With its lineup announced Thursday for the 2015 Rolex 24 at Daytona, Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates is doing something to break from tradition: entrusting faith in two of its young drivers in its No. 01 Riley-Ford.
It’s also taking a leap of faith by not having a member of one of Scotland’s most famous racing families in one of its cars for the first time in eight years, since 2007.
Two of the eight drivers have been swapped from 2014 to 2015. The first is Joey Hand replacing Memo Rojas for the full season, which by most accounts will be a good upgrade for the team.
Rojas had peaked, and departs after an mistake-filled 2014 season. Meanwhile Hand’s newfound availability restores the 35-year-old with a team that he’s already raced for on a handful of occasions.
Hand, who is 19 years younger than the seemingly ageless Scott Pruett – who like his family’s vineyards only gets better with age – provides CGR a roadmap for the future, depending on its future rumored but not officially announced endeavors.
But the intriguing change to me came with the swap of Charlie Kimball for Marino Franchitti, with Kimball and projected fourth full-season Ganassi Verizon IndyCar Series driver Sage Karam now set to line up alongside in Pruett and Hand in the No. 01.
In recent years, Ganassi has always given one young driver a shot in the No. 01 – Kimball, Karam and Graham Rahal have had the opportunity for a stint or two, usually during the overnight “graveyard” shifts – but the main task was simply keeping the car in one piece and handing it back to some combination of Pruett, Rojas, Hand and/or Juan Pablo Montoya to bring it home the remaining eight to 12 hours.
But in 2015 Ganassi takes a departure from that approach. Kimball has a Rolex watch already and Karam has potential in spades, but both are still vastly inexperienced at the Rolex with only a single start apiece.
Ganassi has to feel that the potential offered from these two – as well as establishing a chance at connecting them to work together as teammates for the first time in an official capacity – offers more upside than does a Franchitti, who represents a dependable, fast, and more established option.
Dario was in one of CGR’s entries from 2008 through 2013, with Marino taking up residence a year ago. Marino was key to Ganassi’s Sebring-winning success. Now, neither one of them will be in a car.
How the young guns fare in their first go together will be very important to watch. Rather than filling simply a two or three-hour block, figure these two will be driving anywhere from four to potentially eight hours in the car combined.
They also have to remember the No. 01 car is CGR’s designated championship contender. Any points loss incurred at Daytona will be a tough one to overcome for the balance of the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship season.’
But those goals will be clearly identified and outlined, and honestly neither should have a problem taking them in.
Kimball is an IndyCar race winner, Karam an Indy Lights champion and either has the opportunity to make a name for themselves from a sports car perspective – as Hand did in 2011, for instance – with a good run next January.
Overall though, this speaks highly of where Kimball and Karam rank within the CGR organization at the moment. They could have been assigned to the single-race entered No. 02 – the “all-star” car of Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Jamie McMurray and Kyle Larson – but instead have been tasked with adding to the success the No. 01 has achieved at Daytona.
It’s a great opportunity for Kimball and Karam, and one I hope they seize with both hands.