What lies ahead for Kanaan, Hinchcliffe and more? Photo: Getty Images

After hectic July, 2018 IndyCar silly season kicks into high gear

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The first wave of Verizon IndyCar Series silly season chatter for 2018 has come over the last few races, and we’ll leave it to Mike Hull, Chip Ganassi Racing managing director, to give a primer on just how goofy it all is.

“I think it’s a little early to talk about it, but at Mid-Ohio, it seems everyone wants to talk about it! Everyone gathers around the silly season flag pole and starts talking about things.”

So rather than attempt to forecast who goes where, it might be easier to just outline the players and situations to follow in a silly season table-setter:

AVONDALE, AZ – APRIL 28: Simon Pagenaud of France, driver of the #1 Team Penske Chevrolet and Josef Newgarden, driver of the #2 Team Penske Chevrolet drive during practice for the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix at Phoenix International Raceway on April 28, 2017 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

LOCKS, OR NEAR LOCKS (9) 

Team Penske: Simon Pagenaud, Josef Newgarden, Will Power

We know three of Roger Penske’s fearsome foursome will be back next year and despite Helio Castroneves driving as well as he ever has been, his future within IndyCar is questionable because of the incoming Penske Acura DPi IMSA program next year and the potential he could be shifted to that seat. Castroneves is working as hard as he can to postpone such a shift if possible, but it might be outside his control.

Chip Ganassi Racing: Scott Dixon

Dixon and Ganassi are joined at the hip and as the only one of Ganassi’s four drivers assured a return to the team at the moment, he’ll be leading the way.

Andretti Autosport: Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti

Hunter-Reay and DHL signed long-term contract extensions at the end of last year and Andretti laughed off an erroneous report at Toronto suggesting he could be on the move, retorting to IndyCar Radio, “That’s the journalists doing as bad a job as I am doing on track.”

Dale Coyne Racing: Sebastien Bourdais

On a two-year contract, Bourdais will look for a refreshed full season in 2018 following his planned return to race competition at the tail end of this year.

Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing: Graham Rahal and Ed Carpenter Racing: Ed Carpenter

Both have driven for teams that don’t bear their last name earlier in their careers. Not so much now.

THE REST OF THE DRIVERS CURRENTLY IN THE FIELD

FORT WORTH, TX – JUNE 09: Helio Castroneves, driver of the #3 AAA Insurance Team Penske Chevrolet, looks on during qualifying for the Verizon IndyCar Series Rainguard Water Sealers 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on June 9, 2017 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

Castroneves’ future has become an unfortunate distraction and one wonders if he’ll be able to get back into it after successive tough finishes at Toronto and Mid-Ohio after his Iowa win.

James Hinchcliffe, meanwhile, holds the keys to the driver market if he stays with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, where he’d continue as team leader, or seek to find a place elsewhere.

The last two Indianapolis 500 champions, Alexander Rossi and Takuma Sato’s status with Andretti Autosport is almost entirely (Rossi) and entirely (Sato) down to the team’s impending engine choice decision, whether it sticks with Honda or moves to Chevrolet. Sato’s longtime manager, Steve Fusek, told us this weekend they’re stuck in a holding pattern until they know where Andretti, the team, goes. An Andretti Autosport spokesperson told us this weekend they hope to have the engine decision made within the next couple weeks.

Ganassi’s remaining trio, Tony Kanaan, Max Chilton and Charlie Kimball all have varying degrees of budget which they could bring to a team, Ganassi or elsewhere. It would not be a surprise to see at least two of these three move on.

Mikhail Aleshin has endured a turbulent season with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, even though the potential is there for him to succeed. It’s hard to see him returning next season, especially as Aleshin also has SMP Racing’s LMP1 development program to tend to.

Carpenter told us this weekend it’s a bit early to talk 2018, but he likes what Spencer Pigot has done; he just wishes his qualifying could be better. Pigot appears close at the moment to a full-season deal, with longtime supporter Art Wilmes of Rising Star Racing keen to make that goal a reality. JR Hildebrand has impressed on ovals but has struggled to recapture form on the road and street courses.

Pigot’s successor as Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires champion, Ed Jones, is another intriguing prospect. The Dubai-based Brit has impressed all year at Dale Coyne Racing but like Pigot this year, won’t have the benefit of the $1 million Mazda Motorsports Advancement Scholarship at his disposal in 2018. That might make a return harder to forecast as he’ll have to find that additional budget. Teammate Esteban Gutierrez has spoken to several teams in recent weeks and figures to have the budget with which to bring somewhere.

A.J. Foyt Enterprises is another question mark with both its drivers, Conor Daly and Carlos Munoz. Daly told us a couple weeks ago to look beyond the results and see the flashes of improvement as the drivers, engineers, engines and aero kits have all been new to the team – and those comments proved prescient after Daly’s best weekend to date this year at Mid-Ohio. Will it have come too late, though? Sponsor ABC Supply Co. is a big Daly fan but save for a few exceptions, neither his nor Munoz’s performances this year have blown the paddock away. Larry Foyt faces a tough call for how he moves forward; a change here would mean yet another reset.

NEW OR RETURNING KIDS ON THE BLOCK

Harding and Juncos seem the two likeliest to step up for more races in 2018. Photo: IndyCar

The combination of Juncos Racing, Harding Racing, Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, Michael Shank Racing and Carlin give IndyCar five new realistic potential entrants – and with McLaren having dipped its toes back in the water for this year’s Indianapolis 500 – another Indy-only team at least.

That’s exciting news for a series down to eight full-time teams at the start of the year. But how many can really move into IndyCar for 2018?

With equipment at their disposal, Juncos, Harding and DRR have a leg up over the other two teams. Shank ran an Andretti chassis, but with the Shank crew, this year at Indianapolis while Carlin is yet to make its IndyCar debut.

Juncos and Kyle Kaiser would make sense to continue with a step up together as Kaiser has grown by leaps and bounds under the team’s tutelage. With the $1 million scholarship available if Kaiser wins the Indy Lights title, it’d aid a step-up for both parties in at least a partial season, and potentially full-season entry.

Harding has Gabby Chaves under contract for another year and has a second chassis at its disposal.

DRR and Sage Karam have been tied at the hip for three of four years, but would Karam leave a factory sports car seat with Lexus to make a return to IndyCar in a lower pressure atmosphere? DRR’s also got its GRC Lites program at the moment.

For Shank, getting a sports car program locked down is first priority, and for Carlin, the step up will only come if all the pieces are there. Carlin lacks equipment at the moment but could well make the step up given the free agent drivers available.

THE NEXT ROUND OF POTENTIAL DRIVERS

Despite three star races in 2016, Enerson was left on outside looking in for 2017. Photo: IndyCar

Looking within the IndyCar and Mazda Road to Indy paddocks first, there’s several interesting candidates of note here.

Felix Rosenqvist is the most intriguing, but he may not be available. Until his Formula E future is decided – he impressed with Mahindra Racing this year en route to third in the championship – we don’t know yet if he can work within an IndyCar context. FE has released its 2017-2018 schedule while IndyCar is yet to release its.

Sebastian Saavedra hasn’t done his reputation any harm this year with two impressive drives for Juncos Racing (Indianapolis 500) and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (Toronto), in two different manufacturers and circuits. Still only 27 and more mature now, he could make yet another comeback if Gary Peterson of AFS Racing can find a suitable partner. Alternatively, they could look to a full-time IMSA program.

It was nice to see RC Enerson back in an IndyCar paddock at the track where he dazzled on debut last year with Dale Coyne Racing. Though his driving has been limited this year, Enerson is known to be on several team’s radars. At 20, he’s already known for a smooth driving style and good feedback.

Zach Veach could enter the full-time frame next year. The Ohio native has kept a lower profile since his Indianapolis 500 debut with Foyt, and after a successful fill-in role with Carpenter, which hints he may have something in the works.

Another of the Indy 500 rookies was Jack Harvey, who’s hoping to make at least one more start this year (Sonoma has been rumored) to parlay himself back into full-time seat consideration next year. Harvey’s been active within the paddock this year as a driver coach with Carlin.

Matthew Brabham’s name was mentioned earlier this year but he’s risking falling into the “out of sight, out of mind” territory. The talented Australian American has focused primarily on his Stadium SUPER Trucks season.

Of current Indy Lights drivers, it’s hard to see many of them ready for IndyCar next year. Santiago Urrutia is close after two seasons but would need budgetary help. Both Colton Herta and Matheus Leist look intriguing, but could do with a second year of seasoning in the series. Some of the other series veterans there, frankly, would be surprises.

There’s also the veterans with recent IndyCar experience – the James Davisons and Tristan Vautiers of the world – to consider. And then there’s the driver who could be very highly in demand, Oriol Servia, as he’s conducted testing in the Honda-powered 2018 Dallara universal aero kit for IndyCar.

Outside the paddock, recent sports car announcements could shift some of those drivers into frame, and look at coming over to America. It’s worth noting Pipo Derani and Robert Wickens have tested for SPM this year.

Oh, and Fernando Alonso? Until we know where his F1 future sits, and his decision comes around September, it’s not yet worth discussing – even though he’s expressed interest.

FOLLOW THE ENGINE NUMBERS

This year, Honda (13 cars) and Chevrolet (8) have been out of balance. Will that number tilt closer to an equal balance in 2018?

How the silly season plays out will in large part come down to math and available number of engine leases.

A reduction from any or all of Penske, Ganassi or Andretti – which run 4 cars apiece this year – open the options for other teams to expand, or for new teams to make their engine selection. An Andretti shift to Chevrolet would tilt the “bow tie” number there up, before any teams shift or adjust their numbers.

RLL is working toward a second car, so that’d be another Honda, while Juncos and Harding are both strongly linked to Chevrolet.

THERE’S STILL A LOT TO PLAY OUT

Whether it’s gossip, excitement or speculation all in the works, the silly season in IndyCar is underway. The question is whether it will supersede the on-track activity the final couple months of 2017, as the series heads into the final four races before crowning a champion.

NHRA Phoenix winners: Steve Torrence, Tommy Johnson Jr., Erica Enders

Photos and videos courtesy NHRA
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Missing the season-opening race two weeks ago didn’t have much impact upon two-time defending NHRA Top Fuel champ Steve Torrence, as he roared to victory in Sunday’s finals of the NHRA Arizona Nationals at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park near Phoenix.

“First round I had a little bit of the jitters,” Torrence said after the 37th win of his Top Fuel career, including 29 since the start of the 2017 season. “We missed [the season opener in Pomona, California] so you came here and this is the first round of the first race of the season for us and I was a little bit nervous to go up there.

“We’re just going to see how the races go and what the weather throws at us. I think that we’ve always had a good hot weather tune-up. We’re just going to try to develop cool track conditions. We’re easing up to it. We’ll just see how it goes and that’s something that we really need to try to put our thumb on.”

Torrence had a final round effort of 3.679 seconds at 321.27 mph to defeat runner-up Doug Kalitta. It was Torrence’s second career win at Phoenix. Torrence and his Capco Contractors dragster got to the final round after defeating, in order, Jim Maroney, Shawn Langdon and Steve’s father, Billy Torrence [in the semifinals].

In Funny Car, Tommy Johnson Jr. [3.883 seconds at 326.40 mph] earned his 18th career win in the class in what was an all-Don Schumacher Racing final round, defeating teammate Jack Beckman, who won the season-opening race at Pomona.

“We had a good car,” said Johnson, whose last Phoenix win came back in 2006. “The last qualifying run showed us that we have a solid car. Coming up here today, we had a lot of confidence. We went out first round and laid down a solid number.

“We weren’t low (elapsed time) but we were close. We came out second round and sat low ET so we knew we had a solid car. As a driver, going into each round knowing you have a car that’s going to perform makes your job a little easier. It gives you a little less stress. The guys did a great job. Even in Pomona we a had a good car, just dropped a cylinder second round and event had a little issue with that in qualifying here.”

In Pro Stock, three-time and defending champion Erica Enders won for the 26th time of her career in the class with a 6.531-second, 210.44 mph over Bo Butner.

“I’d have to say today was excellent,” Enders said. “Our objective coming in was to just get my car as happy as possible. We tested in Tucson on Wednesday, so coming in we were definitely optimistic and finally got our act together for that one fun on Saturday.

“The guys gave me a tremendous race car today. Very consistent, very fast and we just crushed the competition today and it was really fun.”

The third race of the 24-race NHRA national event schedule are one of the biggest races of the season, the Gatornationals, March 12-15 in Gainesville, Florida.

Here are the results from Sunday’s race:

FINAL FINISHING ORDER:

TOP FUEL: 1. Steve Torrence; 2. Doug Kalitta; 3. Billy Torrence; 4. Antron Brown; 5. Brittany Force; 6. Leah Pruett; 7. Shawn Langdon; 8. Justin Ashley; 9. Terry McMillen; 10. Clay Millican; 11. Scott Palmer; 12. Jim Maroney; 13. Doug Foley; 14. Terry Totten; 15. Austin Prock; 16. Shawn Reed.

FUNNY CAR: 1. Tommy Johnson Jr.; 2. Jack Beckman; 3. Ron Capps; 4. John Force; 5. Tim Wilkerson; 6. Bob Tasca III; 7. Jeff Diehl; 8. Jim Campbell; 9. Paul Lee; 10. Blake Alexander; 11. Alexis DeJoria; 12. Cruz Pedregon; 13. J.R. Todd; 14. Robert Hight; 15. Terry Haddock; 16. Matt Hagan.

PRO STOCK: 1. Erica Enders; 2. Bo Butner; 3. Jason Line; 4. Alex Laughlin; 5. Kenny Delco; 6. Jeg Coughlin; 7. Cristian Cuadra; 8. Chris McGaha; 9. Matt Hartford; 10. Fernando Cuadra Jr.; 11. Marty Robertson; 12. Aaron Stanfield; 13. Val Smeland; 14. Alan Prusiensky; 15. Greg Anderson; 16. Deric Kramer.

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FINAL RESULTS:

TOP FUEL: Steve Torrence, 3.679 seconds, 321.27 mph def. Doug Kalitta, 4.052 seconds, 218.90 mph.

FUNNY CAR: Tommy Johnson Jr., Dodge Charger, 3.883, 326.40 def. Jack Beckman, Charger, 6.156, 119.31.

PRO STOCK: Erica Enders, Chevy Camaro, 6.531, 210.44 def. Bo Butner, Camaro, 6.606, 209.33.

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FINAL ROUND-BY-ROUND RESULTS:

TOP FUEL: ROUND ONE — Doug Kalitta, 3.711, 330.07 def. Shawn Reed, Foul – Red Light; Shawn Langdon, 3.717, 321.65 def. Clay Millican, 3.750, 321.42; Justin Ashley, 3.717, 312.21 def. Scott Palmer, 3.843, 288.21; Brittany Force, 3.643, 337.92 def. Terry Totten, 8.635, 84.50; Leah Pruett, 3.654, 331.12 def. Doug Foley, 5.328, 127.81; Steve Torrence, 3.717, 325.69 def. Jim Maroney, 4.436, 190.35; Antron Brown, 3.729, 326.95 def. Terry McMillen, Foul – Red Light; Billy Torrence, 3.683, 322.73 def. Austin Prock, 9.008, 78.60; QUARTERFINALS — Brown, 3.721, 326.87 def. Ashley, 10.031, 78.07; S. Torrence, 4.570, 203.31 def. Langdon, 5.170, 216.72; Kalitta, 3.695, 325.69 def. Force, 3.685, 334.15; B. Torrence, 3.703, 328.78 def. Pruett, 3.688, 324.20; SEMIFINALS — S. Torrence, 3.698, 329.58 def. B. Torrence, 3.699, 329.91; Kalitta, 3.672, 330.55 def. Brown, 4.360, 183.74; FINAL — S. Torrence, 3.679, 321.27 def. Kalitta, 4.052, 218.90.

FUNNY CAR: ROUND ONE — Jack Beckman, Dodge Charger, 4.051, 318.02 def. Cruz Pedregon, Charger, 6.254, 109.34; Jim Campbell, Charger, 4.591, 248.16 def. Robert Hight, Chevy Camaro, 7.416, 90.63; John Force, Camaro, 3.848, 335.90 def. Terry Haddock, Ford Mustang, 7.692, 86.52; Jeff Diehl, Toyota Camry, No Time def. Matt Hagan, Charger, DQ-CCL; Tommy Johnson Jr., Charger, 3.878, 325.85 def. Paul Lee, Charger, 3.898, 320.05; Bob Tasca III, Mustang, 4.211, 318.99 def. Blake Alexander, Mustang, 5.172, 151.36; Tim Wilkerson, Mustang, 3.979, 286.25 def. Alexis DeJoria, Camry, 6.045, 111.71; Ron Capps, Charger, 3.905, 329.02 def. J.R. Todd, Camry, 6.383, 103.46; QUARTERFINALS — Beckman, 3.895, 329.42 def. Campbell, 8.959, 70.61; Force, 3.894, 332.43 def. Wilkerson, Foul – Red Light; Johnson Jr., 3.864, 323.74 def. Tasca III, Foul – Red Light; Capps, 4.184, 232.19 def. Diehl, Foul – Red Light; SEMIFINALS — Beckman, 3.882, 329.91 def. Force, 3.917, 326.63; Johnson Jr., 3.871, 319.98 def. Capps, 3.864, 328.06; FINAL — Johnson Jr., 3.883, 326.40 def. Beckman, 6.156, 119.31.

PRO STOCK: ROUND ONE — Alex Laughlin, Chevy Camaro, 6.548, 209.85 def. Matt Hartford, Camaro, 6.586, 208.68; Chris McGaha, Camaro, 6.583, 209.46 def. Greg Anderson, Camaro, 15.609, 67.56; Jason Line, Camaro, 6.649, 186.28 def. Deric Kramer, Camaro, 30.055, 23.82; Bo Butner, Camaro, 10.108, 78.96 def. Val Smeland, Camaro, Foul – Red Light; Kenny Delco, Camaro, 6.601, 208.65 def. Alan Prusiensky, Dodge Dart, 10.724, 93.79; Cristian Cuadra, Ford Mustang, 6.633, 208.10 def. Aaron Stanfield, Camaro, 7.162, 145.93; Erica Enders, Camaro, 6.532, 210.37 def. Fernando Cuadra Jr., Mustang, 6.611, 207.91; Jeg Coughlin, Camaro, 6.535, 210.11 def. Marty Robertson, Mustang, 6.634, 206.67; QUARTERFINALS — Line, 6.581, 210.01 def. C. Cuadra, 14.134, 51.15; Butner, 6.863, 167.32 def. Delco, Foul – Red Light; Laughlin, 6.546, 210.44 def. Coughlin, 6.810, 175.34; Enders, 6.526, 211.00 def. McGaha, Foul – Red Light; SEMIFINALS — Butner, 7.262, 147.44 def. Laughlin, Broke; Enders, 6.555, 210.28 def. Line, 6.582, 209.33; FINAL — Enders, 6.531, 210.44 def. Butner, 6.606, 209.33.

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UPDATED POINT STANDINGS:

TOP FUEL: 1. Doug Kalitta, 212; 2. Brittany Force, 153; 3. Leah Pruett, 137; 4. Austin Prock, 131; 5. Steve Torrence, 121; 6. Justin Ashley, 108; 7. Antron Brown, 103; 8. Shawn Langdon, 91; 9. Clay Millican, 85; 10. Shawn Reed, 83.

FUNNY CAR: 1. Jack Beckman, 220; 2. Tommy Johnson Jr., 175; 3. John Force, 173; 4. Ron Capps, 128; 5. Matt Hagan, 124; 6. Tim Wilkerson, 107; 7. Robert Hight, 100; 8. Alexis DeJoria, 99; 9. Bob Tasca III, 87; 10. (tie) Paul Lee, 65; J.R. Todd, 65.

PRO STOCK: 1. Erica Enders, 203; 2. Jeg Coughlin, 197; 3. Jason Line, 168; 4. Kenny Delco, 132; 5. Bo Butner, 131; 6. Chris McGaha, 106; 7. Alex Laughlin, 104; 8. Matt Hartford, 85; 9. (tie) Cristian Cuadra, 82; Fernando Cuadra Jr., 82.

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