IndyCar 2018 grid starting to become significantly clearer (VIDEO)

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SONOMA, Calif. – The rumors are starting to turn into releases about the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series grid, as the 2017 season draws to a conclusion this weekend at the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma.

With the new 2018 Dallara universal aero kit coming to teams and with teams going to be testing over the fall, following the completion of INDYCAR-run testing at Sebring on Sept. 26, it’s become significantly more important for teams to finalize their programs earlier than ever.

Here’s a look at how the grid is shaping up, in a Sonoma update (post-Mid-Ohio update here):

CONFIRMED

  • Team Penske (3, Chevrolet): Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power
  • Chip Ganassi Racing (1, Honda): Scott Dixon
  • Andretti Autosport (4, Honda): Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alexander Rossi, Marco Andretti, Zach Veach
  • Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (1, Honda): Graham Rahal
  • Ed Carpenter Racing (2, Chevrolet): Spencer Pigot, Ed Carpenter (ovals)
  • Dale Coyne Racing (1, Honda): Sebastien Bourdais
  • Team TBD (1, TBD): Kyle Kaiser

New here in the last few weeks or so have been the quartet of young Americans, with Rossi (just before Watkins Glen), Pigot and Veach (just before Sonoma) all locked up. That means of the 13 officially confirmed driver/team combinations, nine of them are American drivers. Another new inclusion is Indy Lights champion Kyle Kaiser, who will also have at least three races in IndyCar thanks to the Mazda Motorsports advancement scholarship valued at $1 million.

Additionally, both Andretti Autosport and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports have re-upped with Honda for multi-year agreements. The Andretti new contract with Honda put a stop to any potential other engine movement dominos.

On Friday at Sonoma, Honda Performance Development President Art St. Cyr confirmed as much when he said all five of its teams from 2017 are under contract for 2018. Contracts are staggered, he said, that all five teams will not be up for renewal simultaneously.

PROGRESSING, CLOSE, OR ALL BUT OFFICIALLY CONFIRMED 

  • Team Penske (1, Chevrolet): Helio Castroneves
  • Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (1, Honda): James Hinchcliffe
  • Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (1, Honda): Takuma Sato
  • A.J. Foyt Enterprises (1, Chevrolet), Tony Kanaan
  • Dale Coyne Racing (1, Honda): Ed Jones
  • Harding Racing (1, Chevrolet), Gabby Chaves

Based on reports primarily from RACER and Motorsport.com as well as our own investigating over the last few weeks since our post-Mid-Ohio update, these entries seem close-ish if not outright official yet.

The plan has appeared to shift for Castroneves from his potential sports car shift for Penske’s Acura ARX-05 DPi program to a fourth Team Penske IndyCar after all (first reported from Motorsport.com here). While no formal announcement about his future will be made until after this weekend, Castroneves in a Penske IndyCar now seems a more viable possibility than it did for most of the summer – and may mean this won’t be his final bow as a full-time driver after all.

Hinchcliffe’s options to move away from SPM have seemed to close in recent weeks, and he realistically has nowhere else at a similar caliber top team he can go. As of mid-week no contract had yet been signed, but all signs point to a return here.

Meanwhile Sato will be jumping ship from Andretti to RLL – even though neither party can confirm it until after Sonoma – and Kanaan’s four-year run at Ganassi ends so he is set to become the veteran with Foyt, after their year with a pair of young guns.

Jones appears close to a renewal with Dale Coyne Racing and Coyne told NBC Sports in the paddock today that he is hoping to finalize the second car “within a couple weeks.” The Dubai-based Brit is known to have some funding, but will need to find enough to offset the loss of the Indy Lights championship scholarship, valued at $1 million from Mazda, he brought this year.

While Chaves and Harding are all-but-a-lock, there’s always a tinge of doubt with new programs. The team could theoretically add a second driver with budget as the team has two cars.

QUESTION MARKS 

  • Chip Ganassi Racing (seats 2 and/or 3)
  • Carlin (seats 1 and/or 2)
  • Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (seat 2)
  • A.J. Foyt Enterprises (seat 2)
  • Ed Carpenter Racing (seat 2, road/street courses)
  • Juncos Racing (seat 1)

Ganassi’s non-Dixon trio of Max Chilton, Tony Kanaan and Charlie Kimball has been anticipated to leave over the last couple months. While RACER linked Porsche LMP1 driver Brendon Hartley to Ganassi’s second seat, eRacing365 reported on the same day that Hartley said he was looking at a Formula E seat. If the latter scenario developed, it’d leave Hartley in the same spot as Felix Rosenqvist, locked into a Formula E contract.

Chilton is expected to head to Carlin, the Trevor Carlin-run team which is owned by Chilton’s father Grahame. The identity of his teammate, provided Carlin enters into the series with two cars, is less clear. Kimball makes sense although his degree of budget with longtime partner Novo Nordisk could be reduced. Carlin could be in the frame for an Indianapolis shop if it steps up; the team’s Indy Lights operation is based in Delray Beach, Fla. And with Ed Carpenter Racing confirming it will be moving shops at year’s end, this provides a potential entry point for Carlin into Speedway if a deal is struck.

SPM co-owner Sam Schmidt has told multiple outlets a “short list” of some “28 drivers” are under consideration for his second seat. All the while, the team delivered a rather random third car announcement for next year’s Indianapolis 500, for French sports car veteran Tristan Gommendy with the Calmels Sport team. Drivers ranging from sports car veterans to Hinchcliffe’s Canadian countryman Robert Wickens to SPM’s 2016 Indy Lights driver, Santiago Urrutia, are among the contenders for the highly coveted seat.

Foyt is known to be evaluating both Conor Daly and Carlos Munoz for the second seat there, alongside at least one or two other young guns with recent IndyCar experience.

Quite who lands in Carpenter’s second seat for road and street course races is less clear. A reflective JR Hildebrand won’t be a candidate following Pigot’s promotion into the full-time No. 21 car.

Ricardo Juncos is set for anywhere from three to five races at the least as he steps up further beyond his pair of MRTI programs. Graduating with Kaiser would be a natural, but that’s not to say Kaiser might not be looking elsewhere – he is here at Sonoma and making the rounds this weekend.

DRIVERS LOOKING TO FIND A SEAT 

The list of 2017 drivers without a ride confirmed yet includes those already mentioned in the first few categories: Hildebrand, Daly, Munoz, Chilton, Kimball, and Jones.

Jack Harvey joined Veach in the “Indy Lights graduates making limited 2017 starts” club and worked to push through some issues that hampered his weekends. He’s known to be looking at a couple different team situations.

Then there’s Esteban Gutierrez and Sebastian Saavedra to consider. Gutierrez’s budget amount seems to vary depending on who you talk to, but if the series adds a Mexico City round, Gutierrez is a must-have for the field, certainly for that race and preferably the full season. Talk though that he might be with one of the top teams has cooled, and with Michael Andretti now unlikely to run a fifth car full-season beyond the Indianapolis 500, he may not wind up there as was possible.  Saavedra was his usual serviceable self in a handful of races with Juncos and SPM that put his name back on the map.

Recent veteran drivers that raced once or twice in 2017 include Oriol Servia, Sage Karam, Tristan Vautier and James Davison, but none seems to be on the real radar of a full-time seat. Servia’s development savvy – particularly given his work on the 2018 Dallara universal aero kit – and guidance to a young gun is once again being overlooked.

We ran through the Indy Lights contenders a week or so ago, with Urrutia and Zachary Claman DeMelo both making the most noise about their desire to graduate. Claman DeMelo makes his IndyCar debut at Sonoma in RLL Racing’s second car and wants to step up in 2018, although wouldn’t rule out an Indy Lights return. Meanwhile Urrutia and Matheus Leist are among the young guns here this weekend in a visiting role.

RC Enerson and Matthew Brabham have had the unfortunate distinction of impressing in limited 2016 starts but failing to secure a follow-up opportunity this year, although both have made sporadic appearances at races throughout the year, including Enerson here at Sonoma this weekend.

Supercross: Eli Tomac has the long game in mind

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Racing is reaction. A split-second hesitation means missing the holeshot. A decision about how hard to charge into a corner, side-by-side another rider, is made without bothering to engage one’s consciousness. The tiniest things make the biggest difference. With a late-race pass at Daytona in the Monster Energy Supercross series, Eli Tomac wrested the lead from Ken Roczen and broke a tie atop the points standing. But just barely.

Tomac is the defending winner of the Lucas Oil Pro Motocross championship. In fact, he enters with the last three titles to his credit, but the Supercross championship has eluded him.

“This wouldn’t be about beating Ken,” Tomac told NBC Sports. “This would be about getting that first Supercross title. I feel like it’s the most wanted title that we have currently in our racing. It’s the one sponsors look at the most, so I want it really bad. It doesn’t matter who I’m battling with, I want to be that guy with the (red) plate at the end of the year.”

Daytona was Round 10 of what was supposed to be a 17-round Supercross season. After a winner was crowned in the indoor arenas, the riders would have moved to longer, faster outdoor tracks. They would have had two weeks to prepare for Motocross.

If the past three seasons are an example, the Motocross season is of little concern. Tomac dominated that series and has amassed 23 career wins there.

The story has not been the same in Supercross. He finished second in the 2015 and 2017 standings. He was third in 2018 and then back up to second last year. But while he keeps coming close, he’s had to watch as two new winners were crowned in the past two years.

Jason Anderson took the title in 2018, which was a bit of a surprise.

Last year was even more shocking as Cooper Webb entered the season without a single Supercross victory and left with the championship.

Tomac has the wins. Daytona was his 32nd in Supercross series. He’s simply missing the big red plate that signifies the championship to hang on his wall.

“I’ve been able to accomplish everything I can except get the championship,” Tomac said. “I have so many race wins and I look at those more than the second-place finishes in the championship. Second-place in the championship, people don’t remember. Some people remember race wins.

“Most of the time, they remember the championship.”

Eli Tomac’s pass on Ken Roczen at Daytona might well be the pivotal point in his season. Feld Entertainment, Inc.

Daytona was pivotal.

One week earlier, Tomac took a significant points lead into Atlanta and saw it evaporate. He got off to a slow start and was mired in traffic. One of his split-second decisions proved to be the wrong one and he crashed midway through the race before mounting a charge to return to the top five. Tomac finished fourth. Roczen won after getting a fast start.

They left Atlanta tied for the lead.

At Daytona, the story was the same for most of the race. Roczen led Lap 1. Tomac got a slow start and had to battle his way to the front.

“Going back to the Daytona race, it’s a track that requires a lot of patience, even though I didn’t start up front,” Tomac said. “You’re always going to make mistakes, you just try minimize them as much as you can. That’s where I made the majority of my passes: from guys making mistakes. That was my game plan going into the race, to try and have a mistake-free ride.

“In my mind, I’ve put in all this work to get into second-place at this point and then I see Roczen in front. I feel like I can keep digging at that point. I had more in the tank, so I didn’t want to stop. I never do unless I’m in the lead. So that was my mindset.”

Roczen finished less than a second behind to hand the championship lead back to Tomac by a narrow three-point margin.

“(Roczen is) a competitor that you can trust,” Tomac said. “That’s the nice thing about racing Ken is that he’s predictable. There are certain riders on the track that you may not even be comfortable going on to the next jump with. If I’m going to be battling guys, Ken is a great competitor to go against.”

MORE: Eli Tomac and Justin Barcia feud at Atlanta

MORE: Ken Roczen still has a shot at the championship

And then racing came to a screeching halt as the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic required all live events to be postponed so fans could practice social distancing.

After Daytona, seven more Supercross rounds were scheduled to be run with only a short break for Easter. That race should have come at about the two-thirds mark and as riders headed back to shorter, tighter tracks to end the season.

But the pandemic has made Daytona the final Supercross season before Motocross begins. And it might yet make it even more pivotal in both championships. With its long straights, Daytona is a hybrid that has as many characteristics in common with the outdoor season as it does with indoors. It provides a bridge between the two disciplines.

Supercross is mentally grueling. The tight confines of indoor arenas make it a technical track were the smallest bobble has the biggest impact.

Motocross is physically demanding. The toll on the body is intense, but after that season winds down, riders typically have several months to recuperate before heading into the next year.

Tomac’s back has been a familiar site to the other riders in recent seasons. Feld Entertainment, Inc.

In 2020, riders will have to shake off the dust and take their battered bodies back inside and refocus that mental energy.

“It’s going to be hard to manage your energy levels and just go and race all the way through September and October, if that happens and If everything stays somewhat current now,” Tomac said. “You’re going to have to have a lot of long-game in mind. That’s going to be key because the Motocross season wears on you physically.

“It’s going to be really tough to make the transition. At the beginning of Supercross you always feel like you have a few races to get warmed up and in the groove. But at this point in the game if we race in September and October, there is no getting back in the groove. It’s totally new for everyone. The other positive is that I have the lead, even though it’s minimal. I’m in the best position I can be in.”

If Tomac can do what he’s done for the past three seasons, interjecting some outdoor races in the middle of Supercross could play to his advantage. A fourth championship, if that is what happens, will give Tomac a ton of confidence before the final rounds of the Supercross season occurs.

If he does not win the championship for the first time since 2016, he’ll be hungry. But one way or another, Tomac will convince himself that he is the rider to beat.

“(The lead) is the best position to be in and it may turn out have paid off very well to be in the points’ lead (after Daytona),” Tomac said. “There is so much unknown there.”

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