In Search of an Oval Specialist

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This past Monday I wrote about the busy week at Chip Ganassi Racing during the previous week. One part involved the announcement that Carvana would be Jimmie Johnson’s sponsor in the No. 48 car, as Johnson campaigns all of the road and street courses. I briefly touched on the speculation surrounding that car on the ovals, but I caught myself before going down that rabbit hole with the final sentence of that paragraph; The speculation on this can take place on another day.

Today is that day.

In that same post, I had wondered if that car would be parked for the ovals or if an oval “specialist” would fill the cockpit. Robin Miller answered that question in his most recent Mailbag on Wednesday, when a reader asked him that question point-blank. Miller’s response was; ”Absolutely, Ganassi has said since Day 1 they want an oval driver as Johnson’s teammate, and maybe that would be a nice spot for Askew.”

I wasn’t aware that Ganassi had been saying that, but that’s good to know. It’s also good to know that there will be another full-time car on the grid in 2021, to go along with Penske adding Scott McLaughlin in a fourth car for them.

That still leaves two questions that I brought up on Monday. Will Carvana be the sponsor on the ovals, or will it be another sponsor? The much more important question is…Who will that driver be?

There are the usual suspects, but I don’t really have any one driver in mind. Those usual suspects include Conor Daly, Tony Kanaan, Helio Castroneves, JR Hildebrand, and newly unemployed drivers Zach Veach and Oliver Askew. This is one of two teams that will be seeking out an oval specialist – that is, if Carlin returns in 2021.

Conor Daly had an unusual season, splitting time between the non-oval races in the No. 20 for Ed Carpenter Racing (ECR) and the No. 59 for Carlin. Ed Carpenter has chosen to run only ovals for the past several years in the NO. 20, so he hires a road and street course specialist for the remainder of the races. It’s the opposite at Carlin, as Max Chilton has opted to sit out the ovals. Since they are both Chevy teams, it worked out and ECR gave their blessing for Daly to run for a competitor for the ovals.

I don’t know what the pans are for ECR or Daly for 2021. As of now, I don’t think either party is tipping their hand as to what their plans are for 2021. There is some speculation that Carlin may not return in 2021. If that’s the case, Daly couldn’t work out a similar arrangement with Ganassi, because ECR is a Chevy team and Ganassi runs Honda engines. I don’t think any parties would sign off on that one.

Keep in mind, there are only four oval races scheduled for next season, across only three venues. There is a double-header at Texas (which I still have mixed feelings about), the Indianapolis 500 and the Saturday night race at Gateway in August. I think that having only four opportunities to race may not be appealing to an older driver looking for a full-time ride. That rules out Helio Castroneves. His window of opportunity is closing rapidly, and I don’t think he wants to limit himself to four races in the time he has left. But if nothing else opens up, he may suddenly warm up to the idea.

I think Tony Kanaan may have a different outlook than Helio. He ran an oval-only schedule last year and seemed fine with it – after he got over the emotional shock of ending his consecutive race streak. Tony Kanaan was still competitive in not-so-good equipment. He is one of the few drivers that took the No 10 to victory since Dario Franchitti drove that car, albeit it over six years ago. Maybe I’m biased because I’m still a big Tony Kanaan fan, but I think TK could get the job done on the ovals for Ganassi.

I’m split on JR Hildebrand, and I’m not even sure he’s a candidate. Dreyer and Reinbold ran more races this past season and have long-range plans for more. But other than the Indianapolis 500, I’m not sure they will ever run a second-car. That’s good for Sage Karam, but bad for Hildebrand. If offered the chance, I would think Hildebrand would jump at the chance to run four races next season, including the Indianapolis 500, than one. The question is, would he be asked?

I know I’m in the minority here, but I’ve never been a huge JR Hildebrand fan. Apparently I’m not alone, because he hasn’t even gotten a sniff at a ride since he was dumped after his full-time season at ECR. I always felt like JR got a bum deal at Panther, but I haven’t really seen much from him since he came within a corner of winning the Indianapolis 500 as a rookie in 2011. That was probably the worst thing that could have happened to him. His career has been mostly downhill ever since. Could he resurrect his career in a four-oval stint at Ganassi? I’d be curious to find out.

I’m not sure the two drivers that lost their rides in 2020 would be that interested in a four-race stint, or if Ganassi would be interested in them. The four-race stint comes with the perk of driving a Ganassi car in the Indianapolis 500, and four races is better than nothing. But if I were in their shoes, I would think long and hard about jumping into that deal. Then again, I don’t think that’s a decision they will need to make. Ganassi will most likely go with a veteran with a proven record on ovals.

If it was in Chip Ganassi’s shoes, I’d give a strong look to Oriol Servia. He is an excellent driver who doesn’t need a lot of ramp-up time. But I’m not sure he is even pursuing anything at his age. He has a beautiful new wife and a brand new baby at home. His driving days may be behind him.

The process of elimination, and my own personal bias, points in the direction of Tony Kanaan. But as I said on Monday, I’m not sure if Ganassi and Kanaan parted as best of friends after the 2017 season. Would Kanaan be welcomed back? Would Kanaan rather sit out the season than drive for Ganassi again? I have no idea what the answer is to either of those questions.

Most likely, the answer to who the driver will be is someone else. It is probably someone I haven’t mentioned or even thought of. That’s what makes silly season so intriguing.

George Phillips

Update:  For those that have asked, Susan got the final test result back from the Mayo Clinic on Wednesday night. The lining of her abdomen showed no evidence of any cancer cells. That was a key hurdle, they are able to perform surgery sometime after the first of the year. That was a huge victory in her battle. – GP

7 Responses to “In Search of an Oval Specialist”

  1. James T Suel Says:

    I have to agree Tony would be my choice. He can definitely get it done on any oval. And it would be a perfect exit for him.

  2. billytheskink Says:

    Matt Kenseth figures to be available…

    To be honest, Hildebrand would probably intrigue me most here. He’s completed every lap at Indy in 8 of 10 races, has 4 top 10 finishes and dragged D&R’s sled to 11th in 2018. He’s good at Indy… but his record at Texas and Gateway is not quite so good.

  3. All the best to Susan.

    Karam, Hildebrand and Kanaan are the only 3 drivers you mentioned who I would classify as oval specialists at this point in time. The others are all allrounders, especially Daly and Askew. Both have proven (again) that they deserve a full-time ride. And so does Spencer Pigot.

    So would Ganassi try Karam again who used to be on theor junior team program years ago? If the relationship between Tony Kanaan and the team is OK these days, they are most likely to give it a go, now that Kanaan is a free agent. He and his skill set fit best to the opening. JR Hildebrand is probably the only true oval specialist available at the time, and a 4 race deal would be very much an improvement for him as he only had one-race deals in the past few years. His Indianapolis 500 performances speal for themselves.

    Yet, there might be other candidates you haven’t mentioned yet, like Carlos Munoz but he hasn’t driven on an oval for quite a while. And then, there is still the possibility of Ganassi’s NASCAR driver Kurt Busch making another appearance in IndyCars. Sponsors would love it but it’s been years since Kurt has run the Indianapolis 500. Bt does his schedule even allow for it?

  4. That’s great to hear about Susan.

    Yannick beat me to it, but I think that Carlos Munoz would be the best choice by far. Most people seem to think that TK is the most likely choice, but that doesn’t make sense to me: why would Ganassi bring TK back three years after cutting him loose? The oval-only ride should go to the driver who’s most likely to be able to win the Indy 500 and Munoz has absolutely shown that he can do that if he’s given good equipment. And he’s only been away for two years.

  5. Oliver Wells Says:

    I voted Askew but my head says Kanaan. I would hate to see INDYCAR treat Askew as badly as arrows McLaren sp. disgusting in my humble view.

  6. Fantastic news about Susan George. What a relief to read! We have recently experienced the same type of waiting game in our household. My significant other is still in recovery after 5 weeks for having breast cancer.

    I didn’t know Carlin was thinking of leaving the series. It’s going to get more and more difficult to find oval specialists as these guys age out. There isn’t enough ovals on the schedule to develop these younger drivers.

  7. Carlos Munoz. Good luck to Susan. My daughter just beat colon cancer after five exhausting weeks of chemo and radiation.

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