Let the Silly Season Begin!

Is it ever too soon to discuss the IndyCar silly season? In this strangest of years, most are focused on just getting as much of a 2020 season in as possible. Some that said there would be no IndyCar season at all this season are still skeptical about any IndyCar season at all for next year.

Assuming there is one, it will most likely be starting less than five months from the completion of this season – and that’s assuming the already re-scheduled Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg runs in late October. So to answer my own question; no it is not too soon to talk about the silly season.

This is nothing but some wild speculation on my part. But if you look at some of the present team & driver pairings, some of them would have been called crazy speculation before they really happened.

I don’t pretend to know when all of the contracts are up for every driver, but I do know a few that are ending at the end of the current season. Helio Castroneves is most likely done at Team Penske. His deal for an Indy-only ride ended with last month’s Indianapolis 500. Team Penske has not hidden their desire to get Scott McLaughlin into their IndyCar program. Helio Castroneves was the most expendable, but don’t rule out either Simon Pagenaud or Will Power being left without a Penske ride for 2021. Neither has had a stellar season, and they may be wearing out their welcome on a team that has underperformed this season (if you can call wining three out of nine races underperforming).

The three-year contract of Zach Veach is also up at the end of this season at Andretti Autosport. His first year in 2018 had a few bright spots, but last year was abysmal. He only had three Top-Ten finishes and his best finish of 2019 was a seventh at Iowa. This truncated season started off well for Veach. He ran strong all night at Texas and had an impressive fourth-place finish. But it went straight downhill after that. His best finish since Texas was a fourteenth at the GMR Grand Prix at IMS. In the eight races since Texas, Veach has finished twentieth or worse in four or them, including finishes of twenty-first and twenty-second last weekend at Gateway. Ouch!

Still, I’ve spoken to people that say Veach will be back at Andretti next season. Gainbridge reportedly really likes him and if they are willing to write a check, Michael Andretti will cash it. For the record, I don’t expect Zach Veach to be back at Andretti Autosport, but that’s strictly my opinion.

File this under the first crazy predictions that you’ve heard for 2021. Keep in mind, I don’t have inside sources feeding me this information. This is just me connecting some dots; and in some cases – creating some dots that didn’t previously exist, and then connecting them.

Seeing as how I’m closing in on my 62nd birthday, I tend to have a soft spot in my heart for those IndyCar drivers that are getting a little long in the tooth but aren’t quite ready to hang up their helmet. I’m not talking about Scott Dixon, who at the age of forty is just about to wrap up his sixth IndyCar title after coming off of his fiftieth win. I’m talking about some of the others that have had a lot of success in their careers, but not much recently. We’ll talk about them in a minute.

First of all, I think Carlin will go back to running two cars next season. Conor Daly will take his Air Force sponsorship to Carlin and will finally have a fulltime ride with one team throughout the season. He hasn’t experienced that since 2017, when he ran the second car for Foyt. He has had better results this season (three Top-Ten finishes in five races) with Carlin than he has with Ed Carpenter Racing (highest finish of twelfth, with two worse than twentieth).

Tony Kanaan wants to return in 2021 to run the ovals, as he did this season. AJ Foyt really likes Tony, but they have to think big picture and try to get full-season funding for the No. 14 car. It’s very unlikely TK could return to Foyt for a second year in a row, just to run the ovals. Where is the most likely landing sport for a very popular and still-talented driver wanting to run the ovals? Carlin, to run the ovals that Max Chilton has eschewed for the last year and a half.

I predict that Conor Daly will be the fulltime driver for Carlin next season, with Chilton and Kanaan splitting time in the No. 59 Gallagher entry – and fielding a third car for the Indianapolis 500, so that all three can have a ride for it.

Now let’s look at Ed Carpenter Racing (ECR). Like Veach, Ed Carpenter started the season off well at Texas, with a fifth-place finish. Like Veach, he has gone in the tank since then. His last five oval finishes after Texas were fifteenth, twenty-third, twenty-sixth, twentieth and twenty-first. Carpenter gave up the road and street courses following the 2013 season. He will be forty before the start of next season. I think Carpenter will scale back even further to being just an Indy-only driver like Helio Castroneves has been for the past three seasons.

This will open up a full-time seat at ECR. Although I don’t know his contract status, I am going under the assumption that Rinus VeeKay will be back with ECR next season. Who knows? He could take Veach’s seat in the No. 26 at Andretti, but I don’t think so. So for kicks, let’s go ahead and plug VeeKay back into the No. 21 for next year. Ed will drive his traditional No. 20 in the Indianapolis 500. Who will be in the other fulltime seat at ECR? Team Penske will release their hold on the No. 3 and Helio Castroneves will be a forty-six year-old fulltime driver in the NTT IndyCar Series, driving the No. 3 Chevy-powered entry from Ed Carpenter Racing.

That’s not as crazy as it sounds. From what I’ve heard, Chevy loved Castroneves the whole time they were together. He is still one of the most recognized names in IndyCar, even though he has only driven in five IndyCar races over the past three years. He could serve as more of a mentor to the young VeeKay than Carpenter did, because Helio would not also be his employer. His fire still burns and I think he could win a race if given the chance for a fulltime ride at ECR. Like Carlin, ECR would run three cars for all three drivers in the Indianapolis 500.

As I said earlier, although many disagree – I still think Veach will not return to Andretti in 2021. So who do I think will be in the No. 26 next season? James Hinchcliffe with fulltime sponsorship from Genesys, his sponsor for three races this season. I think Genesys realized what he can bring to them from a visibility standpoint. I also think Michael Andretti knows what he would be getting with Hinch.

I am really good at spending other people’s money and deciding what career paths drivers should take. Most likely, not a single one of these predictions will take place. But it’s fun to speculate and play around with the what-ifs. Kanaan will probably strike a deal to return to Foyt, Carpenter will remain in his oval-only capacity for the next few years and none of the puzzle pieces I identified will land as I described.

But what if I was right? Nothing I described is that far out there – even the Castroneves to ECR scenario. The crazy thing is – I didn’t even talk about other possibilities for 2021. The Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg is scheduled to be the last race of this season and presumably the first race for next season. My guess is that the grid next March will look a lot different than it will this October.

George Phillips

Please Note: With the Labor Day holiday on Monday, I will take a short break from here. There will be no post here on Monday Sep 7. I will return here on Wednesday Sep 9. Enjoy the long weekend! – GP

5 Responses to “Let the Silly Season Begin!”

  1. I can’t recall all the details, but I think there was a Marshall Pruett article from about a year ago that said Conor wasn’t able to take his Air Force sponsorship to Carlin due to USAF requiring the sponsorshop money be spent with an American race team and since Carlin is British it created an issue. Maybe that has since been resolved, but I think that could prevent Conor from being fulltime at Carlin with USAF sponsorship. I worry that if Chilton doesn’t return we may no longer see the Carlin team on the grid. I hope that I’m wrong on that.

  2. I guess the sponsorship situation for everybody will largely depend on how many events in the series’ regular markets can actually be run next year because that is where the sponsors want to be represented. A 20+ car grid is likely but an 18 race season not so much.

    It is uncertain yet if 2021 will have any street races at all. It is less likely that places with large open areas for spectators like COTA or Barber would miss out on a race again next year, even if they can only let in a reduced number of people.
    It is no surprise that, with the 2020 falling into place as the season goes on, people have not talked much about next year’s schedule. All this just goes to show that 2018 and 2019 had pretty amazing schedules, the absence of the Milwaukee Mile notwithstanding.
    We might see the double-header format remain at short ovals like Newton/Iowa and Gateway. That format worked pretty well.

    And the long dreamed about NASCAR/IndyCar doubleheader might turn into an amazing event on the Daytona Road Course.

  3. Chris Lukens Says:

    I voted “100% Genius” not so much for this column ( although I’m sure George has nailed some of his predictions ) but for the Genius displayed in so many of his columns over the years. I’ve been here since 2009.

  4. Bruce Waine Says:

    What of adding Sebastien Bourdais into the mix?

    Will we see him at Foyt in 2021?

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