The Prize Of This Year’s Silly Season

After Tony Kanaan won the 2013 Indianapolis 500, the story of that silly season was questioning where he would end up. Kanaan ended up signing with Chip Ganassi, partly so that he could drive alongside his good friend Dario Franchitti. Of course, Franchitti was injured late that season and forced to retire, preventing the two former Andretti teammates from repeating their association at Ganassi.

Last year, the two questions in silly season centered around the futures of James Hinchcliffe and Simon Pagenaud. Hinchcliffe eventually signed with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, while Pagenaud ultimately ended up at Team Penske. Who would’ve thought that Pagenaud would be the one to go winless in 2015?

This year, the prize free-agent of the Verizon IndyCar Series is Nashville native Josef Newgarden. Newgarden is no longer the up and coming driver in IndyCar. He has arrived. He is one of the faces of the series. He is a young, good-looking and well-spoken driver. Most of all, he has talent – tons of talent. He may have several options in the coming days and weeks pertaining to his palce of employment for 2016 and beyond. As usual, there are mixed opinions throughout the IndyCar community as to what Newgarden should do.

Since winning the 2011 Indy Lights title for Sam Schmidt, Josef Newgarden has spent the last four seasons in IndyCar driving for Sarah Fisher. When that signing was announced in December of 2011, many thought Newgarden had made a mistake going with such a small team with limited resources that had just lost Dollar General as their sponsor. Others saw it differently. They wondered why Sarah would go with an unproven rookie, when she clearly needed a big name to attract a new sponsor.

As it turned out, it was a good fit for both. The pairing gave both parties ample opportunity to grow. In the first year; Newgarden made predictable rookie mistakes, while also showing glimpses of his potential. In years two and three, Newgarden made the progress he was expected to make. Several times he found himself knocking on the door of that first career victory, but something kept preventing it – sometimes driver error, sometimes poor pit work by his crew.

Year four, 2015, was the breakthrough season. Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing had joined forces with Ed Carpenter Racing after the 2014 season, to form CFH Racing. Newgarden earned his first victory at Barber Motorsports Park. It was no fluke. He had the field covered all day. He followed that up with a very rough month of May, but rebounded with another win at Toronto, a fifth at Milwaukee and second place finishes at Iowa and Pocono. Newgarden was one of only six drivers still eligible for the championship heading into last weekend’s season finale at Sonoma.

It was a disappointing day at Sonoma for Josef Newgarden. He qualified on the front row and was running near the front for the first half of the race. But on his second pit stop, Newgarden stalled the car. The car then caught fire as they tried to re-fire the car. By the time Newgarden got the car started and re-joined the field, he was in twenty-third place. He never recovered and finished twenty-first, dropping him to seventh in the final championship standings.

But while Sunday’s gaffe was on Newgarden, make no mistake – it was Newgarden’s crew that plagued him for most of the season. It was quite common to see Newgarden come into the pits leading a race and see him exit the pits in fifth – or worse. Lost wheel nuts, missed assignments and general chaos seemed to be the rule in Newgarden’s pit.

With Newgarden now a free-agent; many believe the performance of his crew may be the determining factor whether he re-signs with CFH Racing or seeks employment elsewhere. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again – I think Newgarden should move on to another opportunity, assuming that it is with a better team.

There is talk that Honda wants Newgarden in their camp. Sarah Fisher was with Honda before merging with Ed Carpenter, who had Chevy. CFH stayed with Chevy, but word has it that Honda really wanted to keep Newgarden. The problem for Newgarden is that most of the Honda teams are second and third tier teams.

Andretti Autosport was in the doldrums until the arrival of Justin Wilson. Once Wilson came on the scene, the performance of Ryan Hunter-Reay and the rest of the team improved dramatically. Many credit Wilson for helping Andretti sort out the issues with the Honda aero kit. Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing appeared to figure it out early on as a one-car team. There is talk that Rahal wants to expand to a two-car team for next season, assuming sponsorship can be found for the second car. Rumor has it that Newgarden would be on their short list to become Graham Rahal’s teammate for 2016.

It appeared that Justin Wilson was going to be with Andretti Autosport as a full-time driver in 2016. With his passing, I don’t know if Michael Andretti plans to carry four full-time drivers or not. If he does, Andretti Autosport should be one of the teams that Josef Newgarden takes a close look at.

As great a season that Bobby Rahal’s team had this year, I’m not so sure that that would be my chosen destination if I were Josef Newgarden. This is Graham Rahal’s team. It will always be Graham Rahal’s team. Anyone headed there must understand that they will always be on a lower level than Graham. Some might say the same thing about Marco Andretti and Andretti Autosport; but I don’t believe that to be the case at all. Marco will always have a ride there; but Ryan Hunter-Reay is, without question, the number-one driver at Andretti.

If you listened to Trackside this past Wednesday night, you heard a scenario tossed out that had Newgarden going to Bryan Herta Autosport with Big Machine Records sponsorship. Stranger things have happened, I suppose – but I don’t look for that to be happening at all.

Most people seem to think that Josef Newgarden may be headed to Chip Ganassi Racing, but I’m not sure where. There is talk of Ganassi dropping the No.8 car shared by Sage Karam and Sebastian Saavedra this past season. That leaves Tony Kanaan, Scott Dixon and Charlie Kimball. As far as I know, none of them are going anywhere.

Kimball is young and has the Novo Nordisk sponsorship money. Dixon is expected to drive at least another five years and most expect Kanaan to drive at least one more year to drive in the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500. He could drive more.

More than once, I’ve heard Curt Cavin throw out the possibility of Roger Penske signing Newgarden to drive starting in 2017. The thinking is that, by then, Juan Montoya and/or Helio Castroneves may have retired. Helio is already over forty, but I understand that he really wants to get that fourth Indianapolis 500 win. I don’t see Helio going part-time or leaving Penske, so it may be a while before he leaves. However, I could see Montoya shutting it down after his third season with Penske – especially if he wins the championship next season. He has proven to himself and to the world that he wasn’t washed up when Chip Ganassi released him from his NASCAR team. Three successful years back in IndyCar may be enough for him.

That scenario sounds a little far-fetched, but it also makes sense. If that were to happen, would Newgarden re-sign with Sarah Fisher and CFH for another season? Would they want him under those conditions if that scenario was made public? I’m thinking if Newgarden signs a one-year deal with CFH with no other explanation – such a deal took place behind the scenes.

But if no such deal is in the works, I certainly don’t see Penske expanding to a five-car operation. I think four was too much for them this past year. Assuming there is no room left at Ganassi, what does that leave for Newgarden?

It leaves a possible opening at Andretti Autosport and a likely second car at Rahal as the two most attractive possibilities. I’ve already given my opinion of him going to Rahal. Based on their performance for the first two-thirds of the year – I’m not sure Andretti is an ideal destination either.

Before Hunter-Reay’s resurgence over the last four races, when he won two races and placed second in another – questions were swirling about what was going on at Andretti. The internal suit involving Andretti Sports Marketing suing Andretti Autosport did nothing to squelch rumors of financial instability and ongoing leadership problems. Their inability to come to grips with the Honda aero kit, when smaller teams like Schmidt and Rahal had figured it out led to some head-scratching. Will they continue their late-season momentum or will the death of Justin Wilson send them into a second straight year of relative futility? That’s a gamble that only Josef Newgarden can decide if it’s worth the risk.

So, if the advice of an overage blogger sitting in his hometown of Nashville means anything to him – I think that if Chip Ganassi or Roger Penske don’t come calling, Josef Newgarden may be better served to re-up with CFH Racing. Sometimes, the devil you know is more desired than the devil you don’t. Given what we know, the only way I would recommend Newgarden leaving his current employer is if one of those two teams offer him a ride. If either Ganassi or Penske have an opportunity for him – he’d be foolish not to take it.

George Phillips

Please Note:  Due to the Labor Day holiday this Monday, I plan to take a break as well. There will be no post here on Mon Sep 7. I plan to return here Wed Sep 9. Hopefully, next year there will be a race to report on next Labor Day and some weeks afterwards, but that’s another post in itself. Enjoy your holiday! – GP

17 Responses to “The Prize Of This Year’s Silly Season”

  1. Br!an McKay Says:

    First to vote again (in Central Time Zone)
    Thanks for blogging, George. Too bad the IndyCar season has ended. But enjoy a Sunday without blogging.

  2. I just don’t understand why Rahal is such a hot seat to be in now. They have done this before, in 2004 with Buddy Rice, only to have a hot season and then be mid pack in 2005. They haven’t proven anything to me other than hitting on a setup THIS year. Wasn’t it just last year that Michele Jordain couldn’t even get their 2nd car up to speed to bump out Buddy Lazier? That was a fully sponsored 2nd car that couldn’t bump out Lazier’s car probably built in a house garage….

    I think he should sign a short deal and wait out one of the old guys (who need to go in my opinion) like Kanaan or HCN. Those 2 guys are beyond their time and I think it’s time to go for both. That will be an unpopular opinion but I don’t see them as doing much for Indycar any longer.

    • billytheskink Says:

      That was 2013 when Jourdain couldn’t get the RLL car up to speed at Indy, it was the team’s 3rd car (Jakes was in their 2nd), and Katherine Legge was on the bubble with Lazier in 32nd.
      And, to be fair, in 2005 they were saddled with the Panoz G-Force chassis that carried Scott Dixon to 13th in standings.

      Of course, it doesn’t speak well of the team that they couldn’t get a 3rd car with a week of practice into the 500 over a car that first saw the track on bump day morning or that they brought those same boat-anchor Panoz chassis to the first several races of 2006.

      Thus, I’m inclined to agree, even being the Team Rahal fan that I am. They have not fielded a competitive two-car effort over multiple years since they were in CART. I would absolutely root for Newgarden in a Rahal car, but he has a better shot at being competitive where he is at, provided funding can be found.

      • The Panoz chassis didn’t help, but it was the Toyota engine that contributed the most to Dixon’s poor finish that season. Honda drove both Toyota and Chevy out of the series by the end of the 2005 season. – GP

  3. The question I have is “does CFH have the money to support a ride for Newgarden?”. I’d read that Wink Hartman was planning to reduce his sponsorship money for next season, and that CFH had a funding gap. I don’t know what the Big Machine Records $$ are like, but I can’t imagine they are on par with Hartman Oil money, and Honda isn’t funding a ride in a Chevy. So I’m not sure that staying at CFH is even an option at this point for him.

    I could see the CFH ride becoming a Rental Car like Coyne in 2016. I say take a 1 year deal with Andretti if Ganassi or Penske don’t come with an offer. I see no reason to go to RLL for the reasons that you mention.

  4. It is my understanding that the kid from Hendersonville has a good engineer and a good relationship with his engineer. That kind of talent and that kind of relationship is not common. Pit crew performance can be improved if the will is there. Practice, practice, practice. Sleep with a tire.

    I believe that winning the 100th running of the Indy500 will be a more important goal for teams and manufacturers in 2016 than winning the series championship. A lot of needed benefits will come from that.

    It is not likely that Chevy, having won the last four manufacturer’s championships, will take a performance step backwards in 2016.

    Just being with Penske or CGR is no guarantee of instant success as been shown numerous times, most recently with Simon. It appears unlikely that they will have any openings anyway.

    So, Mr. Newgarden, stay where you are, help make your pit crew the best in the series, continue to hone your driving and milk drinking skills, and hopefully we will see you in victory lane for THE 100TH RUNNING OF THE INDY500!!!

    In the meantime we are stuck with football. “They’ve gotta get their running game going Biff”

    Is it May yet?

    • Are we already saying this? It’s too early for an offseason. Offseason is too long and we are not even to the weekend yet. I struggle with the gargantuan winter offseason and here we are.

      • A major bummer fer sure. I am reduced to getting my daily racing fix now watching Sgt. Ric Hunter flog that classic Dodge Monaco around California streets on scuffed blacks.

  5. DZ-groundedeffects Says:

    I’ll keep JoeNew at CFH for one more season and leap straight to #SillySeason2017…

    Derrick Walker quietly begins building a team for 2017, his connections put him in good stead with a few smaller teams on the financial outs.

    Derrick chooses to partner with BHA, AND the remnants of SFH (which has since split from ECR), becomes a fully funded two-car team with Josef and Seb Bourdais.

  6. OK, serious reply althougth it may seem trite.

    Does the name Josef Newgarden seem …… milk toast and immediately forgetable? And if you can’t tell who Newgarden & Pagenaud drive for you’re probably among the majority. Do CFH or any other alphabet teams inspire passion?

    Something in my head says that if his name was Sid Vicious and drove for CRASH Racing the media attention, headlines and sponshorship deals would really jump.

    Maybe there’s a marketing lesson to be learned from “pro” wrasslin’ or pop music.

  7. Helio had a really really bad year. No wins. He seemed to luck into his podiums by using alternate strategies and catching a caution. Roger needs to put Newgarden in the 3 and give Helio a car for May.

  8. Still mourning Wilson, silly season is postponed until later for this poster. Sorry for being so downbeat on your blog, George.

  9. Newgarden should run to Ganassi and Penske and win the 500!

  10. Andretti.

  11. Stay put for another year and whip the pit crew into shape for 2016.

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