The Remaining Three Dominos
By comparison, this has not been much of a silly season. After Josef Newgarden chose to stay with his side of the newly merged CFH Racing and Ryan Hunter-Reay re-signed with Andretti Autosport, there weren’t many top drivers left in play. All of the drivers at Team Penske are set to return, and the two Target cars will be the same as this year. Aside from Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti will return to his father’s team, along with Carlos Muñoz.
One Andretti driver that is still up in the air is James Hinchcliffe. Over at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, Simon Pagenaud is certainly in play. One driver who is not necessarily a willing participant in this shell game is Ryan Briscoe, who just completed the first year in his return to Chip Ganassi Racing. For whatever reason, his future with Ganassi seems to be in doubt after posting an eleventh place finish – which was one position ahead of Hinchcliffe.
Make no mistake, the hot hand here belongs to Pagenaud. He had two wins in a breakthrough season last year, and followed it up with two more wins and a pole this season – all of that while driving for a team with a marginal budget. Hinchcliffe, on the other hand, followed up his breakout season of 2013, when he scored three wins – with a winless season that produced a twelfth place finish.
I am in the camp that thinks there is no way that Pagenaud returns to Sam Schmidt’s team for next season. Nothing against Schmidt, but at age thirty – Pagenaud is in the prime of his career. He is no longer an up and comer – he has arrived and deserves to be paid. Quite frankly, he deserves to be paid more than Sam Schmidt can pay him. The question is, where will he land?
I’m also of the opinion that James Hinchcliffe will return to Andretti Autosport. I have nothing to base that on, other than a gut feeling. He seems to mesh well there and brings some life and energy to counter the dry personalities of Marco and Muñoz. There is no doubt that Ryan Hunter-Reay is the leader of that team, but Hinchcliffe is the personality. He has demonstrated the talent, he now has to show that he can be serious enough to maintain the consistency needed to compete for a championship. Even with three wins in 2013, Hinch also had several DNF’s that kept him out of contention for the championship. But I still feel that Andretti Autosport is where he will continue to hone his craft.
That fills four full-time seats at Andretti for 2015. Will there be a fifth? A few weeks ago, there was speculation that there might be. That talk has cooled recently and it is now looking like Michael Andretti will stay with four. Whether that fourth seat goes to Hinchcliffe or Pagenaud remains to be seen.
Robin Miller seems to think that Simon Pagenaud could be headed to Team Penske. I don’t. Roger Penske doesn’t usually run three full-time cars. He did in 1994, with Emerson Fittipaldi, Paul Tracy and Al Unser, Jr. He never did it again until 2010, when he made room for Will Power rather than lose him to another team. That lasted for three years, through the end of the 2012 season. Recall last season, the third car driven by AJ Allmendinger ran on a very limited basis. It surprised many when Team Penske expanded to three full-time cars for this season, in order to make room for Juan Montoya.
Roger Penske did not get where he is by making foolish decisions. He knows the perils of a team spreading itself too thin. He has always put an emphasis on doing it right instead of doing it big. He knows that adding another car takes the focus away from his current efforts and cheapens his program. He has always been very reluctant to do that. I can’t say this for certain, but I don’t think Roger Penske has ever run four full-time cars in his IndyCar program, dating back to 1968. I have a hard time believing that he is ready to do it now.
So if Pagenaud is to head to one of the top teams that means it will probably be at the expense of a driver that is currently employed. Unfortunately, all signs point to Ryan Briscoe as being that driver.
Would that be unfair? Briscoe celebrated his thirty-third birthday this past Wednesday, so he is slightly older. Briscoe has eight wins to Pagenaud’s four, but the bulk of those came between 2008 and 2010 – and in top equipment. Pagenaud’s wins are more recent and in marginal equipment.
But Briscoe drove in a limited amount of races last season, and for two different teams – one of them Panther Racing. Plus, Briscoe is new to this team on a full-time basis – although he drove for them at Indianapolis in 2013. He also has a new engineer in Eric Cowdin, who I still think should be on Tony Kanaan’s car. But it is fair to note that Cowdin and Briscoe worked together for three years at Team Penske.
Personally, I like both Briscoe and Pagenaud so I’m not cheerleading for one over the other. But I would hate to see Pagenaud get a good ride at Briscoe’s expense. But does that mean that he should knock James Hinchcliffe out of a seat at Andretti? If Pagenaud were to knock either driver out of their respective seats, would they even get a sniff at Sam Schmidt’s team? Sam has a habit of getting drivers on their way up – not on their way down. Again, no disrespect to Sam Schmidt’s team, but they are not close to the level of Andretti and Ganassi – so that would be a step down for either driver.
Like I said, this has been a relatively quiet silly season. There hasn’t been a whole lot of movement. But the three remaining dominos are all major players. This will get interesting in the next week or two.