LONG BEACH, Calif – For the second straight year, Dale Coyne Racing lost a talented driver to a bigger team. Last year, Alex Palou came over to the States to drive the No. 55 Honda. He produced a podium and three top 10’s in a season that saw him finish 16th in points. What he did at Indianapolis last August though led him to a seat at Chip Ganassi Racing for 2021. He’s leading the championship standings heading into the final race of the season this Sunday in Long Beach.
Palou, was replaced by Romain Grosjean for the 2021 season. That car was rebranded with Rick Ware Racing as a partner to the No. 51 Honda. Grosjean, has had honestly better stats. The Frenchman has a pole, three podiums, two of which being runner-ups and six top 10’s. He’s 15th in points and that’s after missing three races, one of which being double points in the Indy 500. Now, DCR is set to lose him to Andretti Autosport.
More on that move in a second. But first, it will signal that this will be the third straight year that they’ll have a new driver lineup as Ed Jones isn’t likely coming back to the No. 18 Honda either.
For all the drivers that Coyne has gone through, he’s proving his business model is working and helping the sport. He’s giving drivers extra chances to prove something that they may not have otherwise gotten. With his equipment being the way that it is, it’s allowing these drivers to showcase their talents and lead to even better endeavors in the sport.
Coyne could be bitter about that fact, but he’s honestly cherishing every opportunity he gets to help promote great drivers to the top of the line teams. Plus, look at how he’s surrounding his teams with partnerships with team entries as well as businesses with sponsors. You can make fun of DCR all you want, but they’re making it work.
For the Andretti front, they’re not in the wrong for going after Grosjean. I mean, why not? With what he’s done with DCR this year, who’s to say he can’t be like Palou and have a championship type season in 2022? They desperately need that. Grosjean, Colton Herta and Alexander Rossi is a great lineup. The thing that many are wondering is, why are they overlooking Kyle Kirkwood for Devlin DeFrancesco? Why not keep a talented driver like James Hinchcliffe around for another season?
This is a situation that reminds me of what Hendrick Motorsports went through a little over a decade ago. HMS could have rolled out a driver lineup in 2010 of Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson. Instead, the cut ties with Busch, didn’t have room for Keselowski and had Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in those cars.
At the time, I get those moves. Busch was a hot tempered driver that many feared his attitude would get in the way of his talent. He and HMS just didn’t jive. Martin, was a good replacement. Then you get someone like Earnhardt Jr. for 2008. Why would you immediately replace him with his protégé of Keselowski? You’re not dropping Gordon or Johnson and you had just signed Martin and Earnhardt Jr. That meant Keselowski was squeezed out and ended up falling into the lap of Team Penske.
The Martin move initially panned out. He won five times in 2009. The problem is, he and Earnhardt’s stats declined as the years went on. Martin, went winless in the No. 5 Chevrolet 2010 and 2011. He retired before the 2012 season. Earnhardt Jr. won in 2008 but didn’t win again until 2012.
Johnson and Gordon kept things afloat, but with the signing of Kasey Kahne and Earnhardt not really ever being a championship front runner, HMS found themselves in trouble.
Gordon retired. Then did Earnhardt. Kahne didn’t pan out. Johnson’s stats started falling off. Chevrolet as a whole was struggling and HMS had an identity crisis. It was time to get younger but in doing so, you’re going to compromise results.
That’s exactly what happened. But, it also led them also to where they are today with 4 of the 12 drivers in the Round of 12 of the playoffs and all 28 years of age or younger. It took some rebuilding to get there.
Andretti has had a similar path. They had Pato O’Ward, Oliver Askew and Kyle Kirkwood under their umbrella in Indy Lights. When we show up to the grid at St. Pete next February, there’s a very real chance that all three are competing against them in INDYCAR.
O’Ward is already a championship favorite with Arrow McLaren SP. He was fourth in the final standings last year and 35 points out heading to the season finale this year. He was in the second Harding car but the funding never materialized and off he went to Carlin, then overseas and now back with AMSP.
Askew went to AMSP last year because AA had no room for him either. He’s now in the running for the third seat at RLL.
Kirkwood, has won nine Indy Lights races this season and two races away from a championship. He, not DeFranceso would make the most sense for the 29 car next year. Instead, a massive amount of funding for DeFrancesco says otherwise and Andretti is put back in a rock in a hard place.
Plus, Kirkwood has likely a deal with Vasser-Sullivan since he races sports cars for them and they’ll have an opening. But, think of where AA would be at if they had Herta, O’Ward, Askew, Kirkwood and Rossi.
The problem is, how can you cut ties with Ryan Hunter-Reay prior to now? How do you tell your own son you need to car? Askew had a ride where he didn’t need to bring funding so why would he not take that instead of staying at Andretti?
Situations have played out to lead Andretti to where they are which is very similar to where HMS was a decade ago.
Herta has been long rumored to an F1 seat but recently signed a multi-year deal to remain here. Rossi, is a free agent at the end of next season. Hunter-Reay is gone. Marco Andretti left last year. So is likely James Hinchcliffe. With the cars not being to their drivers’ liking the last couple of years, they’re at a crossroads. What do they do?
DeFrancesco could have a lot of talent. The team seems to think so. I’m not a racing scout so I can’t tell you one way or the other. I don’t primarily cover the USF 2000 or Indy Pro 2000, so I can’t give you facts on what I’ve seen of him. I can tell you what I see in Indy Lights but can’t give you a definitive answer on what he will be like as an INDYCAR driver. I trust the team knows the right answer on that.
But, with he and Steinbrenner teaming up in Lights and doing so up in INDYCAR next year with Andretti, the path was simple. The problem is, does the path lose out on another future star?
AA can’t afford to punt on too many years of trying to figure this out because they’ll lose Rossi and Grosjean isn’t a long term option. He may only have 2-3 years tops. Then what?