How Will This One Shake Out?

Here we are with a few days left in 2022, and almost all of the seats for the 2023 IndyCar season are already filled. The only remaining question marks that I can think of are at Dale Coyne Racing, Juncos Hollinger Racing and Chip Ganassi Racing; unless Ed Carpenter decides to run another driver in the car he will run in the Indianapolis 500 and perhaps the other ovals.

The No. 51 at Coyne is still open, as is the No. 78 at Juncos, as they expand to a second car.

It’s the opening at Ganassi that I am intrigued with. It’s the No. 11 that used to be the No. 48 run by Jimmie Johnson for the past two seasons. Recently, Ganassi announced that IndyCar rookie and Formula 2 veteran Marcus Armstrong would be driving the No. 11 on the road and street courses for the 2023 IndyCar season.

The general consensus has been that Ganassi should seek out a veteran for the ovals. The two names I hear the most are Ryan Hunter-Reay and Takuma Sato. My question is…why?

Hunter-Reay was let go because his better days seem to be very much behind him. Hunter-Reay turned 42 over the weekend as has not won an IndyCar race since 2018, and his last oval win was in 2015. Next season he will be nine years removed from his Indianapolis 500 win and eleven years away from his lone IndyCar championship. In his prime, I considered Hunter-Reay to be a very good driver – but not a great driver. Having not driven an Indy car since September of 2021, I think it’s fair to say he might be very rusty.

Takuma Sato would be a more viable candidate, but he is very long in the tooth as well (he turns 46 next month). Sato won his second Indianapolis 500 less than three years ago and just three years after winning his first one. Sato has a total of six wins on his IndyCar resume and two of those wins happen to be the Indianapolis 500. His only other career oval win was at Gateway in 2019. The two Indianapolis 500 wins that were somewhat recent make him a more attractive candidate than Hunter-Reay, along with the fact he probably brings some money with him from Honda and Panasonic. It’s reportedly not as much as he had in the past, but it is probably more than what Hunter-Reay has currently.

At 22, Marcus Armstrong is most certainly a rookie. He has three veteran teammates around him at every track – two former Indianapolis 500 winners and two former series champions, one of which is a six-time champion. Why does it need to be an over-aged veteran?

If I’m Chip Ganassi, I’m not going that route. I’m not throwing another rookie into the car for the ovals, but I’m not putting a forty-something driver in the car just because they have a Borg-Warner Trophy in their past. So does Eddie Cheever.

No, I think I’m looking at putting an available driver that has proven oval experience and ability. The two that immediately come to mind are Sage Karam and JR Hildebrand – both former teammates at Dreyer & Reinbold. Both of those drivers put up decent results in the Indianapolis 500, while driving for the small Indy-only team. I’m thinking if they can get good results at a small team like that, what can they do on full-time team with a much more substantial budget?

I would consider both in their prime in terms of age and experience. Karam will be 28 by next season, while Hildebrand will be 35 (which is hard to believe). Hildebrand has twelve Indianapolis 500 starts and four Top-Ten finishes, although the most recent of which occurred in 2016. He also has four Top-Fives at ovals not in the state of Indiana. Karam has two Top-Ten finishes at Indianapolis and two Top-Fives at other ovals, with a much smaller sample size to choose from.

Of the two, I consider Hildebrand much more likely to be chosen by Ganassi over Karam. I think there was a just a little too much off-track baggage between Chip Ganassi and Karam from that 2015 season, to let bygones be bygones. I think that bridge has been burned for good.

Some have suggested Charlie Kimball and Oliver Askew for the Ganassi oval seat. For whatever reason, I just don’t see that happening. Then again, I didn’t think Tony Kanaan would ever return to Ganassi, and he drove another two years for the team. I think Oliver Askew is more interested in a full-time ride, and his oval credentials in an Indy car are not that impressive.

And then like a bad penny, the name of Ed Jones keeps popping up. Please.

My bet is JR Hildebrand. What do you think? I’ll be interested to see who agrees and who disagrees with my predictions. I’m usually way off on these things, and it’ll be interesting to find out how it all shakes out.

George Phillips

9 Responses to “How Will This One Shake Out?”

  1. I’m certainly not predicting that it will be him, but I still wonder whatever happened to Carlos Munoz. He was fantastic in the 500, and when Ganassi hired TK in similar circumstances a couple of years ago, I thought that Munoz would have been the best choice. But he seems to have fallen off the face of the earth. AFAICT he hasn’t been racing anywhere, and he hasn’t posted to his Twitter or Instagram accounts since 2020.

    • My assumption is that he ran out of funding. I’ve found myself wondering the same thing about too many drivers who showed they belonged, and then seemingly disappeared from the Earth.

  2. billytheskink Says:

    I would be surprised if it is someone other than Sato or Hunter-Reay. Both have a recent history of running up front at Indy, yes even RHR. Hildebrand and Karam would be interesting choices, especially at Indy, but I would be shocked if Ganassi considered either.

    Frankly, Askew would be an interesting choice as well. Askew took 3 wins in 5 oval races in his Road to Indy career and began his Indycar career with 3 straight lead lap top 10 finishes on ovals (including a podium finish at Iowa).

    • Good question!

      When I read George’s post, I thought was that Hunter-Reay and Sato would be more attractive than Hildebrand, who’s never won an IndyCar race, to a potential Ganassi team sponsor.
      And if Sato brings sponsor(s)…

  3. My heart says Askew, my head says Hildebrand. Munoz would be great too.

  4. I agree with you completely on the 2 DRR drivers of this season to be the best options available. It may depend on funding, though, and some guy from NASCAR might bring more.

    It’s a bit unfortunate that the #51 at Coyne is still open because the longer it remains open, the more likely it is going to be a number of different pay drivers, as Coyne’s history has shown.

  5. Sato is “what i think”.
    place your bets.

  6. I don’t know. I rarely disagree with you George, but JR’s near-win at Indy was longer ago than RHR’s last win there. As for Sage, I realize he has a lot of supporters among the IndyCar fans, but I’ve never understood why so many people think that guy is a good driver. Maybe I haven’t looked closely enough at his limited resume, but I don’t think for one hot second Sage Karam would get more out of a Ganassi car at the speedway than Takuma Sato.

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