The Prize Of This Year’s Silly Season
After Tony Kanaan won the 2013 Indianapolis 500, the story of that silly season was questioning where he would end up. Kanaan ended up signing with Chip Ganassi, partly so that he could drive alongside his good friend Dario Franchitti. Of course, Franchitti was injured late that season and forced to retire, preventing the two former Andretti teammates from repeating their association at Ganassi.
Last year, the two questions in silly season centered around the futures of James Hinchcliffe and Simon Pagenaud. Hinchcliffe eventually signed with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, while Pagenaud ultimately ended up at Team Penske. Who would’ve thought that Pagenaud would be the one to go winless in 2015?
This year, the prize free-agent of the Verizon IndyCar Series is Nashville native Josef Newgarden. Newgarden is no longer the up and coming driver in IndyCar. He has arrived. He is one of the faces of the series. He is a young, good-looking and well-spoken driver. Most of all, he has talent – tons of talent. He may have several options in the coming days and weeks pertaining to his palce of employment for 2016 and beyond. As usual, there are mixed opinions throughout the IndyCar community as to what Newgarden should do.
Since winning the 2011 Indy Lights title for Sam Schmidt, Josef Newgarden has spent the last four seasons in IndyCar driving for Sarah Fisher. When that signing was announced in December of 2011, many thought Newgarden had made a mistake going with such a small team with limited resources that had just lost Dollar General as their sponsor. Others saw it differently. They wondered why Sarah would go with an unproven rookie, when she clearly needed a big name to attract a new sponsor.
As it turned out, it was a good fit for both. The pairing gave both parties ample opportunity to grow. In the first year; Newgarden made predictable rookie mistakes, while also showing glimpses of his potential. In years two and three, Newgarden made the progress he was expected to make. Several times he found himself knocking on the door of that first career victory, but something kept preventing it – sometimes driver error, sometimes poor pit work by his crew.
Year four, 2015, was the breakthrough season. Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing had joined forces with Ed Carpenter Racing after the 2014 season, to form CFH Racing. Newgarden earned his first victory at Barber Motorsports Park. It was no fluke. He had the field covered all day. He followed that up with a very rough month of May, but rebounded with another win at Toronto, a fifth at Milwaukee and second place finishes at Iowa and Pocono. Newgarden was one of only six drivers still eligible for the championship heading into last weekend’s season finale at Sonoma.
It was a disappointing day at Sonoma for Josef Newgarden. He qualified on the front row and was running near the front for the first half of the race. But on his second pit stop, Newgarden stalled the car. The car then caught fire as they tried to re-fire the car. By the time Newgarden got the car started and re-joined the field, he was in twenty-third place. He never recovered and finished twenty-first, dropping him to seventh in the final championship standings.
But while Sunday’s gaffe was on Newgarden, make no mistake – it was Newgarden’s crew that plagued him for most of the season. It was quite common to see Newgarden come into the pits leading a race and see him exit the pits in fifth – or worse. Lost wheel nuts, missed assignments and general chaos seemed to be the rule in Newgarden’s pit.
With Newgarden now a free-agent; many believe the performance of his crew may be the determining factor whether he re-signs with CFH Racing or seeks employment elsewhere. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again – I think Newgarden should move on to another opportunity, assuming that it is with a better team.
There is talk that Honda wants Newgarden in their camp. Sarah Fisher was with Honda before merging with Ed Carpenter, who had Chevy. CFH stayed with Chevy, but word has it that Honda really wanted to keep Newgarden. The problem for Newgarden is that most of the Honda teams are second and third tier teams.
Andretti Autosport was in the doldrums until the arrival of Justin Wilson. Once Wilson came on the scene, the performance of Ryan Hunter-Reay and the rest of the team improved dramatically. Many credit Wilson for helping Andretti sort out the issues with the Honda aero kit. Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing appeared to figure it out early on as a one-car team. There is talk that Rahal wants to expand to a two-car team for next season, assuming sponsorship can be found for the second car. Rumor has it that Newgarden would be on their short list to become Graham Rahal’s teammate for 2016.
It appeared that Justin Wilson was going to be with Andretti Autosport as a full-time driver in 2016. With his passing, I don’t know if Michael Andretti plans to carry four full-time drivers or not. If he does, Andretti Autosport should be one of the teams that Josef Newgarden takes a close look at.
As great a season that Bobby Rahal’s team had this year, I’m not so sure that that would be my chosen destination if I were Josef Newgarden. This is Graham Rahal’s team. It will always be Graham Rahal’s team. Anyone headed there must understand that they will always be on a lower level than Graham. Some might say the same thing about Marco Andretti and Andretti Autosport; but I don’t believe that to be the case at all. Marco will always have a ride there; but Ryan Hunter-Reay is, without question, the number-one driver at Andretti.
If you listened to Trackside this past Wednesday night, you heard a scenario tossed out that had Newgarden going to Bryan Herta Autosport with Big Machine Records sponsorship. Stranger things have happened, I suppose – but I don’t look for that to be happening at all.
Most people seem to think that Josef Newgarden may be headed to Chip Ganassi Racing, but I’m not sure where. There is talk of Ganassi dropping the No.8 car shared by Sage Karam and Sebastian Saavedra this past season. That leaves Tony Kanaan, Scott Dixon and Charlie Kimball. As far as I know, none of them are going anywhere.
Kimball is young and has the Novo Nordisk sponsorship money. Dixon is expected to drive at least another five years and most expect Kanaan to drive at least one more year to drive in the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500. He could drive more.
More than once, I’ve heard Curt Cavin throw out the possibility of Roger Penske signing Newgarden to drive starting in 2017. The thinking is that, by then, Juan Montoya and/or Helio Castroneves may have retired. Helio is already over forty, but I understand that he really wants to get that fourth Indianapolis 500 win. I don’t see Helio going part-time or leaving Penske, so it may be a while before he leaves. However, I could see Montoya shutting it down after his third season with Penske – especially if he wins the championship next season. He has proven to himself and to the world that he wasn’t washed up when Chip Ganassi released him from his NASCAR team. Three successful years back in IndyCar may be enough for him.
That scenario sounds a little far-fetched, but it also makes sense. If that were to happen, would Newgarden re-sign with Sarah Fisher and CFH for another season? Would they want him under those conditions if that scenario was made public? I’m thinking if Newgarden signs a one-year deal with CFH with no other explanation – such a deal took place behind the scenes.
But if no such deal is in the works, I certainly don’t see Penske expanding to a five-car operation. I think four was too much for them this past year. Assuming there is no room left at Ganassi, what does that leave for Newgarden?
It leaves a possible opening at Andretti Autosport and a likely second car at Rahal as the two most attractive possibilities. I’ve already given my opinion of him going to Rahal. Based on their performance for the first two-thirds of the year – I’m not sure Andretti is an ideal destination either.
Before Hunter-Reay’s resurgence over the last four races, when he won two races and placed second in another – questions were swirling about what was going on at Andretti. The internal suit involving Andretti Sports Marketing suing Andretti Autosport did nothing to squelch rumors of financial instability and ongoing leadership problems. Their inability to come to grips with the Honda aero kit, when smaller teams like Schmidt and Rahal had figured it out led to some head-scratching. Will they continue their late-season momentum or will the death of Justin Wilson send them into a second straight year of relative futility? That’s a gamble that only Josef Newgarden can decide if it’s worth the risk.
So, if the advice of an overage blogger sitting in his hometown of Nashville means anything to him – I think that if Chip Ganassi or Roger Penske don’t come calling, Josef Newgarden may be better served to re-up with CFH Racing. Sometimes, the devil you know is more desired than the devil you don’t. Given what we know, the only way I would recommend Newgarden leaving his current employer is if one of those two teams offer him a ride. If either Ganassi or Penske have an opportunity for him – he’d be foolish not to take it.
Please Note: Due to the Labor Day holiday this Monday, I plan to take a break as well. There will be no post here on Mon Sep 7. I plan to return here Wed Sep 9. Hopefully, next year there will be a race to report on next Labor Day and some weeks afterwards, but that’s another post in itself. Enjoy your holiday! – GP