The 2020 IndyCar Championship–Take Two

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Just a little less than three months ago, we were staring down the barrel of the season-opening race of the NTT IndyCar Series. A lot has happened since then, including the loss or postponement of the first half of the season. One thing that hasn’t changed too much is the driver lineup for the teams.

I say “too much” because about a week ago, some of the drivers that had left the country at the beginning of the pandemic, faced having trouble getting back. Alex Palou of Dale Coyne Racing and Ed Carpenter Racing’s (ECR) Rinus VeeKay both come to mind. Fortunately, Palou made it back into the country over this past weekend. Last night, we learned that VeeKay will be back in the country in time for the race. That’s good news, because his absence could have had a ripple effect among teams.

Carlin was facing the possibility of having two seats to fill at Texas, if there was to be a domino effect from VeeKay’s absence. Felipe Nasr had been named to Carlin’s No. 31 car for the season-opener at St. Petersburg back in March. We learned yesterday that Carlin would not field the No. 31 car at Texas. What that does for their Leader Circle money for that car remains to be seen. Conor Daly had already been signed to drive the non-ovals for ECR in the No. 20 car. Probably after the pandemic started, Daly was tabbed to drive the ovals for Carlin, in place of Max Chilton – who will make the Indianapolis 500 his only oval this year.

If VeeKay did not make it back into the country by this weekend, Daly could have been pulled back to drive VeeKay’s No. 21 at Texas for ECR – leaving Carlin with no drivers and only one car for Texas. But Carlin announced yesterday that Daly would be in their lone car on Saturday night at Texas. It must be an odd feeling for Daly, who is usually pounding the pavement for a ride.

Of course, these possible travel issues could open the door for veteran drivers that chose to stay stateside. Sébastien Bourdais was scheduled to drive the first four races of the season for AJ Foyt. Three of those races were cancelled and St. Petersburg is now the season-finale in October. Although high-speed ovals are not his favorite, I wouldn’t hesitate to hire Bourdais as a substitute if I was a car-owner and my driver could not get back into the country.

Sage Karam is another worthy choice for Texas, should some teams be needing last-minute substitutes. He has only one race at Texas under his belt – a twelfth-place finish in 2015 – but he has experience at other ovals, where he has done well. Karam wouldn’t gel with every owner long-term, but for a one-race deal on an oval – he would be on most short lists.

Spencer Pigot is also available. While Daly and Karam have 2020 deals with Chevy teams, Pigot has an Indianapolis deal with a Honda-based team aligned with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. Would that preclude him from going to a Chevy team like ECR that may be needing a driver for Texas? You also have to wonder how fresh Pigot’s wounds are from getting dumped by ECR last offseason.

But all of this is pure conjecture. If VeeKay makes it to Texas Motor Speedway by Saturday, all of the drivers that were scheduled to race at Texas will be there.

Tony Kanaan also gets to add one more race to his streak of 317 consecutive IndyCar starts, now that the schedule has shifted. With him driving only the ovals for Foyt this season, his consecutive streak was to end at St. Petersburg. But with Texas being the opener, he gets to add one more start to that impressive tally.

I read somewhere last week that leading the points and winning this championship won’t matter this year. Seriously? Tell that to the drivers, the crews and the owners. No, I think the opposite is going to happen. With so few races being run this season, I think every available point is going to be that much more valuable.

I think that the lack of testing and the shortened season will favor the bigger teams with the most resources – and the ones that had the least turnover, not only in their driver lineup but also in their engineering staff. They will have the most valid data for use on tracks like Texas, where it will be a one-day show with very little practice. Will it be that way for other tracks? Probably not, but we just don’t know.

But with the shortened season with fewer races, it is imperative for a driver to get off to a good start at Texas – then hold that momentum for almost an entire month to the second race in the GMR Grand Prix at Indianapolis.

As was the case throughout the offseason, the biggest wildcard for the season lies with Arrow McLaren SP. I don’t think the current situation helps their two young drivers, Pato O’Ward and Oliver Askew. Neither has raced an IndyCar there and this is a treacherous spot for Askew to get his IndyCar baptism. I’m not saying he will crash out, but he will probably take it easy and learn – which means he probably won’t bring home a great result on Saturday night. But he is a quick study, as is O’Ward. I think both will find success on the road course at Indianapolis in July.

So how will this truncated season play out? As I said, the circumstances of this season favor the bigger teams – specifically, the Big Three of Andretti Autosport, Chip Ganassi Racing and Team Penske. This is nothing new. The last time a driver won the championship from a team other than those three teams was in 2002, when a young Sam Hornish won the championship for Panther Racing. Eighteen years later, that streak will continue. The only suspense is which driver among the drivers from those three teams will win it this year? My money is on Alexander Rossi.

George Phillips

4 Responses to “The 2020 IndyCar Championship–Take Two”

  1. billytheskink Says:

    The unknowns going into Texas are intriguing, and could produce a surprising race. The presence of all the unknowns could also, though, produce a conservative race, at least from some teams and drivers. The mandated maximum tire stints should keep speeds and cars closer, though I don’t think they’ll stay in a pack with this areo package unless there are a lot of cautions (or unless the tire windows are defined by competition cautions, which I have not heard is occurring).

  2. George, Nashville Speedway announced today Nascar race for 2021. Let’s start now for spreading the word for Indycar race return

    • billytheskink Says:

      I saw the headline for that and thought it was about the Nashville fairgrounds track that has been rumored to be getting NASCAR back for several years now… clicked on the article to realize that Dover Downs’ concrete conclave in Lebanon has shockingly risen from the ashes! Color me very surprised about this, but pleasantly so.

  3. This is usually the time of year I start having my first silly season thoughts. Even though they haven’t raced yet, why change my routine?

    Hinch in a 6th AA car this weekend. Assuming Michael is working on a way to integrate James into the fold full time next year (I have no knowledge of this…just a hunch) there’s no way (again, assume) that Andretti will run six full timers. So who’s out after this year? Veach or RHR? (We all know who it should be..but he’s gonna race as long as he wants and that’s the family’s prerogative)

    It’s no secret Scott McLaughlin is coming on board next year at Team Penske. Does this weekend start the Will Power audition for a 2021 ride? Ed Carpenter once said on the air he’d like to have Will Power drive for him someday. Maybe next year?

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