IndyCar’s rookie battle features three drivers with chips on shoulders

Chilton, Rossi, Daly. All photos: IndyCar
1 Comment

Conor Daly. Alexander Rossi. Max Chilton.

One tried hard for years but never made it to Formula 1. One finally broke down the door last year after endless, and often bizarre, missed opportunities. One made it in for a couple years, and was the model of consistency but never had a realistic chance of making it higher up the grid from the back of the field.

So the three who pushed for years primarily in Europe will be the rookie class of 2016… in the Verizon IndyCar Series?

Circumstances and fate have a funny way of making things happen and so with Rossi’s official confirmation in the Andretti-Herta Autosport fourth car, it’s two ex-Marussia F1 drivers and a Noblesville, Indiana kid who bleeds ‘Merica left and right who finally has a full-season crack at something after years driving anything and everything he could get his hands on.

The bottom line is that in IndyCar though, Daly, Rossi and Chilton have opportunities afforded to them they wouldn’t have had in F1.

In a single sentence, they all have a chance to star.

Chilton probably enters with a slightly better opportunity than the others, entering as fourth driver on the defending championship winning team of Chip Ganassi Racing. He drives the No. 8 Arthur J. Gallagher Co. Chevrolet.

He’s in a four-car environment that features two series and Indianapolis 500 champions plus a consistent third driver who’s won a race, has an underrated ace of an engineer in Brandon Fry, and has an under-the-radar motivating factor in wanting to exceed the performance level Sage Karam turned in last year.

He’s already coming off a high of his first major short oval test at Phoenix, where he came to grips pretty nicely.

“It’s exhilarating. There’s a lot more to it,” Chilton told NBC Sports at the test. “I’ve always known that since I came over here last year and appreciate ovals a lot more. Even after testing like that, I had probably 50-60 laps in the end in a pack or leading a pack.

“From experienced people, I hear you times that by 10 when you’re in the race. You’re in all in a chain and then you’re waiting for tires to go off. There’s still lots I’ve got to experience, but I think for my first short oval IndyCar experience, that was a pretty good job. My pace seemed pretty much as good as anyone on the racetrack, so I think it was a good start.”

He probably won’t say it publicly, but I’d have to think Chilton is motivated to stick it to the pro-Sage crowd. Even if commercial reasons necessitated the change, Chilton still can drive and he’s a clean set of hands, as he showed in Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires series last season. When he makes a rare mistake, as he did at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in the first race, he owns it.

The dry, understated wit that I hope Chilton will be able to deliver in interviews in 2016 serves as a perfect foil to the two American rookies he’ll try to defeat for Sunoco rookie-of-the-year honors. Rossi and Daly make no secret of their affinity for the Stars and Stripes; they were and to a point still are the best two hopes to make it as Americans in Europe in recent years.

Rossi enters Andretti Autosport in a slightly different situation, in the No. 98 Andretti-Herta with Curb Agajanian Honda. It’s still four cars, but with the late partnership announcement and a delayed testing schedule – Rossi will have had only two days of testing before St. Petersburg – it’s going to be an uphill struggle for him at least initially. The Herta/Andretti personnel mesh will need time to cook, although engineer Tom German should be an asset.

He’ll also need to reassess his opinion of ovals, having said a couple years ago he wasn’t particularly keen on driving them. Some rookies have an ability – and an affinity – to rock up on ovals and exceed expectations, as Mikhail Aleshin did in 2014. Others can struggle early and need more time to get comfortable. And Rossi knows he’ll have to learn, quickly.

“I don’t know where I’m gonna be when I first get on an oval,” Rossi told NBC Sports at Phoenix. “But with three great teammates, and Michael and Bryan as well, it’s a huge amount of help and will make me better.

“In streets and roads, I should adapt straight away. It’s just seeing where I’m at on ovals. I don’t know what the baseline is.”

The gauge for Rossi – as Karam is for Chilton – is Gabby Chaves. Chaves had three years in the Mazda Road to Indy prior to his promotion into IndyCar and Chaves, who is talented but sidelined following the Herta/Andretti partnership, was both Indianapolis 500 and IndyCar rookie-of-the-year last year.

Daly, in the No. 18 Jonathan Byrd’s Hospitality & Restaurant Group/Cancer Treatment Centers of America Honda, is in the unique situation where he can prep and grow outside of the spotlight of one of the established “big three” teams.

That’s not at all a knock against Dale Coyne Racing – if anything, Coyne’s 30-plus year reputation for overachieving on a relative shoestring budget is legendary. Paired with Michael Cannon, Daly is probably going to surprise more often than not throughout 2016.

“It’s all new for both Luca and I here,” Daly said of his chance with teammate Luca Filippi, who isn’t a rookie but also heads into his first full season after three partial campaigns.

“I’m obviously really excited heading into the first race of the season. It’s a big weekend for me, for my family too and everyone that’s been a part of this ride ever since I was a kid, I’m just excited. That’s the word I can use best. Excited and ready to work.”

Daly has some experience of the 16 tracks, as does Chilton, while Rossi will be new to most facilities since it’s been a good eight years since he last raced in the U.S. full-time.

There’s also Spencer Pigot and Matthew Brabham, both of whom have partial season programs confirmed but are unlikely to compete for full rookie-of-the-year honors.

For realistic expectations, you could see two or three of these full-time drivers finishing in the 12th to 15th place range in the standings, likely with two of the three if not all three finding a podium at some point this year. Any Firestone Fast Six appearances would also stand out, given how Penske and Ganassi dominated most of 2015 were.

Wins and a top-10 finish in points, given the caliber of competition in the field, are less likely but still possible if any – or all – of the three overachieve compared to expectations. Rossi’s got bigger goals, though.

“I’m looking to win to be honest,” he said. “It’s similar between F1 and GP2. In GP2, I knew I had the potential to win, and with Andretti in IndyCar, I have potential to win here too.”

The best news for all three is they’ve got a shot, and it’s going to make for a very intriguing rookie battle this year.