No Target, no Chevrolet. The Honda return and more questions await Ganassi. Photo: IndyCar

IndyCar 2017 team preview: Chip Ganassi Racing

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MotorSportsTalk looks through the teams competing in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season. Chip Ganassi Racing is next up with its fearsome foursome, in what will be a big transition season as the team shifts back to the manufacturer that has delivered it the most glory in the last 20-plus years, Honda.

Drivers (Engineer, Strategist)

Drivers

8-Max Chilton (Brandon Fry, Julian Robertson)
9-Scott Dixon (Chris Simmons, Mike Hull)
10-Tony Kanaan (Todd Malloy, Barry Wanser)
83-Charlie Kimball (Eric Cowdin, Scott Harner)

Manufacturer/aero kit: Honda

Sponsors: Arthur J. Gallagher (No. 8), TBA (No. 9), NTT Data, 7 Eleven (No. 10), Tresiba (No. 83)

Tony Kanaan remains solid. Photo: IndyCar
Tony Kanaan remains solid. Photo: IndyCar

What went right in 2016: Dixon continued winning multiple races, Kanaan’s form was probably the best its been in three seasons at Ganassi, Kimball drastically improved his qualifying which produced better results, and Chilton brought a fresh perspective to the fourth seat. 

What went wrong in 2016: There were too many mistakes and mechanical issues that blunted Dixon’s title hopes. None of the other three won races and that left Ganassi at a 10-2 win deficit to Penske with equal Chevrolet aero kits and engines. Kimball’s determination occasionally ruffled feathers, while Chilton struggled to convert respectable qualifying efforts into decent results.

How does Kimball continue his gradual growth? Photo: IndyCar
How does Kimball continue his gradual growth? Photo: IndyCar

What’s changed for 2017: The biggest and most obvious change is the swap to Honda aero kits and engines, and there’s no Target on Dixon’s car. Some crew swapping occurs throughout the four cars as well, but for only the second time since Ganassi expanded to four cars in 2011, the team has the same four drivers returning for another season (2011 to 2012).

What they’ll look to accomplish in 2017: Develop and grow with the Honda package, and hopefully get it sorted sooner rather than later. As is a common refrain, Dixon’s title hopes would be helped by a faster start, and the other three members of the team will look for further podiums and wins. Dixon and perhaps Kanaan would keep them in title contention; success at the double points Indianapolis 500 with a better package will help that cause.

Max Chilton needs to improve in 2017. Photo: IndyCar
Max Chilton needs to improve in 2017. Photo: IndyCar

MST PREDICTIONS

Tony DiZinno: A motivated Scott Dixon will remain in title contention down to the final race but come up short of his fifth title, despite his tendency of winning titles in odd years of late (2013, 2015). The Honda package may be better but will not be enough to overcome the fleet of Penske drivers, and their Chevrolets, this season. Tony Kanaan will end his three-year winless drought with his second Indianapolis 500 victory, because the combination of TK, engineer Todd Malloy and the Honda super speedway aero kit and power unit is simply deadly on paper. Much as I like Kimball, I worry he’ll regress a bit and fall out of the top-10 in points this season, while Chilton will score his first top-five finish this year but still struggle to break into the top-15 in points.

Kyle Lavigne: The success of Chip Ganassi Racing in 2017 will come down to how quickly they get their hands around Honda’s aero package, but they should get to speed relatively quickly. One area where they should improve is the super speedway package, chiefly at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. In 2016, only Tony Kanaan showed enough speed to challenge for victory. Expect that to change in 2017.

Whether or not a drive from the Ganassi camp will challenge for the championship is a different story and will depend on the team’s ability to improve Honda’s road/street course package. This will likely happen, given the might of the Chip Ganassi organization, but it might too big of an ask for one or multiple drivers from this stable to enter the Sonoma finale within reach of the championship. But, history tells us to never bet against people like Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan. Charlie Kimball and Max Chilton should be in the mix, albeit on a less consistent basis.

Luke Smith: After a tough 2016 that yielded only two victories and no drivers breaking into the top five in the points, Chip Ganassi Racing needs a big year. The switch to Honda is an interesting one, and anything less than being the top Honda team would be a failure. There will naturally be an adjustment period though.

Scott Dixon remains an ever-potent force, but I don’t see a fifth title coming his way this year, although he will make the top five in points and take a handful of wins. Kanaan should break his win drought, and I’ll even tip Charlie Kimball to return to winner’s circle this year, perhaps late in the season. As for Max Chilton? Let’s see what season two brings. But I’d be surprised if he isn’t the lowest-ranking Ganassi driver in the end-of-year standings once again.

Coyne transitioning from underdog to Indy 500 threat

Photo: IndyCar
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For most of the team’s existence, Dale Coyne Racing has been the Chicago Cubs of American Open Wheel Racing – a team whose history was more defined by failures, at times comically so, than success.

The last decade, however, has seen the tide completely change. In 2007, they scored three podium finishes with Bruno Junqueira. In 2009, they won at Watkins Glen with the late Justin Wilson.

The combination won again at Texas Motor Speedway in 2012, and finished sixth in the 2013 Verizon IndyCar Series championship. That same year, Mike Conway took a shock win for them in Race 1 at the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit.

Carlos Huertas scored an upset win for them in Race 1 at the Houston double-header in 2014, and while 2015 and 2016 yielded no wins, Tristan Vautier and Conor Daly gave them several strong runs – Vautier’s best finish was fourth in Race 2 at Detroit, while Daly finished second in Race 1 at Detroit, finished fourth at Watkins Glen, and scored a trio of sixth-place finishes at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course, Race 2 at Detroit, and the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

And 2017 was set to possibly be the best year the team has ever had. Sebastien Bourdais gave the team a popular win in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, and then rookie Ed Jones scored back-to-back top tens – 10th and sixth – at St. Pete and the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach to start his career.

But, things started unraveling at the Indianapolis 500. Bourdais appeared set to be in the Fast Nine Pole Shootout during his first qualifying run – both of his first two laps were above 231 mph –  before his horrifying crash in Turn 2.

While Jones qualified an impressive 11th and finished an even more impressive third, results for the rest of the season became hard to come by – Jones only scored two more Top 10s, with a best result of seventh at Road America.

But, retooled for 2018, the Coyne team is a legitimate threat at the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500.

Bourdais, whose No. 18 Honda features new sponsorship from SealMaster and now ownership partners in Jimmy Vasser and James “Sulli” Sullivan, has a win already, again at St. Pete, and sits third in the championship.

And Bourdais may also be Honda’s best hope, given that he was the fastest Honda in qualifying – he’ll start fifth behind Ed Carpenter, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power, and Josef Newgarden.

“I think it speaks volumes about their work, their passion and their dedication to this program, Dale (Coyne), Jimmy (Vasser) and Sulli (James Sullivan) and everybody from top to bottom. I can’t thank them enough for the opportunity, for the support,” Bourdais said of the team’s effort.

Rookie Zachary Claman De Melo has been progressing nicely, and his Month of May has been very solid – he finished 12th at the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the IMS Road Course and qualified a strong 13th for the “500.”

“It’s been surreal to be here as rookie. I’m a bit at a loss for words,” Claman De Melo revealed after qualifying. “The fans, driving around this place, being with the team, everything is amazing. I have a great engineer, a great group of experienced mechanics at Dale Coyne Racing.”

While Conor Daly and Pippa Mann struggled in one-off entries, with Mann getting bumped out of the field in Saturday qualifying, Daly’s entry essentially puts three Coyne cars in the race – Daly’s No. 17 United States Air Force Honda is a Dale Coyne car that has been leased to Thom Burns Racing.

Rest assured, the days of Coyne being an “also ran” are long gone, and a Coyne car ending up in Victory Lane at the biggest race of the year would complete the Chicago Cubs analogy – the Cubs won a World Series title in 2016, and an Indy 500 triumph would be the crowning achievement in Coyne’s career.

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