Hildebrand's big opportunity presents itself. Photo: IndyCar

IndyCar 2017 team preview: Ed Carpenter Racing

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MotorSportsTalk looks through the teams competing in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season. In five years, Ed Carpenter has built Ed Carpenter Racing from a single-car team in the middle or back of the field to a consistent race-winning outfit and serious championship contender, although enters a pivotal 2017 season with a couple key changes.

Drivers (Engineer, Strategist)

20-Ed Carpenter/Spencer Pigot (Matt Barnes, Tim Broyles)
21-JR Hildebrand (Justin Taylor, Brent “Woody” Harvey)

Manufacturer/aero kit: Chevrolet

Sponsors: Fuzzy’s Ultra Premium Vodka (Nos. 20, 21)

Pigot enters a pivotal sophomore season. Photo: IndyCar
Pigot enters a pivotal sophomore season. Photo: IndyCar

What went right in 2016: Carpenter’s team has fully ascended into proper title discussion thanks to some of Ed’s moves as a team owner, realized by teammate Josef Newgarden in his fifth year. A dominant Iowa win, a number of other podiums and a fierce return and recovery from his Texas accident highlighted a year when Newgarden was best of the non-Team Penske drivers.

What went wrong in 2016: Carpenter’s own oval races behind the wheel were a nightmare for a second straight season. Spencer Pigot had to learn on the fly following a pre-Detroit switch, figuring out the Chevrolet package by comparison to the Honda, and struggled in his qualifying appearances on the road and street courses.

What’s changed for 2017: The promotion of JR Hildebrand to full-time driver in the No. 21 isn’t perceived as a change so much, because of Hildebrand’s innate familiarity with the team over the last three years. Still, ensuring he lives up to his undoubted potential and past experience will be key. He’ll work with new engineer Justin Taylor, who adapts to IndyCar from Audi LMP1 machinery.

What they’ll look to accomplish in 2017: With a Chevrolet package and a reduced number of Chevrolet entrants, a top-five points finish remains achievable for Hildebrand, who must score his first win at some stage this year. Pigot doesn’t need to win but could do with his first career top-five or podium, and will look to improve his Saturdays. Carpenter? He somehow must recapture his form of old on ovals, when he was worth the price of admission behind the wheel. Savvier and older, Carpenter has become a valued owner who’s made his team a perennial contender.

Carpenter's oval luck needs to change. Photo: IndyCar
Carpenter’s oval luck needs to change. Photo: IndyCar

MST PREDICTIONS

Tony DiZinno: JR Hildebrand is my pick to become IndyCar’s next first-time race winner. From a confidence standpoint, I hope he does it sooner rather than later. The place I think he could well do it is Long Beach. He has two top-five finishes there in the past, he won in Indy Lights there in 2009, and more importantly, Carpenter’s team has had a solid street course setup and won there themselves on strategy with Mike Conway in 2014. A Hildebrand win at Indianapolis would be an incredible story line but I can’t quite bring myself to make that pick. If he can finish in the top-six in points, he’ll have followed up his deserved promotion with a justifiable result. For Pigot, I hope he can score at least one podium and showcase his talent at this level he did in the Mazda Road to Indy and for Carpenter, man, I hope he’s lost that horrible luck on ovals.

Kyle Lavigne: Ed Carpenter Racing may not be as “sexy” of a team as Team Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing, or Andretti Autosport, but they’ve become every bit the power house those teams are. JR Hildebrand gets promoted to a full-time drive again after spending three years in a part-time. He’ll need to leave behind the driving errors he made in his time with Panther Racing, but this driver and team are a potent combination that could ruffle a lot of feathers at the front of the field. It’s tough to say if Hildebrand makes a championship push, but he could be the break out star of the 2017 season.

Teammate Spencer Pigot needs to build a 2016 season that was consistent, albeit unspectacular. Most notably, he’ll need to improve his qualifying pace and regularly advance out of round one to prove he has the raw speed to become a top-level IndyCar driver (and he does have it in him, as evidenced by his drives in Mazda’s IMSA program). Consistently challenging for top ten finishes in the races would also bolster his career and mark him as a genuine star of the future.

Ed Carpenter needs to shake the dark cloud that has followed him at the oval races since 2015. He remains every bit of fast as anyone on an oval, but need Lady Luck on his side to score results at the front of the field.

Luke Smith: For a team that has lost arguably IndyCar’s best young talent in the form of Josef Newgarden, there an awful lot of positivity surrounding Ed Carpenter Racing heading into the 2017 season. JR Hildebrand’s promotion into a full-time seat was a sensible one, given how closely he has worked with the team in recent years, and the return of Spencer Pigot is a show of great faith after his select appearances last year. The apple cart has not been rocked at all, which is good.

Hildebrand certainly has what it takes to compete at the front of the pack and win races, but there will be a period of adjustment as he gets used to racing full-time in IndyCar once again. Victory should certainly be the target this year; failing that, anything less than a set of podiums would surely go down as a disappointment. For Pigot, a solid campaign with some top fives is what he needs.

As for team owner Ed Carpenter? Well, he needs to keep it out of the wall. He’s been unlucky at points, but of his five oval starts last year, he retired from four of them. Carpenter remains rapid and his qualifying form was good last year, making his lack of results frustrating.

New schedule has Josef Newgarden seeing double (points) again in 2020

Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images
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Two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden of Team Penske believes the latest revised schedule for 2020 will change his approach to the season.

The new schedule has the defending IndyCar champion looking at ways to double the possibilities for a second consecutive championship.

“When I look at the whole schedule they released now, I look at it as double-points as a whole in all of them,” Newgarden told NBCSports.com Monday. “Iowa is double points on a short oval. There are double points at the Indy GP because there are two races and a road course. Then double points at Laguna, which is a different road course than IMS. And there is double points in the Indianapolis 500.”

IndyCar announced to team owners two weeks ago that the season finale (once scheduled for Laguna Seca and now at St. Petersburg) will no longer be a double-points event. But Monday’s schedule revision essentially adds three double points-style races to the Indy 500’s double-points format, Newgarden said.

“Those are four events where you have to be quite strong,” Newgarden said. “They are all very different from each other. Each one is critical to get right. Iowa has a chance to be the most difficult. From a physical standpoint, it’s already a physical track for one race. To double it up on one weekend will be quite the toll for the drivers.

“It will be a very big test physically to see who will get that weekend right. You can bag a lot of points because of it.”

Just 12 days after the first schedule revision, IndyCar officials announced another revised schedule Monday because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

The new schedule features doubleheader weekends at Iowa Speedway in July and Laguna Seca in September. There is an additional race on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course Oct. 3.

That race will be known as the IndyCar Harvest Grand Prix. It will be the second time in Indianapolis Motor Speedway history that an IndyCar race is held in the fall. The only other time was the Harvest Auto Racing Classic, a series of three races won by Johnny Aitken on Sept. 9, 1916.

The Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix scheduled for May 30-31 will be dropped from the 2020 schedule. Michigan has a “Stay at Home” order that won’t be lifted in time to start construction of the Belle Isle street course.

Penske Entertainment CEO Mark Miles said the Detroit event will return in 2021.

The IMS road course essentially will have a doubleheader spaced out by nearly three months. The first race will be the GMR IndyCar Grand Prix on July 4, and the second will be Oct. 3 in the Harvest Grand Prix.

The extra doubleheaders combined with the loss of Detroit gives IndyCar a 15-race schedule for 2020. It started out as a 17-race campaign, but April’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, the Acura Grand Prix of Indianapolis and the AutoNation IndyCar Classic at Circuit of The Americas (COTA) have been canceled. The season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg is being revived as the season finale on a TBA weekend in October.

Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Newgarden also is excited about the chance to run at Indianapolis for three major races in one season. Of course, that all depends on how soon IndyCar can return to action because of the global pandemic.

“I’m continually excited about the thought of getting back to the race track,” Newgarden said. “We would love to be there now, but we can’t. With the current situation, everyone is trying to do the best they can to pitch in and do their part so we can get back to the track as quickly as possible.

“I’m excited to get back to racing at some point in the future. To see that is planned to start at Texas is still great. IndyCar has done a great job staying active and fluid with the ever-changing dynamics and current situation.

“We have three opportunities at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. There are a lot of chances to get it right at the Mecca of our sport.

“I have a lot of trust and faith in IndyCar and Roger, and they are doing their best to stay on top of the situation.”

The one downer to the revised schedule is the loss of the Detroit doubleheader, a very important weekend to Team Penske because Roger Penske also owns the Detroit race. It’s a chance to showcase the series in front of as “Motor City” crowd, which is also the home to the Penske Corp.

“It’s a shame that we miss any event this year,” Newgarden said. “As a racer, you look forward to each one of them. If any of them drop off, it’s a tough pill. Detroit is more so because it is such an important race for us at Team Penske. It’s in our backyard for Penske Corp. Also, our relationship with Chevrolet, how much they put I that event and try to get it right for everybody involved. It’s tough to not have a go at that this year.

“I think of the volunteers. The Detroit weekend is so well run and executed with such a positive momentum behind it for the last eight years that I’ve gone there. I’ve always enjoyed that weekend off the back of the Indy 500.

“It’s a shame we will miss that this year, but I look forward to getting back there in 2021 and getting it started again.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500