A Very Busy Week at Chip Ganassi Racing

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Please Note: There are actually two posts for today. This post is strictly about events that have transpired in the last week, while we were away last week in Rochester, MN at the Mayo Clinic for my wife, Susan. Below this post is an update on our trip and Susan’s condition. Realizing that some come here strictly for IndyCar commentary, I decided to split them up. The post on Susan is directly below this one, entitled "An Update From the Mayo Clinic". – GP

It was a busy week at Chip Ganassi Racing last week, while I was away. It all started on Saturday, October 24. The masses were assembled at St. Petersburg for the NTT IndyCar Series finale, so that was an appropriate spot to announce the plans for Jimmie Johnson in 2021. He will be in his familiar No. 48, but his sponsorship for his first IndyCar season will come from online auto retailer Carvana.

He will take part in offseason testing this fall at Barber and Laguna Seca, as he will be participating in all of the IndyCar road and street course events in 2021. What is still unclear is what will become of the No. 48 car at the ovals. Will it be parked, or will an oval “specialist” be in the cockpit? If it’s the latter, will Carvana be on the sidepods or will another sponsor be on board? Another pertinent question would be, who would that driver be? I’m not sure that Tony Kanaan left Chip Ganassi Racing on the best of terms, but it’s always amazed me how drivers and team owners can swallow a lot of pride when opportunities present themselves. The speculation on this can take place on another day.

Of course, Sunday saw Chip Ganassi Racing secure the sixth IndyCar championship for Scott Dixon and it’s thirteenth overall. Jimmy Vasser won the first championship for Ganassi in 1996. He was followed two championships by Alex Zanardi and one for Juan Montoya. Then Dixon won his first two in 2003 and 2008, before Dario Franchitti went on his tear of three straight from 2009 through 2011. Dixon then won in 2013, 2015, 2018 and 2020. Curiously enough, Dixon has never won back-to-back championships. Breaking that trend will be extra incentive in 2021, as he tries to tie AJ Foyt’s mark of seven IndyCar championships.

Once the championship was put to bed, Ganassi turned to shoring up the other cars in his stable. Most were fairly certain that Marcus Ericsson would return in the No. 8 Huski Chocolate Honda, but you never count on an IndyCar ride until the owner publicly confirms it. That’s exactly what happened on Wednesday of last week. The only surprise was that the second-year Swedish driver inked a multi-year contract with Ganassi.

I’ve yet to be overly impressed with the former Formula One driver, who migrated to IndyCar prior to the 2019 season. He has seemed solid at times and a little shaky on other occasions. But everyone seems sold on his potential, and Ganassi must like the size of the check he brings. Maybe a second year with the same team will help bring out what everyone else seems to see in him.

While we were all curious about who would be Johnson’s sponsor, Dixon’s sixth championship was not a huge surprise – considering he had led in the points for the entire season – and Ericsson’s announcement brought little more than a yawn; the biggest surprise from Ganassi came on Thursday.

After word leaked out that Felix Rosenqvist was leaving Ganassi’s No. 10 Honda for Arrow McLaren SP (AMSP) to replace Oliver Askew, who was unceremoniously jettisoned from their No. 7 car; speculation mounted as to who would replace Rosenqvist.

Some claimed that Ericsson would move into that car, making Ganassi a team running two fulltime cars alongside Johnson on the road and street courses. Others said that Ganassi would fill that seat with an experienced driver. I had heard that Sébastien Bourdais would bolt from Foyt to claim that precious seat. Others made it an even swap, putting Askew into the No. 10 – but that just seemed too easy. Many had said that Santino Ferrucci would leave Dale Coyne for the obvious upgrade. They had the team left behind right, but the wrong driver. In a surprise move, Ganassi signed Alex Palou, who had just wrapped up a decent rookie season at Dale Coyne.

Unlike Rosenqvist’s move, this was a no-brainer for Palou. I’m still under the opinion that Rosenqvist will regret leaving Ganassi for AMSP, but this move makes total sense for Palou. But does it make sense for Ganassi?

Aside from a strong weekend for the double-header at Road America and a superb qualifying weekend for the Indianapolis 500 – Palou had a somewhat pedestrian rookie year in 2020. He seemed to set a pattern of qualifying relatively well, but fading in races. Like all rookies in 2020, he got a baptism by fire beginning his IndyCar career on the oval at Texas Motor Speedway – where he finished twenty-third, taken out by fellow rookie Rinus VeeKay who went on to win the IndyCar Rookie of the Year.

Other than Road America, where Palou posted finishes of third and seventh, Palou did not have another Top-Ten finish until Race Two of the Harvest Grand Prix in October. In fact, he finished thirteenth or worse in seven of the fourteen races this past season; on his way to a sixteenth place finish in the points.

To say this signing was a head-scratcher is an understatement. If you look at results or potential, I thought there were many available drivers that made more sense than Palou. I guess you have to look beyond the results we all see and realize there is something that matters more – money.

I’m not saying that Alex Palou will not become the next IndyCar superstar. But I think this is a reach on Ganassi’s part. I think Chip Ganassi has always fancied himself as having an eye for young talent. After all, he signed Scott Dixon after Pac West racing folded. But their have been a lot more misses than hits with Ganassi over the years.

Dario Franchitti had already won the Indianapolis 500 and the IndyCar championship before he ever signed with Ganassi in 2009 (after an aborted NASCAR attempt), so that doesn’t count as a hit. Tony Kanaan’s best years were already behind him when he signed with Ganassi in 2014, so that doesn’t count as a miss.

The aforementioned Vasser, Zanardi and Montoya were all hits. But they were in the nineties. More recent misses include Nick Minassian, Kenny Bräck, Daren Manning, Sage Karam, Sebastian Saavedra, Max Chilton and Ed Jones. Charlie Kimball almost made this list, but he did win one race for Ganassi in 2013. Graham Rahal and Tomas Scheckter had bad seasons with Ganassi, but went on to win races for other teams after they moved on.

Will Palou become the next Dixon or Montoya, or will he be the next Minassian or Ed Jones? That remains to be seen.

Regardless of how Palou works out in the No. 10 car, it was a very busy and eventful week for Chip Ganassi Racing. We will certainly be watching all four drivers next season, for a variety of reasons.

George Phillips

4 Responses to “A Very Busy Week at Chip Ganassi Racing”

  1. Did Felix have the option to return to CGR in ’21? Many reports/rumors that he was not invited back.

  2. billytheskink Says:

    Palou’s signing could suggest funding challenges that Ganassi has not dealt with in most of his previous attempts to find diamonds in the rough. But Ganassi has also traditionally had a quick hook, and he has let go of drivers who have won for him the previous season on several occasions (Brack, Vasser, Junquiera, Jeff Ward).

    That said, Palou showed this season that he is not without promise.

  3. Oliver wells Says:

    If I had to put a buck on who comes out in front of whom in the 2121 championship, rosenqvist or palou, I would put it on palou.

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