INDIANAPOLIS — We’re down to one race remaining in the 2020 NTT IndyCar Series season. It’s remarkable that we’ve made it this far during a pandemic to get 13 races in with one race left to crown a season champion.
We also know what the 2021 schedule looks like too with that being unveiled during the Harvest Grand Prix race weekend in Indianapolis a couple of weeks ago now. But, the drivers to fill the seats on the grid for the start of the 2021 campaign on the streets of St. Pete is widely unknown. I’ve gathered a ton of info over the last couple of weeks, so bare with me here as this will be a lengthy post with quotes involved on how much is going into silly season this time around.
As we head into the finale next weekend on the same St. Pete streets, I count 13 rides that have openings between now and when we come back in five months.
Those rides that are open are as follows –
Chip Ganassi Racing: No. 8 and No. 10 Honda’s
Andretti Autosport: No. 26, No. 28 and No. 98 Honda’s
Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan Racing: No. 30 Honda
Dale Coyne Racing: No. 18 and No. 55 Honda’s
Team Penske: No. 12 Chevrolet
Arrow McLaren SP: No. 7 Chevrolet
Ed Carpenter Racing: No. 20 (part-time?), No. 21 Chevrolet’s
AJ Foyt Racing: No. 4 Chevrolet
But, there’s also room for expansion too that could add more fuel to this silly season drama. That just shows you to how well that this series has been run lately. We’re in a pandemic still. Businesses are in a fight for their lives around this world just trying to stay afloat. Nothing as we know it now is the same as it was in early spring.
Still, while business in terms of revenue has taken a hit not just in INDYCAR, but most other places too, a good sign of things to come is on the horizon. I mean, just look at the hints being dropped of maybe even adding more cars to the grid as soon as 2021.
Chip Ganassi signed Jimmie Johnson with the plan to run all road/street courses next season. They’d like to have all three full time cars back from 2020 too, so is this in addition or is this him taking a third seat?
Roger Penske may even add another car again. While Tim Cindric isn’t keen on having more than three full time cars, we know Josef Newgarden and Simon Pagenaud are back for Penske in 2021, but it’s also rumored that Will Power is too. If that’s the case, the team certainly has plans for Scott McLaughlin to come over. To what capacity? If all three current drivers are back, that means they will have a fourth car in at the very least some races next year if not a potential for a full season. I mean, they’re shuttering their two car IMSA program at seasons end, they can move all of those resources back to INDYCAR for a fourth team again too.
Speaking of sports cars, Meyer Shank Racing merged with Wayne Taylor Racing. MSR also will remain in INDYCAR with Jack Harvey again for 2021 but they’re eyeing expansion too.
When asked if he’s thinking about an expansion to his IndyCar operation, Michael Shank said bluntly, “yes.”
“We are thinking about a small expansion, only if it’s the right timing, yes,” he continued. “We’re a team that eventually will be a two-car team. I don’t know when that will be, but I can guarantee you this, it won’t be until we’re ready. I made that promise to Jack a long time ago, to Jim Meyer, my wife, that are part of this ownership group. Someday, too, whenever that someday can be, it will be when everything aligns.
“If it happens at any time, we thought through all the pros and cons, ultimately does it help Jack, does it benefit the 60 car at all. Who can we bring in to add to the program overall, whether it’s the team and engineering or with Jack as driving. Who do we think is going to add to this group, with our set of personalities, the people we have here, which are very handpicked.
“Everyone says that, but I promise you I’ve spent 26 years building a business relying on people. I’ve got many people that have worked for me for 20 years, and Jack knows a lot of them.
“If we can afford it, yes. What does it do to the whole program, help or hurt. Does it give a greater potential for the whole group. Does the tide rise.”
That sounds like another Ohio team owner in Bobby Rahal. Here’s what he said about a possible addition of a third car again.
“I think we’d like to run a third car, but it really has to make sense,” Rahal said. “It really has to be someone who can contribute to the team. I’m not interested in running a third car just to say we’ve got a third car. We’ve kind of done that before. A lot of teams have done that. That second or third car doesn’t really contribute. It really becomes a drag on a team. We don’t want that. We work too hard to kind of create the situation that exists today.
“I think with our organization we still can be better, for sure. None of us in the team thinks we’re as good as we can be, so we’re going to continue to push, continue to try to bring good people in, build the foundation and the depth of the team from a mechanical standpoint, an engineering standpoint, you name it.
“First things first. Fortunately Graham’s sponsors are with us for several more years, so that’s a big plus for a team. As I say, I think Takuma wants to continue with us, we certainly want him to. That’s going to allow us to kind of see what’s out there. Again, it has to be contributory to the success of the team in the future. It can’t just be, as I say, running a car for the sake of running a car.”
Eerily similar. Rahal said that while Sato is a free agent, they’re both working to stay together again for a fourth straight season.
“I think the best thing I can tell you is that both Takuma and us, we want to work together again next year,” Rahal continued. “Takuma is, what, 43. I was racing when I was 45 and competitive. There’s no reason he can’t be either. He already is. We’ve had a number of good years with Takuma. We’d be silly not to want to continue with that. Nothing is formally done, but certainly we both would like to stay together.”
Another expansion could be with Foyt too.
“Our goal is to grow,” Foyt said when announcing Sebastien Bourdais’ signing. “This is a big piece of that, a big part of that, to start that.”
So, who drives the second car? Is Charlie Kimball back? Is there two full time cars and third part time one?
“Not certain at the moment,” Foyt continued. “We’ll certainly be two cars. If the right opportunity came to grow to three, we would do it the right way, we would potentially look at that.
“We’re talking to all our current guys right now. It’s a bit open at the time. We’re just going to see where that shakes out. This was the first piece that we wanted to get in place, and now we’ll start working on the others.”
Expansion would be huge. There’s been talks of expansions in the past but they were just that, talk. This year, there’s more substance to that punch and I take them at their words that we can even an even higher car count for 2021.
By my count, that’s a potential of five added cars to the grid, two of which with drivers for them leaving three open seats if expansion happens at RLL, Shank and Foyt. That would take us to 16 seats open next season is all comes to fruition.
So, lets now take a look at who can take over those seats.
Arrow McLaren SP has hinted about a third full time car and Helio Castroneves makes the most sense unless he takes over for the departing Oliver Askew.
Ed Carpenter Racing is also taking a look at Castroneves too. Ed Carpenter admitted so in August.
“I would never rule it out,” Carpenter said of Castroneves joining the team. “I think Helio is an amazing talent. I’m not going to knock a guy for his age, being old myself. We’re similar in age, although I think he’s a couple years older than me.
“I know that the passion is still there for him. It wasn’t his decision fully, I don’t think, to be a full-time sports car driver at this point. His heart has been in INDYCAR the whole time. I’ve had friendly discussions with him just as a friend over his time in sports cars.
“If there’s an opportunity, I would 100% be in interested in working with a guy like Helio. I know he wants to add his name to the list of four-time winners. He’s going to be motivated for that for a while.”
Does that cost Rinus VeeKay a seat or does VeeKay return?
“I have no contract yet,” VeeKay told me in Indy. “I hope I can make sure I have one as soon as possible. I haven’t really talked to him (Ed Carpenter). My management takes care of that to make sure I focus on the racing. Once that is done I can jump in on that.”
VeeKay said that the Indy pole certainly helps his cause for 2021.
“I just want to drive INDYCAR next season full time,” VeeKay said. “Having a pole helps that. I think we’re doing all fine for next year and we’ll we on where we’ll drive and how it goes.”
What about Conor Daly? He’s currently splitting the 20 seat with Carpenter on road/street courses. With having such few ovals (4) on next year’s schedule, is it even worth splitting a seat on Carpenter’s end or does he have two full time drivers and he himself operate the oval only car as a third car with him in it?
The ticket is if the US Air Force returns to back Daly again.
“I hope so,” Daly said to me. “I don’t know. I’ve still yet to progress to where I’m a driver without a sponsor. I’m still just me with the Air Force. I want to continue to make that relationship a successful one. I think this year is a really hard to judge anything because they couldn’t use their on track activations. I’m hoping we basically get a redo and say that didn’t work and get to try it again next year. A full go and everything is back to normal then we can really make it work. I think a lot of stuff we did together was really cool. They see that and take that into account.
“Realistically, my entire life hinges on if the Air Force wasn’t to come back and be involved and we’re definitely trying to make that happen with ECR for sure because I’d like to be with these guys again and be at all the races. I want to go to Long Beach. I want to go to Detroit. I want to go to all of these races I didn’t get to go to this year.
“These government deals. They’re the only ones here. When it comes to November, we have to go in and say here’s what we want to do. I personally want to be back with ECR again and hopefully in a full time sense and not just the road and street courses. Hopefully now, seeing the schedule, there’s only three ovals. I hope we can just put it together with one car and one ride, one team. But, I’m still willing to do anything.”
Daly, could also take his funding back to Andretti and take over the 26 too. But, it sounds to me as if he’d like to just stay put at ECR.
For Andretti, I don’t see Marco firing himself so as long as he wants to still be full time, I can see him back in the 98. Rossi and Herta are back in their rides. Gainbridge is back but will they stay on the 26 car or move to Herta’s 88 car? That’s all hindered on if Hinchcliffe is back and has any funding from Genesys. That’s why Daly with US Air Force has some play, but if Daly elects to take that sponsorship should he retain it back to ECR, then Hinchcliffe makes sense for the 26 seat. Hunter-Reay’s decision on the 28 car is all dependent on DHL, but while there were rumors that Santino Ferrucci could replace RHR in that ride, Ferrucci told me don’t expect that to happen.
“I’m pretty much set to be back,” Ferrucci told me on his contract status for 2021. “Obviously waiting on a couple more things and Dale. I want to be back. I want to be back with the same team, same crew, same engineering. I really think that we can do something big.”
If Ferrucci says, then they have one seat open with Alex Palou a free agent too. If Ferrucci bolts last minute, then DCR has two seats available.
Palou, told me on Friday that it’s not looking good on the contract front for 2021 now.
“It’s been tough,” Palou said of this season. “2020 has been tough for everybody not only for me. It’s been hard because we showed almost every weekend that we had speed. The speed was there. Even on ovals. But, we didn’t really get the results. If you look at the results, I think we’re 17th but if you look at the results on the races and qualifying and free practices, we’ve never been 17th except for now. It’s been tough but it is what it is. We have to take it. We have to learn from it.
“But, it’s tough to say to somebody when you’re like that far back as I am. It’s a good thing to have pace everywhere but it’s hard to go to a guy and say give me a chance when he may say ‘oh man I don’t know if I can give you a chance.’ Hopefully we can have another chance. That would be a dream. I don’t think that we did enough. We tried but I don’t think we have the results to deserve another year.
“It’s looking bad. It’s a bad year for everybody to commit. It’s hard to commit without the sponsors with the results that we’re having. It’s going to be tough but we’re still pushing.”
Chip Ganassi Racing has Scott Dixon returning but that’s it. Jimmie Johnson is set to race on all 13 road/street courses, but is that in a fourth car or does one of the other two leave? Both Felix Rosenqvist and his countrymate Marcus Ericsson don’t have contracts right now for 2021. Rosenqvist appears to be heading to McLaren, so that leaves the 10 seat open now.
“I’m on a 2 year contract so it’s up in the air,” Rosenqvist told me. “Everything looks good though.”
Ericsson, also said he’s on a one-year deal but says he wants to return next season as well.
“We’re still in talks,” said the second year driver. “From my side and my management we want to keep going. From what I understand the team has been happy with me and my progress. I think it’s a common interest to continue and the 8 car program to continue. There’s a lot more things to fall into pieces before it’s done. The goal is to continue no question about that.”
Ericsson, has proven that if given another year to learn the tracks even further, he has a ton of potential. He’s not yet hit his ceiling.
“I’m starting to feel really comfortable on these tracks and this series,” he continued. “I think last year was a very steep learning curve for me. I thought I didn’t really show my potential. I’ve been really happy with that. I think people are noticing as well and are always there putting it in the mix. I’ve been happy with that and hopefully continue this for Year 3 and be with Ganassi again next year. I think that would really be interesting what we could do on another season.”
Arrow McLaren SP signed O’Ward but let Oliver Askew go. Castroneves is in the running for a third seat should they choose to expand.
Carlin’s status is unknown but they can wait to see how these other deals fall. Max Chilton should be back again on road/street courses, but teaming him with someone on ovals will be easy to wait to see who’s left in the cupboard.
RLL is close to having Sato back and if they go to a third car, Spencer Pigot makes sense there but so would any of the other guys listed above.
Team Penske (3-4) – Newgarden, Pagenaud are back. Power and McLaughlin in the mix for the 3rd seat and maybe an expansion to 4.
Arrow McLaren SP (2-3) – No way they were going to let Pato O’Ward get away. That would be foolish. Rosenqvist replaces Askew? Do they add a third car still?
AJ Foyt Racing (2-3) – Bourdais is in the 14. The 4 will be back. Will it be 1 full time driver or multiple drivers sharing the seat? Does the third car come out full time then?
Ed Carpenter Racing (2-3) – Carpenter will do ovals only. Does he bring out a third car just for that and move to two full time cars again? VeeKay has proven he should remain in that seat but the team has said Castroneves is in play too. Do they sign both and bring out a third car for Carpenter? Can Daly get Air Force to commit again and come back too?
Carlin (1-2) – I don’t see Chilton going away so he would need a part time driver for all ovals to share his seat with him. They could give that seat to Daly again or be wise and pay Daly to be their full time driver and bring out a second car again.
Dreyer & Reinbold Racing (1-2) – They’ve showed up to Indy the last few years now with two cars but their plan is to expand to more races in the future. They’ve done so with Sage Karam a couple of occurrences this season. COVID halted some of those plans, but I don’t see them not trying again to expand their program in 2021.
DragonSpeed (1) – They just ran Indy this year but from what they’re saying, they’re coming back in 2021 with more races instead of just one now.
Andretti Autosport (5) – Two drivers (Herta, Rossi) are back. I don’t see Andretti leaving his own team and the other two cars are going to be determined by sponsorship money. Hinchcliffe and Hunter-Reay remain the front runners to finaizlie this team for 2021, but don’t also count out Askew or Castroneves either.
Chip Ganassi Racing (3-4) – They’ve expanded from 2 to 3 cars for this season. Jimmie Johnson will run all road/street courses. Scott Dixon is back too. What about Felix Rosenqvist or Marcus Ericsson? They want to return but can they make it work? I can see two full time cars and a part time for Johnson at the very minimum.
Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan Racing (2-3) – Graham Rahal is back. The team wants Takuma Sato back and it sounds like Sato wants back too. Spencer Pigot ran select races in a third car this year with Citrone Buhl. I can see this expanding to more races in 2021 too.
Dale Coyne Racing (2) – Santino Ferrucci should be back but if he’s not, that’s a fully funded car from SealMaster sitting there. Palou doesn’t think that he will be back.
Meyer Shank Racing (1-2) – Harvey is back but as I said above, they’re eyeing future expansion. Does that happen this offseason?
As you can see, if all these teams expand, that’s 34 cars. That’s not going to happen full time but, you get the sense IndyCar is going to have tons of growth.