place, Best Finish 2nd, Best Start 2nd, 3 Podiums, 6 Top-5, 10 Top-10, 213 Laps Led, 7.6 Avg Start, 9.9 Avg. Finish

You have to give TK credit. Armed with one of the best cars on the grid, Kanaan has certainly raised his game the last two years, and probably hasn’t received enough credit or enough results for some of his drives he’s put in since joining Chip Ganassi Racing after the 2013 season.

The 2015 season was no exception. All 10 of his top-10 finishes were between second and seventh, so there were plenty of times he was in win and podium contention. The other area where he improved was his qualifying. Kanaan only had two starts outside the top-12 all season, one of which occurred at Detroit race two, where the grid was set by points following a rain cancellation. Detroit was pretty much the only weekend where Kanaan didn’t figure into qualifying or the race. Blame the Taylor Swift-inspired Big Machine Records livery for that one if you want.

Accidents at the Indianapolis 500 and Pocono were costly retirements as Kanaan definitely had a shot to win both those races. But realistically you couldn’t find many other faults. Losing a sure win at Iowa due to a mechanical issue was a gutting blow. He was also unlucky to come up just shy at Fontana, and may have prevailed in a last-lap shootout.

More often that not however, Kanaan was firmly on top of his game, and reliably on par with his championship-winning teammate Scott Dixon, which was all you could ask for. It’s fitting the two of them opened the year as part of the winning lineup in the Rolex 24 at Daytona, with Kanaan then helping out matters by finishing ahead of Juan Pablo Montoya at Sonoma, to ensure Dixon had enough points to win the title on countback.

IndyCar 2015 Driver Review: Josef Newgarden

Josef Newgarden
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MotorSportsTalk continues to run through the driver-by-driver breakdown in the Verizon IndyCar Series field for 2015. Next up on the heels of another breakout year, Josef Newgarden, who has recently re-signed with CFH Racing for 2016.

Josef Newgarden, No. 67 CFH Racing Chevrolet

  • 2014: 13th Place, Best Finish 2nd, Best Start 2nd, 1 Podium, 2 Top-5, 7 Top-10, 20 Laps Led, 10.7 Avg. Start, 13.7 Avg. Finish
  • 2015: 7th Place, 2 Wins, 1 Pole, 4 Podiums, 5 Top-5, 9 Top-10, 345 Laps Led, 8.4 Avg Start, 10.8 Avg. Finish

Josef Newgarden’s fourth year in the Verizon IndyCar Series was firmly, and without question, the year he arrived as the series’ biggest rising star. It followed on nicely after three prior years where he seemed to hit almost all the high points at various stages, but didn’t put together a fully complete season.

Perhaps some of that was due to having a teammate for the first time in his career, although it was not the same driver throughout the year – it was split between Luca Filippi and Ed Carpenter depending on the circuit. Still, there was always a second set of data to study and analyze. Even better, there was a Chevrolet in the back of his car for the first time, and that likely helped matters a bit. And retaining Jeremy Milless as his engineer continued to pay dividends; you can’t teach chemistry and it’s apparent these two have it.

It spoke volumes that in qualifying, Newgarden was the single fastest driver outside of the Penske and Ganassi camps all season. An average starting position of 8.4 was not only a career best, but best in the field behind six combined drivers from the two established “super teams.” Only at Detroit, where he had a nightmare weekend and at Texas, where Carpenter admitted the team missed the setup, did he start outside the top 12.

Yet it was in the races where again, he shone brightest. The Barber win was as dominant as it was overdue and deserved. The Toronto win – if a bit lucky due to when the cautions and pit stop cycle fell – was also well executed. Then the drives on the ovals at Milwaukee, Iowa and Pocono were excellent.

Far too often though, still, pit stops proved Newgarden’s undoing. Mid-Ohio was a sore spot again, and Sonoma in particular was the nadir. The other tough results races, notably at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and at Fontana, came through mistakes not of his own doing. Really only Detroit was a weekend he’d like to have back.

But he led the most laps in the field, he finally broke through to win, and firmly lived up to the hype and potential that’s been building for years. If you’ve been paying attention more than just this year though, Newgarden’s 2015 season will have come as no surprise.