Things Are Falling Into Place
We are now getting a clearer picture of what the Verizon IndyCar Series will look like for 2017. On Monday, two more drivers had their 2017 destinations confirmed. In a not-so-surprising move, Takuma Sato signed to drive the No.26 car for Andretti Autosport. I say that it was not a surprise because Michael Andretti had been struggling to find sponsorship for the car previously occupied by Carlos Muñoz. In the past, Muñoz had been bringing a large portion of the money required to run that car. After last season, his source (presumably his family) dried up.
On Thursday, there were unconfirmed reports that JR Hildebrand had landed the ride in the No.21 car, vacated last month by Josef Newgarden. While I hope that’s the case, I’ll wait until it is confirmed today before discussing it next week.
I believe it was Michael Andretti’s first choice to have Muñoz return to the cockpit of the No.26 car. But with the funding pulled away, Andretti had to review all of his options. Sato has support from Honda. With November approaching the next day, I have an idea Andretti had to make a decision. So he chose Sato with funding over Muñoz with out it.
Both drivers have come agonizingly close to winning the Indianapolis 500. Sato was leading Lap 200 in 2012 when he made contact with (some say taken out by) Dario Franchitti in Turn One. Franchitti went on to win, as Sato was climbing out of his Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing owned Dallara. Sato was credited with what sounds like an unremarkable seventeenth place finish. Those of us that remember that race know better.
As it turns out, that was one of Sato’s best Indianapolis 500 finishes in seven tries. He finished thirteenth twice – in 2013 and 2015. Other than those semi-decent finishes, Sato’s record in the “500” has been pretty abysmal. In his debut in 2010, Sato finished twentieth while driving for KV Racing technology. The following year, he had the dubious distinction of finishing dead-last. This past year, Sato finished twenty-sixth for AJ Foyt.
But Sato is fast – very fast – when he is not crashing. His mantra of No attack, No chance has been a double-edged sword. It served him well in his 2013 win at Long Beach, but has bitten him more times than not. It may explain why his best finish in the Verizon IndyCar Series has been thirteenth in 2011. A quick glance at his results shows a smattering of podium finishes mixed in with a slew of DNF’s and low finishes. The No.26 car may end up on the podium some, but may be just as likely to end up in the fence. Michael Andretti may want to budget a little more for car repairs.
More than likely, this will end up being what essentially amounts to a driver swap. With Sato going to Andretti, all signs point to Carlos Muñoz heading to the open seat at AJ Foyt Enterprises. That is, one of the open seats. Muñoz will replace Sato, but there will still be one vacant seat at Foyt’s team available. Personally, I’d like to see that go to Conor Daly. I think Daly has earned a shot at another permanent seat in this series. As a rookie at Dale Coyne Racing, Daly showed flashes of brilliance interspersed with some rookie mistakes. But Daly showed me enough of the brilliance to sway my opinion, for whatever that’s worth (not much).
A few weeks ago, I opined that an all-Colombian team may be filling the seats in Foyt’s stable. I thought Juan Montoya might be in play for one of Foyt’s seats to go along with Muñoz. It was probably more wishful thinking on my part to see the feisty Colombian driving for the fiery Texan that piqued my interest.
But we now know that isn’t happening.
The other driver announcement on Monday was a bigger surprise than Sato signing with Andretti Autosport. We now know that Juan Montoya has agreed to accept the offer of Tim Cindric and Roger Penske to drive a fifth Team Penske car in the 2017 Indianapolis 500.
Montoya was also supposedly in talks with Ed Carpenter Racing. For whatever reason, from the first time I heard that Montoya may possibly end up with Ed Carpenter – I just didn’t see it happening. My gut just told me that it would not be a good fit. Apparently, my gut was right for once.
Some are speculating whether or not Montoya made the best choice. The correct answer is that it’s really not for anyone else to say. Only Juan Montoya knows whether or not he made the best choice based on what he was looking for.
I’m merely speculating myself here, but I have an idea Montoya was waiting to see what was going to happen with Tony Kanaan first, and then Max Chilton at Ganassi. Those were the two seats that were sort of iffy at the end of the season. Kanaan was confirmed for the No.10 car a couple of weeks ago. I don’t know if anything has been decided with Chilton, but it’s my understanding that Montoya had been given a deadline of October 31 to make a decision.
Montoya stated very clearly that a ride with Team Penske gave him his very best chance to win another Indianapolis 500. He also said that an Indianapolis 500 victory was what was most important. He’s right – on both counts. Although Honda showed some strength in winning at Indianapolis last May, I’d still bet my money on Chevy – especially a Chevy-powered car prepared by Team Penske.
In 1978, Rick Mears was offered a handful of rides with Team Penske to fill in for Mario Andretti, who was running Formula One and USAC and ultimately won the F1 title that year. Rather than take a full-time ride with a lesser team, Mears concluded that a part-time ride with Roger Penske was better than a full-time ride elsewhere. Penske guaranteed at least six races for Mears in 1978, including Indianapolis. Mears ended up running eleven out of the eighteen races that year and won three of them. The next season, he was full-time and won his first of his eventual four Indianapolis 500 victories.
Fast forward almost forty years and not a whole lot has changed. Roger Penske will turn eighty before the start of the next season, but besides whiter hair and a little bit larger waistline – he is still The Captain in every sense of the word and his race team still sets the bar at the Indianapolis. The only real difference between the decisions of Rick Mears and Juan Montoya is that Mears was at the beginning of his career while Montoya is winding his down.
While Montoya’s pride probably told him he was still capable of winning and driving in the series on a full-time basis; I think he began to realize that perhaps his heart was into other things as well. Montoya’s son, Sebastian, is already running karts in Europe and will be running in the US next year. He has found that he really enjoys being at his races. A full-time IndyCar career could prevent him from attending many of his races.
But let’s face it – it is the lure of possibly winning another Indianapolis 500 that keeps Montoya wanting to come back. When he won the race in 2015 for his second time, you could tell that it meant much more to him than when he first won it in 2000. Very few people have experienced the euphoria of drinking the milk in Victory Lane at Indianapolis. The rest of us can only dream and imagine what that would be like.
So Montoya has decided to take Roger Penske and Tim Cindric up on their offer to run a fifth Penske car at Indianapolis. For now, there are no other races planned for Montoya. Then again, there were only six races planned for Rick Mears in 1978. He almost doubled it by running eleven. Cindric and Company will have to build a fifth team from scratch for May, which was one reason for the October 31 deadline. They needed time to do it right.
Quite honestly, I never thought he would do it. I thought he had too much pride to take a back seat at Penske, and would take a full-time gig at Foyt. But I’m glad he is doing what he’s doing. It’s painful to watch athletes prolong their careers with other teams just for the sake of not retiring. It was awkward to see Johnny Unitas close out his career as a San Diego Charger. It was painful to watch that one year when Joe Namath played with the Rams. More recent examples were watching Joe Montana and Emmitt Smith wind down their playing days with the Chiefs and the Cardinals respectively.
I’m glad that we fans have at least one more year of watching Juan Montoya display his mastery at IMS. And make no mistake – it is mastery. Montoya has run in four Indianapolis 500’s. He won two of them, finished fifth in another before crashing in last year’s race to finish thirty-third. With 2017 being Montoya’s fifth “500”, his established pattern of winning every other time suggests that he’ll win it for the third time next year. I’m not so sure I would bet against him.
Now that Montoya and Sato have confirmed their 2017 plans, fewer seats are up for grabs. There is the mystery surrounding KVSH, and the remaining available seat in the No.20 for non-ovals at Ed Carpenter Racing, as well as the remaining non-confirmed seats at Dale Coyne Racing and AJ Foyt Racing – with many more good drivers than seats. It’s about to get really interesting. Stay tuned.