A Good Problem to Have

We are having a late fall in the south. Here in Nashville, we normally have had at least one heavy frost by this time, but the temperature has only dipped into the upper forties on our coolest mornings, so far. The fall foliage is usually at it’s peak around mid-October, but as we head into Halloween – the trees in Nashville are just now getting a yellow hue to them. Based on some of the photos I saw from the IndyCar test at Barber Motorsports Park on Monday, fall is even more delayed in Birmingham.

Five cars from four different teams tested at Barber on Monday. Four of the cars were driven by drivers that had never raced in IndyCar before. Dale Coyne Racing fielded a car for David Malukas, who finished second in Indy Lights this past season. Arrow McLaren SP tested Formula One veteran Nico Hulkenberg, Andretti Autosport gave opportunities to reigning Indy Lights champion Kyle Kirkwood and Indy Lights driver Devlin DeFrancesco. The only veteran IndyCar driver of the bunch was auditioning for another team for the first time in over a decade – Ryan Hunter-Reay was testing the No. 20 car of Ed Carpenter Racing (ECR).

All teams reported how thrilled they were with their respective drivers on Monday, although only one of the drivers has a somewhat clear picture of what their 2022 season will look like. Kirkwood has already been told he will be employed in some capacity by Andretti Autosport. The rest of the group currently has a very murky vision for next season.

The car and driver combination that really intrigued me on Monday, was Hunter-Reay testing for ECR.

In the past year, I’ve written some fairly direct opinions on Ryan Hunter-Reay’s future with Andretti Autosport – the team where he had been employed since 2010. While some took issue with the things I wrote, others agreed that Hunter-Reay seemed to be driving on cruise-control for the past few seasons and that it may be time for him to call it a career.

Hunter-Reay will turn forty-one in December, but after Romain Grosjean was named to drive the DHL Honda that has become so associated with Hunter-Reay – he has made it clear that he is not interested in easing into retirement just yet. He has said he won’t take just any available seat, but if a good situation was presented to him – he’d like to continue his career that saw him win the 2012 IndyCar championship and the 2014 Indianapolis 500.

While some may have interpreted what I have written about Hunter-Reay as personal or negative – I never said he was a bad driver.

Ed Carpenter Racing has a very good problem to have. They are currently evaluating three drivers for the No. 20 car, to drive on non-ovals and to drive a third car for the Indianapolis 500. Conor Daly has filled that role for the past two seasons. Oliver Askew is also being considered, along with Hunter-Reay.

Some say that Conor Daly’s future hinges on whether or not the Air Force sponsorship returns. I’m not so sure. We’ve seen before where one driver will bring a sponsor to the series, but the driver gets released while the sponsorship stays and goes to another driver (see Zach Veach and Gainbridge). It’s hard to asses how well a driver does, when they don’t run the ovals for a team, but I’m not sure his two non-oval seasons at ECR would be termed a success.

For the past two seasons, Daly has run the non-Indianapolis ovals for Carlin. In 2020, Daly’s best finishes were with Carlin (a sixth and two eighth-place finishes). Daly’s best 2020 finish for ECR was twelfth (twice, both on the IMS road course). In 2021, Daly’s best finish was eleventh (twice – once at Gateway for Carlin, once at the IMS road course for ECR). Daly’s cumulative point total for both full seasons between two teams was seventeenth and eighteenth respectively. His other two fulltime seasons were 2016 and 2017, driving for Dale Coyne and AJ Foyt. Where did he finish then? Eighteenth, both seasons.

I like Conor Daly. I think he is a decent-to-good driver and a great ambassador for the sport. But if I was in Ed Carpenter’s shoes, I would be hesitant to bring Daly back for another season of mediocrity.

Don’t forget the other fulltime driver for ECR – Rinus VeeKay, who is young and talented, but still a little raw. It’s almost become cliché to suggest the perfect team will have a veteran proven winner to mentor the young and talented protégé. But look at the teams that have that set-up. Team Penske has Will Power, Josef Newgarden and Scott McLaughlin. Power is the grizzled veteran, Newgarden is in his prime and McLaughlin is coming off of his Rookie of the Yer season. Ganassi has the same set up with Scott Dixon, Marcus Ericsson and Alex Palou. Andretti Autosport (currently) has Romain Grosjean, Alexander Rossi, Colton Herta and a rookie (or two) to be named later.

ECR has never had such a set-up. It is usually Ed Carpenter on ovals with a younger driver on the non-ovals in the No. 20, such as Mike Conway, JR Hildebrand, Jordan King, Spencer Pigot and now Daly. The second car is usually a promising young driver like Josef Newgarden, Hildebrand, Pigot, Ed Jones and now Rinus VeeKay. Except for Ed himself, ECR has never employed a proven veteran driver for one of their cars.

Once again, if I was in Ed Carpenter’s shoes – I would jump at the chance to hire a driver of Ryan Hunter-Reay’s caliber. He has never employed a former IndyCar champion or Indianapolis 500 winner. His drivers are usually on the other end of the spectrum and the results have been disappointing for the most part. With Hunter-Reay, Carpenter would get an American driver that he always seems to prefer. He would also get a proven winner that has won eighteen races, forty-seven podiums and seven poles. He also has something that Carpenter covets – and Indianapolis 500 victory. He has been with winning organizations that would bring a lot of knowledge and experience to ECR.

This could also be a two-way street, where ECR would not be the only party to benefit from the relationship. ECR usually has very fast cars for the Indianapolis 500. Front row starts and pole positions are not uncommon for this team in May. They just have not been able to close the deal on race day for whatever reason. The most agonizing was in 2018, when Carpenter started on the pole and finished second. This past May, Carpenter started fourth and finished fifth. That wasn’t a bad day, but they certainly had their sights set higher than that.

I think that Ryan Hunter-Reay could be the missing piece that Ed Carpenter has been looking for, for so long. He would certainly be the most accomplished driver in the history of the team, and I think he still has a lot to offer. And with the kind of cars ECR prepares in May – it’s not out of the question that he could pick up his second Indianapolis 500 win. Look what a change of scenery did for Helio Castroneves last May.

I hate to see Conor Daly lose his seat, but Ed is already considering Oliver Askew and Ryan Hunter-Reay along with Daly. Reading between the lines tells me that Carpenter has already made his decision to move on from Daly. If that is truly the case, I think Ryan Hunter-Reay would be an excellent choice for the No. 20 car on the non-ovals. Where will Daly end up? Possibly at Carlin fulltime if they return, which is a big IF. Unfortunately, the talented Oliver Askew may end up without a chair when the music stops – for the second season in a row.

Some silly season questions have already been answered. Others, including four of the cars that tested on Monday at Barber, still have a way to go before getting their answers. If I’m Ed Carpenter, selecting between three quality drivers is a good problem to have – but one that needs to be answered sooner than later.

George Phillips

6 Responses to “A Good Problem to Have”

  1. Daly has shown his peak and he’s also be questionable at best on social media with some of his opinions on other drivers. I think that Ed needs a vet in that program to give some feedback on things, I would dump Daly in a second for him. Askew as well to be honest. Daly is a guy who probably caps out at an Indy only program at this point, we’ve all seen enough of him and his attitude. I thought he was grabbing a low hanging fruit bullying at Ferucci but then the Long Beach stuff he said, with the Long Beach crash with Askew where Oliver was just running his line, it was a racing thing if anything. I don’t know, Daly has just worn out his welcome with me.

  2. billytheskink Says:

    I can appreciate how Daly hustles to raise money for his rides and that he’s always game to help promote the sport, but both Hunter-Reay and Askew would likely perform better at ECR. I expect Ed would prefer Hunter-Reay, especially if he’s planning on running his co-driver as a third entrant at the 500.

    I would be happy to see Askew and Daly land anywhere as well, full-time or not.

  3. As much as I like Ed, I wonder if time isn’t passing him by.. He certainly has a full plate as an owner, a job he has done with some success. Could it be time for him to hang up the helmet and put on the owner hat full time? Give Conor Daly a year running full time for ECR ratherthand going back and forth with Carlin? Just me wondering, but remember what happened with Andretti once Michael stepped away from driving.

    • I agree. 2021 should be his last season with a final 500 run in 2022. Let Veekay, Askew or RHR drive in 2022. Daly bless him needs to move to the commentary box with Hinch. Now that would be brilliant for the fans.

  4. Hunter-Reay and Carpenter have been teammates for a short time before Ryan joined Michael Andretti’s team. That worked out pretty well for the team they were on back in the day.

  5. Dave Pisula Says:

    RHR is IMO the better choice over Conner Daly. I love Daly and he brings alot of personality to Indycar but his results tend to ne mid pack even with decent equiptment. Maybe Conner is the answer for a new team or part time guy. Also I think Daly would be a great fit for the SRX racing series where its a bit like racing meets the WWE and would enjoy him running short tracks on a Saturday night!

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