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

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

Houston Supercross by the numbers: Five riders begin to gap the field

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Chase Sexton stumbled in San Diego and Eli Tomac had a hard fall in Anaheim 2, but the Monster Energy Supercross numbers for Houston suggest they will continue to be the ones to beat in Houston. To do so, they will have to turn back challenges from another pair of riders who have swept the top five in the first three rounds and another with a worst finish of sixth.

Houston Supercross numbers
Cooper Webb’s ability to close races makes him a Houston favorite. – Feld Motor Sports

Despite an accident in his heat in San Diego that sent him to the Last Chance Qualifier (LCQ), Sexton recovered to score a top-five that weekend. His podium finish in Anaheim 1 and overall win last week in Anaheim 2 makes him one of the three riders with a perfect top-five record. He is joined by Cooper Webb, who finished second in the first two rounds and fourth last week, and Ken Roczen, whose consistency in the first three races contributed to him grabbing the top spot in this week’s NBC Supercross Power Rankings.

There are reasons to believe Webb and Roczen can keep those streaks alive.

Webb is the only multiple winner at Supercross’ current Houston stadium. His pair of wins came in 2019 and 2021, the same year he won his two 450 championships.

Clinton Fowler points out this week, that Webb has carried that strength into 2023. Webb had a late surge in Anaheim 1, advancing from fifth to second in the final six laps. In San Diego, he set his ninth fastest lap with two to go and his eighth fastest on the final lap. He posted his fastest lap of Anaheim 2 on Lap 12 while the rest of the field did so on Lap 6 on average.

By comparison, Tomac set his 14th fastest lap on the final circuit in route to winning the Main at San Diego while he was trying to keep Webb at bay.

With a sixth at San Diego, Dylan Ferrandis barely missed sweeping the top five in his first three races as did Tomac with a sixth last week at Anaheim 2.

This will be the 46th year Supercross has visited Houston and with 55 races the city is tied for the second-most with Detroit.

Jim Pomeroy won the first race in the Astrodome during the inaugural season of 1974 on a 250, which was the premiere class at the time. Houston was one of three races held that year along with events at Daytona International Speedway and the Los Angeles Coliseum. All three venues return in 2023 with the first SuperMotocross championship finale returning to the famed LA Coliseum in September.

Webb won most recently in 2021 in the final race of three held there that year as the series executed a strategy of racing in residencies to limit travel during height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Tomac and Justin Barcia also won in Houston in 2021.

Two privateers have started the season on a high note.

Joshua Cartwright and Joshua Varize have each made the last two Mains. Cartwright finished 18th in San Diego and 21st last week in Anaheim 2 – all while working fulltime as a Business Intelligence Analyst at the University of Texas, Dallas. Varize earned a top-15 (12th) in San Diego and was 21st in Anaheim 2 in his third season on a 450.

Michael Mosiman scored his first 250 win last year in San Diego. – Feld Motor Sports

The numbers show none of the active 250 Supercross East riders have won in Houston, so no matter who steps on top of the box, there is going to be a fresh face. That is not surprising since most of the top competitors have not raced at this venue yet.

Michael Mosiman has a pair of top-fives there, however. His best finish was a second in the second 2021 race. Garrett Marchbanks scored a top-10 in his rookie season of 2019 in Houston.

In the 250 East division, Hunter Lawrence is one of the favorites to win the title now that Christian Craig has moved to 450s. Last year he had four wins and nine podiums, but failed to set a fast lap in a race.

The other 250 riders with 2022 wins this week are Mosiman, who earned his first Supercross win last year in San Diego, and Nate Thrasher, who became the fifth new class winner at Daytona.

Jeremy Martin will attempt to extend a record this week in Houston. His division leading SuperMotocross podiums number 65. He has 26 wins in the combined sessions, which ranks fourth all time.

Last Five Houston Winners

450s
2022, no race
2021, Race 3: Cooper Webb
2021, Race 2: Eli Tomac
2021, Race 1: Justin Barcia
2020, no race
2019, Cooper Webb
2018, Jason Anderson

250s
2022, no race
2021, Race 3: Colt Nichols
2021, Race 2: Jett Lawrence
2021, Race 1: Christian Craig
2020, no race
2019, Dylan Ferrandis
2018, Aaron Plessinger

By the Numbers

Anaheim 2
San Diego

More SuperMotocross coverage

Supercross unveils 16th edition of a Ricky Carmichael designed Daytona track
Power Rankings after week 3
Malcom Stewart out for “extended duration” after knee surgery
Haiden Deegan makes Supercross debut in Houston, Justin Cooper to 450s
Talon Hawkins set to relieve injured Jalek Swoll in Houston
Jalek Swoll out for an indefinite period with broken arm
Ken Roczen urgently needed a change
Chris Blose joins Pro Circuit Kawasaki in 250 East opener
Seth Hammaker to miss Houston with wrist injury
Jo Shimoda joins Seth Hammaker, Austin Forkner on injured list
Injury sidelines Austin Forkner for remainder of 2023 SX
Chase Sexton wins Anaheim 2 in 450s; Levi Kitchen takes 250s
Results and points from Anaheim 2