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DiZinno: IndyCar’s 2018 New Year’s Wish List

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Happy Friday, folks. You’ve likely had your rounds of egg nog, batch of presents and hopefully good time with family and friends this holiday season. And unless you’re in California, Arizona or Florida, you’re likely freezing your keister off.

The sounds of race cars coming into your living room on TV, laptop or mobile device are but a few short weeks away. Testing for the Verizon IndyCar Series resumes in mid-January with the beginning of team testing, the series’ open test is in Phoenix in February, the season opener is in St. Petersburg in March and the series’ return to NBCSN is back at Phoenix in April, for what will be the first open-wheel race at the renamed ISM Raceway and the last ever race for the track with the start/finish line where it currently sits, before it’s moved.

With that, we thought we’d offer up a few new year’s resolutions and perhaps wishes for the 2018 season.

A RESHUFFLED DECK IN THE PLAYING FIELD

With a new car – in this case the 2018 Dallara universal aero kit adorning all bodies rather than the manufacturer-specific aero kits used the last three seasons – comes a new opportunity to see the field inverted or at least shaken up.

IndyCar has rarely lacked for parity, particularly since the introduction of the base Dallara DW12 chassis in 2012. Indeed all five of Honda’s teams won races in 2017 while only one of Chevrolet’s (Team Penske) did.

Still though by the end of the year, it’s largely come down to Team Penske teammates going for the title. This is not a bad thing whatsoever, but if the new kit upsets the apple cart a bit and drivers or teams you may not have expected wind up fighting for wins and staying in championship contention over the year, it wouldn’t be a bad thing.

AN APPRECIATION OF THE MID-30-YEAR-OLD GREATS WHILE WE STILL CAN…

AVONDALE, AZ – APRIL 29: Scott Dixon of New Zealand, driver of the #9 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda greets fans as he is introduced to the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix at Phoenix International Raceway on April 29, 2017 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Helio Castroneves’ being shifted over to Team Penske’s sports car program wasn’t necessarily a surprise – it seemed to be something of an open secret in the paddock as summer shifted to fall. The way it was handled wasn’t the best, unfortunately, for a driver who’d spent 18 years with Penske’s IndyCar program and 20 overall in IndyCar.

IndyCar’s new champion, teammate Josef Newgarden, is 27 – and at the leading edge of a tidal wave of young talent that’s poised to take over in the series’ changing of the guard over the next three to five years.

As Newgarden was the first sub-30-year-old champion since Scott Dixon in 2008, then 28, it’s worth noting Dixon and others likely have less of their career ahead of them than behind them at this point.

What we can’t do now is ignore the greats as they potentially begin to wind down their careers.

To wit, here’s the group of those 35-plus and their debut year:

  • Tony Kanaan, 43 on Sunday, 1998
  • Takuma Sato, 40, 2010
  • Sebastien Bourdais, 38, 2003
  • Scott Dixon, 37, 2001
  • Ryan Hunter-Reay, 37, 2003
  • Will Power, 36, 2005
  • Ed Carpenter, 36, 2003

Those seven drivers will become this generation’s version of Foyt, Unser, Andretti, Mears, Sullivan, Rahal, Fittipaldi, Tracy, Vasser and so on and so forth over the next couple years – the venerable superstars who are nearing the end of the road.

These seven listed above all have at least one IndyCar championship, one Indianapolis 500 win, one Indianapolis 500 pole, or perhaps some combination. They’re the clearly established star veterans of the sport at this juncture.

With Castroneves gone, and Juan Pablo Montoya also having been out of IndyCar full-time for more than a year now, it’s worth appreciating the greats and their presence while we still can.

… BUT ALSO GETTING TO KNOW THE NEW KIDS

FORT WORTH, TX – JUNE 09: Ed Jones, driver of the #19 Boy Scouts of America Honda, sits in his car during practice for the Verizon IndyCar Series Rainguard Water Sealers 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on June 9, 2017 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Excluding the batch of Simon Pagenaud, Graham Rahal, Marco Andretti, James Hinchcliffe and Charlie Kimball – all of whom debuted between 2006 and 2011 and are now mid-range in their careers both in age (anywhere from Rahal at still only 28 to Pagenaud at 33) – IndyCar has its first real wave of young guns since the 2008 merger of IndyCar and Champ Car set to break through starting in 2018.

Newgarden, the 2017 champion and Alexander Rossi, the 2016 Indianapolis 500 winner, have laid the groundwork these last two years. But with the new car and a significant number of Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires graduates not only getting to IndyCar but starting to stick, it’s about time we get to know the future studs of the sport.

Newgarden is 27 and Rossi 26, and both easily have a decade or more ahead of them at this level, and may well establish a rivalry between them depending on how their careers evolve. Here’s who else we can get excited about from 2018 and beyond:

  • Ed Jones, 22, 2017 rookie-of-the-year, 2016 Indy Lights champion
  • Zach Veach, 23, 2017 part-time debutante, several-time Indy Lights race winner
  • Robert Wickens, 28, 2018 rookie, DTM winner, successful junior open-wheel pedigree
  • Spencer Pigot, 24, two years in the sport, 2014 Pro Mazda champion, 2015 Indy Lights champion
  • Matheus Leist, 19, 2018 rookie, several-time Indy Lights race winner
  • Max Chilton, 26, two years in the sport, led most laps at Indy 500, Indy Lights race winner
  • Gabby Chaves, 24, three years in the sport, 2015 IndyCar and Indianapolis 500 rookie-of-the-year, 2014 Indy Lights champion
  • Kyle Kaiser, 21, 2018 rookie, 2017 Indy Lights champion
  • Jack Harvey, 24, 2017 part-time debutante, several-time Indy Lights race winner

That’s nine additional drivers right there, all of whom have 33 or fewer starts and who haven’t completed more than two full seasons in the series, who will eventually become regulars at the front of the field in IndyCar.

And this batch doesn’t include Carlos Munoz or his 2017 teammate, fan favorite Conor Daly, who as of this moment sits a free agent but will be getting national TV exposure next month on CBS’ “The Amazing Race.” Then there are young guns such as Matthew Brabham, Sage Karam, RC Enerson, Zachary Claman DeMelo and Santiago Urrutia who have either been up to IndyCar for a cup of coffee or are awaiting their first shot. Factor in the wave of other talents coming through the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires now such as Colton Herta, Victor Franzoni, Nico Jamin, Aaron Telitz, Oliver Askew and Rinus VeeKay among others and you know IndyCar’s future is bright.

A RESOLVING OF INDYCAR’S TITLE SPONSOR AND TV DEALS

SONOMA, CA – SEPTEMBER 15: Josef Newgarden, driver of the #2 hum by Verizon Chevrolet is interviewed following practice for the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma at Sonoma Raceway on September 15, 2017 in Sonoma, California. (Photo by Robert Reiners/Getty Images)

It used to be a case where angst populated IndyCar offseasons in terms of the driver lineup and sponsorships. But with most seats filled as of this writing – only two outstanding seats are known (second Dale Coyne Racing Honda and Ed Carpenter Racing’s Chevrolet for road and street courses) – the two biggest question marks for IndyCar’s future revolve around its title sponsorship and TV contract.

Both Verizon, as title sponsor and the current NBCSN/ABC outlay, as TV partners, contracts’ are up at the end of 2018. Verizon has stated it will continue in a partner sponsorship role with Team Penske. Less clear is exactly what form the TV deal will take for 2019 and beyond, following the end of a 10-year deal where ABC has held exclusive network rights while NBCSN has been the exclusive cable home (first as VERSUS through 2011 before brand change prior to 2012).

One needs to come with the other, so you’d think, to end the question marks and uncertainty over either for 2019. You likely need a year to sell and promote what the future will look like for either element. Without either being set – or at least publicly revealed – it leaves the new year coming without two key tentpole items known beyond the last year of the current contracts. It seems obvious, but the sooner these elements are determined and revealed, the better for IndyCar from a long-term standpoint.

FEWER BLUE AND WHITE CARS, AND A 500 WITHOUT A SINGLE FOCUS ON ONE DRIVER

This doesn’t need to be a long subsection.

Dear IndyCar livery designers: figure out a way to be more imaginative than just going blue and white on your cars. And if you must go blue and white, make it pop on the new canvas of the new car.

And at the Indianapolis 500, provided Danica Patrick does return, I’ll repeat a plea I’ve said before when previous guest stars Kurt Busch and Fernando Alonso came to the race. They can be a story but not the story of the month. Whereas Busch and Alonso were new to IndyCar from their respective NASCAR and Formula 1 disciplines, Patrick’s homecoming is a story enough in itself – even as the waiting game lingers wondering which team she’ll drive for.

A FINAL THOUGHT

IndyCar heads into the 2018 season some 10 years on after the merger that brought to an end the ugly, divisive, brutal 12-year split that created a tailspin which took years to recover. The last six seasons with the new Dallara DW12 and a return of manufacturer competition have brought relative stability, and outside of a rocky and turbulent 2015 season, more positive momentum than not for the series’ future.

The landscape in the sports and media worlds are changing. IndyCar stopped the bleeding after the split ended, but it took time for the scars to heal. Most have.

As IndyCar heads into 2018 and beyond, it has a mix of an exciting new look to its cars, a fresh generation of stars ready to emerge and a number of legends still to carry the torch for the old guard.

The key now is how IndyCar continues to push forward with its good elements and not fall back into its somewhat perpetual “one step forward, two steps backward” routine that seems to plague it just when things are going well. That will be the telltale for 2018 and beyond in what will be a pivotal, but exciting year ahead.

The 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series chassis in a Honda livery. Photo: IndyCar

INDYCAR: what drivers said after Pocono

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Here’s what drivers said after Sunday’s 14th race on the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series schedule – the ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway:

WILL POWER (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet) – WINNER: “I had a few issues during the race but we just kept coming back. Full credit to the team. We had a great car and we just kind of hung there and saved fuel and when it was time to go, I went. I was so determined and I really wanted to win. This is my 13th year in a row of winning races and I have been thinking about that. I just wanted to win a race for Verizon and these guys who have worked their butts off all year and just haven’t had the results.”

SCOTT DIXON (No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda) – finished second: “Definitely gets exciting in that situation. We definitely had some luck. Today the car went through some good changes. The car was pretty quick.  Not sure really what happened on the last stint there. We put more front wing in there, more pressure on the right rear tire. Couldn’t turn the car. We were running 213, 214 (mph), struggling to do 208. So much understeer. Will was definitely extremely strong today. It was good to see him get another victory this season. Had we gone back out, even with headlights on, I think Will was going to take the race. Congrats to him and Team Penske. We’ll keep our head down and see what we can come up with for the last three races.”

SIMON PAGENAUD (No. 22 Penske Truck Rental Chevrolet) – finished third: “Well, it’s a great day. Very happy for Will and Team Penske to get another win here in Pocono. It’s pretty awesome. I think we showed our cars were the strongest today. Overall it’s a pretty good points day for us on the 22 car this weekend. Obviously, yes, I did think we could have done a little better. At least we would have tried. I think we had the car to do so… Who knows what would have happened, but I think we could have challenged at least. At the end of the day it’s not a bad day. We’ll take it. Go to the next one, keep pushing.”

SANTINO FERRUCCI (No. 19 Cly-Del Manufacturing Honda) – finished fourth: “This weekend has been pretty amazing to have over 120 people here, from family and friends to sponsors and to race in front of such a large crowd. Hats off to the whole team, we rolled the car off the trailer and it was fast. I’d say that’s a job well-done and homework well-researched. The No. 19 Cly-Del Manufacturing Honda was on rails. I think we definitely had a top three in us and we were fighting for a chance to win the race at one point. Obviously with the conditions and everything, I’m still happy to bring home a top-five. It makes a huge difference in the rookie championship and moves us up to 12th overall. With three races to go and one more oval, we’ll see how much further we can move up.”

JOSEF NEWGARDEN (No. 2 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet) – finished fifth: “It was kind of an interesting day, but it could have been worse. It was sort of like qualifying yesterday where qualifying got rained out but we started on the pole. We didn’t finish this race but we finished fifth. We’ll take it. I wish we could have been a little bit higher, but I think Will (Power) was going to be tough to beat today. He looked very strong. Certainly towards the middle of the race I thought he was looking very good. We fought with what we had today and I thought the Hitachi Chevy was pretty good. Coming out of here with a decent finish allows us to now focus on the last three events. We just need to set our sights on Gateway next weekend and execute. I think we will have a good car. I always feel confident with Team Penske, and Team Chevy has been pushing hard, so I’m looking forward to it.”

ED CARPENTER (No. 20 SONAX Chevrolet) – finished sixth: “We needed a decent run. We DNF’ed at Iowa, which wasn’t good. I feel like we have been performing better this year, we just haven’t really been able to put it together. It was nice to be in the mix, racing with the guys you need to race with to be up there fighting for wins. I wish we could have seen out all 500 miles, but Pocono always has its own craziness when it comes to the weather. Hopefully, all of the fans got to their cars before they got too wet. I thought it was a really good turnout today, it was a fun race while we were out there. It was unfortunate to see guys kind of lose their minds a bit there at the start, but all in all it was a fun day and nice to be moving forward.”

SEBASTIEN BOURDAIS (No. 18 SealMaster Honda) – finished seventh: “It was a strong run for the No. 18 SealMaster Honda. We were quick and I got up to fourth at one point. I think we deserved that position. It was kind of a broken up race and unfortunately, on the last restart, the guys in front of me checked up and I got swallowed up and lost four positions. I got one position back, then the race was stopped because of the weather. I think if the race continued we would have finished better than seventh, but that’s racing.”

TONY KANAAN (No. 14 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet) – finished eighth: “Good day for us, another top 10. We have a few things to improve still but we’ll take it from where we started. We had a competitive car all weekend. The goal was to finish in the top 10 and we finished eighth, which is my best result of the year. It’s a good energy boost for the boys.”

GRAHAM RAHAL (No. 15 TOTAL Honda) – finished ninth: “We need a little more pace. We were a little slow on the straights for some reason, but we’ll keep digging into it. I had a bad restart (went from fifth to ninth), but it wasn’t that bad actually. I was pulling up on the guys in front of me, but I just got driven around and was in a position where I was a little bit of a sitting duck and lost a bunch of spots and that killed our race from then-on, frankly. We were scrambling just to get ourselves back in position. I had another good restart later and went from 13th to ninth and made some of those spots back up.”

CHARLIE KIMBALL (No. 23 Tresiba Carlin Chevrolet) – finished 10th: “First and foremost, I’m glad that everyone is OK from the incidents on track today. Secondly, I’m just really proud of this Carlin crew. We made great progress with the No. 23 Tresiba Chevrolet in superspeedway trim and we learned a lot after coming here last year. The racing at Pocono Raceway is really tough, but these guys just kept their head down and made it happen. I made a mistake in the first pit stop, but we were able to run our strategy and get a really good run going. To come away with a top-10 finish from a very challenging weekend where we didn’t get to qualify is really a credit to the entire Carlin team. It was really great to get that top-10 finish in front of all of our Novo Nordisk guests who made the trip out to the track to support us and also to round out the top 10 with a bowtie for Team Chevy.”

CONOR DALY (No. 59 Gallagher Carlin Chevrolet): – finished 11th “After where we started at the back of the field, to finish 11th is awesome. It’s unfortunate though, because we were really just starting to get to the point where I was happier with the No. 59 Gallagher Carlin Chevrolet. The last few laps before the final red flag, we were the fastest car on the track, so we were definitely moving in the right direction. We were catching all of the people in front of us and starting to get to where we needed to be, but these 500-mile races are long and the goal is to be strong at the end, which I really felt like we were working toward that for sure. To be 11th is really good and it’s another strong finish for this group of people here at Carlin. Hopefully we can keep this momentum going into Gateway and that’ll be even more fun.”

MARCUS ERICSSON (No. 7 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda) – finished 12th: “It was a tough race. I thought I had some really good starts and restarts; we made up positions there. Unfortunately, throughout the race we were struggling a bit with the balance of the car throughout the stints, so I was struggling to keep up with the pace with the guys ahead or behind us. I thought at one point there after the second restart and we were up to P5, the day was looking to potentially be really good. Just a tough race trying to hang on and make the best of it. We learned a lot and the Arrow SPM guys did a great job with stops, but disappointed we didn’t have a better result than that.”

ZACH VEACH (No. 26 Gainbridge Honda) – finished 13th: “Thirteenth obviously isn’t where we wanted to finish – but all things aside, it was an OK day for us. Just lacking overall grip, I think as a team, but we moved forward from our starting spot – which with qualifying being canceled hurt us. I’m thankful for all the work the guys did. Honestly, walking away 13th isn’t what we want, but we did all we could and I’m proud of that. We’ll go to Gateway and have a better result.”

MATHEUS LEIST (No. 4 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet) – finished 14th: “The car was good. The stops were perfect and I think we had a good strategy. We went a lap down cause we had too much vibration in one of our tires, so we had to stop early and that was it from there.”

MARCO ANDRETTI (No. 98 US Concrete / Curb Honda) – finished 15th: “Mainly, I’m just glad everyone walked out OK after the wreck on the start. I had an issue with one of my head pads coming out and we lost some time fixing that. Beyond that, the car had a big imbalance and by the time we got that resolved, we were a lap down. There wasn’t much we could do, and it made for a long day. Looking ahead to Gateway and working to finish the season strong.”

COLTON HERTA (No. 88 Capstone Turbine Honda) – finished 16th: “The No. 88 Capstone Turbine Honda guys gave me a great car for the ABC Supply 500, I think we had one of the better cars on track today and definitely a better car than where we finished. It’s unfortunate that we got into the wall there. It’s very disappointing. I know we’ll be able to rebound next week at Gateway. I really like racing there and I’m excited to compete under the lights.”

SPENCER PIGOT (No. 21 Autogeek Chevrolet) – finished 17th: “That was a frustrating end to the day, we hit a bump in Turn 1 and it caused something to break on the front of the car. From then on, I was just a passenger and went straight up into the wall. I had no steering at that point, unfortunately. We were running pretty comfortably there in seventh and the car was feeling pretty good. We had lost touch with the group in front but I felt like we had a solid car. I feel bad for everyone at Ed Carpenter Racing, we have a race again next weekend and now there is a lot of extra work to do.”

ALEXANDER ROSSI (No. 27 MilitaryToMotorsports.com Honda) – finished 18th: “Obviously, I didn’t get a good start – so that’s on me. But we were three-wide; Ryan was on the inside, I was in the middle and Takuma was on the outside. I can’t even begin to understand how after last year Takuma thinks that any sort of driving like that is acceptable. To turn across two cars, at that speed, in that corner at a 500-mile race is disgraceful, upsetting and may have cost us a championship. It’s upsetting. This team works too hard to have something like that happen. The whole team worked tirelessly to get the 27 car back on track. Once we got out there, the car just didn’t have the handling we needed so we held on to make up as many points as we could. Unfortunately, the weather came, and the race was called one lap before we could gain another spot. We have a couple days to rebound and go for race wins now – that’s all that matters.”

RYAN HUNTER-REAY (No. 28 DHL Honda) – finished 19th: “The opening lap wreck was ridiculous and thank God everybody was alright. It’s so unfortunate at the beginning of a 500-mile race. The car was good yesterday and we just needed to put together 500 clean miles. The DHL car deserved to be fighting for a win today. We did all we could do after coming back out. The guys did a great job; unbelievable effort in getting the car turned back around. But we were really loose in (Turn) 3, and it turned out we had holes in the underwing from the crash. The last thing we want to do is be a risk out there and damage more equipment, so we got the points we could and came in just before the weather hit.”

JAMES HINCHCLIFFE (No. 5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda) – finished 20th: “It unfolded in front of us. We had a pretty good start with the No. 5 Arrow car. We were heading into Turn 2 kind of three-wide, and I knew that wasn’t a good idea, so I backed out. I thought I was actually gonna save us because it happened in front of me. I couldn’t see exactly what started it, but then the wreck sorta moved down to the inside… I was able to slow down, but it just slid out to where I was. There was nowhere I could go. It sucks. I mean it wasn’t too hard a hit, so glad everybody is ok. It’s a 500-mile race, I don’t know how many times we have to do this before people figure out that you can attack all you want, but it doesn’t give you a chance to win if you are in the fence.”

TAKUMA SATO (No. 30 Mi-Jack / Panasonic Honda) – finished 21st: “First of all, I am worried about Felix. Hopefully he is OK. I am sorry for all the guys fighting for the championship. Ryan and I were obviously racing at the exit of Turn 1 and it looks like Alexander had a slow start. We both went right and left (of Rossi) and I thought it was all clear. All the (track) seams also are putting the car really easy to get the lane change and everybody gets close. Unfortunately, it looks like we made contact for that.”

FELIX ROSENQVIST (No. 10 NTT Data Ganassi Racing Honda) – finished 22nd: “First of all, it’s good to see that I’m cleared from the medical checks. Just with minor back pain and some headache. Hopefully I should be back to normal in a couple of days. A big thanks to the INDYCAR track staff and medical staff, did an awesome job looking after everything. Luckily the other drivers are OK as well, I think that’s the main thing. A shame that we were caught out already on lap one. I think we had a good car today. Good to see Scott being up there all day. Good points for him, probably throwing him up there in the championship hunt. Looking forward to get back in the car in Gateway.”

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