Silly Season: CFH Racing
This is the second in a series of posts I am writing, about moves that I think some teams should make regarding their driver lineup for 2016. Last week I wrote that I thought that Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing should stay put as a two car team. Just hours before the post hit the website, it was announced that they were doing just that. Here’s hoping that there is no Sunday night pre-empting of this post.
Last week, we also learned that it was official that Josef Newgarden had re-signed with CFH Racing for one more season. That was a good move for both the team and the driver. The team gets to continue the breakout momentum that Newgarden started in 2015, by winning two races. Newgarden gets to be in a position for more wins in 2016, while waiting for a possible seat to open up at either Team Penske or Chip Ganassi Racing. Between Helio Castroneves and Juan Montoya at Team Penske; and Tony Kanaan at Ganassi – I think it’s a safe bet that at least one of those three drivers will not be racing fulltime in the series in 2017.
After five years with Sarah Fisher, Newgarden will be ready to move on. Heading into 2016, Newgarden is already seventh in tenure with the same team, among current drivers. Only Helio Castroneves, Scott Dixon, Marco Andretti, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Charlie Kimball have been with their current teams longer. That seems hard to believe, doesn’t it?
Now that the No.67 car has been solidified, CFH Racing needs to turn their attention to the No.20 car sponsored by Fuzzy’s Ultra-Premium Vodka. After another typical sixteenth place finish in 2013, Ed Carpenter made the decision to step out the No.20 car on the non-ovals and focus only on the ovals. He would hire a road/street course specialist for the other races.
It seemed to make sense. It was no secret that Ed was significantly better at ovals than he was on road/street courses. In fact, the disparity between the two disciplines may have been greater than any driver I’ve seen recently. Rick Mears was known as the ovalmeister, but at least he was competitive on non-ovals, as well. Since the Verizon IndyCar Series began racing on road/street courses in 2005; Ed Carpenter’s best finish on a non-oval was a sixth at Watkins Glen in 2006. His second best finish? A tenth at Detroit in 2007. Other than that, Ed was mostly an insignificant back-marker on any track that had a right-hand turn.
While Mears won on an oval twenty times in his career, he also owns six IndyCar victories on road courses along with twelve additional podium finishes on the non-ovals. His results on road/street courses alone would make for a fine career for most drivers.
It’s the sign of a great leader to recognize your weaknesses as well as your strengths. With the series running fewer and fewer ovals, Carpenter’s non-oval performance was dragging the team down and he knew it.
For the 2014 season, Ed Carpenter hired Mike Conway to drive the road & street courses, while Carpenter would take the wheel on all the ovals. Conway was not spectacular, but did manage to win a race; proving that the team did know how to set up a car for a non-oval. With the one win, Conway had an average finish of 11.9 in twelve races. On the ovals, Ed also won a race, the pole at Indianapolis for the second straight year and had an average finish of 7.6 in six races.
The model seemed to work. Ed could focus on what he was good at, while the non-oval specialist, Conway, could focus on what he did best. But Conway took a full-time ride in the World Endurance Championship for 2015.
Carpenter tabbed Italian driver Luca Filippi to pilot the Fuzzy’s car on non-ovals for 2015. The results weren’t as good. Although Filippi finished second at Toronto, there were no other results even close to a podium as Filippi struggled to an average finish of 13.9 in ten races. Carpenter didn’t fare as well either. He had no wins and had an average finish of 17.8 in six races. In a couple of those ovals, Carpenter wasn’t even on the same page as his younger teammate Newgarden. Throughout this past season, Ed Carpenter seemed surly and whiny. He blamed his crew, his spotter and anyone else for not being able to produce good finishes.
When CFH Racing was formed as a result of the merger between Ed Carpenter Racing and Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing in August 2014, I sort of assumed it would be Sarah’s side of the team that would struggle this season. Although they were now operating in the old SFHR building on Main Street, everything else pointed toward this being Ed’s team essentially taking over Sarah’s team. But the results indicated otherwise. It was Sarah and Josef Newgarden that had the significantly better season, while Ed and Luca Filippi struggled.
Does one season indicate the direction of a career? Most times, not – but I’m wondering if CFH Racing wouldn’t be better served if Ed stepped out of the car altogether, except for the Indianapolis 500. If they put a full-time driver that performed well on ovals and non-ovals, would that not make for a better situation? I’m wondering how the crew for the No.20 car likes going from one driver to another, week-to-week. Plus, they know their driver is not eligible to compete for the championship, before the season even starts. Sure, there are entrant points – but other than the bean-counters calculating who is eligible for Leader Circle dollars, who pays attention to that?
Ed Carpenter is on a mission to win the Indianapolis 500. It has been a goal of his for most of his life and one that I think he can attain one day. He’s that good on ovals and especially at Indianapolis. If the schedule comes out with Phoenix or another oval before Indianapolis, I think he should run that in a third car. If not, he should run Indianapolis in a third car and that’s it.
It’s time for the No.20 car to be on the same level with the No.67. Running two different drivers won’t do that. It’s too confusing for the team. They need to put a solid driver with a proven track-record that also has experience with the team. There’s only one driver that I could be talking about, and that’s JR Hildebrand.
Hildebrand ran the last two Indianapolis 500’s as a teammate to Ed Carpenter. Last year he finished tenth, and finished eighth this past May. Other than a couple of late-season mop-up roles with Bryan Herta Autosports in 2013, the bulk of Hildebrand’s IndyCar career was spent with Panther Racing run by the infamous John Barnes, who unceremoniously dumped Hildebrand after crashing out early in the 2013 Indianapolis 500. This was after Hildebrand crashed in the final turn while leading the 2011 Indianapolis 500 in his rookie season.
Hildebrand has matured since then and has shown his worth as a driver. Plus, putting him in the car would give CFH Racing an all-American lineup for 2016. Hildebrand will be twenty-eight before the start of next season. Ed Carpenter will be thirty-five. Hildebrand should be in his prime right now, but his career was derailed by a knee-jerk reaction from John Barnes. He has run five races since the 2013 Indianapolis 500. I don’t toss the “D” word around too much, but JR Hildebrand deserves a second chance at a fulltime ride. CFH Racing seems like the logical place for him to jumpstart his career while Ed Carpenter continues to wind his down.
But as with every post in this series, I’m saying what should happen, not what will happen. We’ll see how it shakes out.