MILLER: The one-man Silly Season

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MILLER: The one-man Silly Season

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MILLER: The one-man Silly Season

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With a three-week break in the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series, it’s time to turn our attention to the Silly Season. Except that unlike most years, there aren’t four or five free agents bidding their services, or a couple drivers facing termination.

Nope, this is the smallest and most intriguing Silly Season in recent memory.

It’s a one-man show, and Alexander Rossi’s decision will determine if a Silly Season even breaks out, or whether the whole thing begins and ends with the 27-year-old Californian.

In three-and-a-half seasons, Rossi has gone from an afterthought in Formula 1 to the driver just about every IndyCar team covets.

His contract with Michael Andretti is up in seven more races, and Rossi has kept mum about his future. Asked last Friday if he would go on NBC and at least give us a time frame of his decision, Rossi respectfully declined: “I’m sorry, I just can’t. It’s very, very sensitive.”

And it’s not like he’s playing games. Not even his Andretti crew knows what the future holds, but they’re constantly wondering out loud and rightfully concerned, because they don’t want to lose him.

The only quote we have on the record is from Michael Andretti a couple weeks ago in Detroit: “He (Rossi) wants to be here and we certainly want to keep him. I’ve just got to find the money.”

So, here’s what we know for sure. NAPA has been his sponsor since winning Indianapolis in 2016, but it was only for 10 races this season and Andretti and Rossi are waiting on NAPA’s decision about 2020 – and will it be for more money and more races?

Rossi is priority No.1 for Honda, and the manufacturer is willing to do everything it can to keep its engine behind him.

But over the weekend, a rumor surfaced that Andretti is contemplating a switch back to Chevrolet (a move it considered two years ago), and that would likely force Honda to look for other options to entice Rossi to stay.

Honda currently supplies engines to Chip Ganassi Racing, Rahal Letterman Lanigan, Dale Coyne Racing, Arrow SPM and, in partnership with the latter, Meyer Shank.

Ganassi is Scott Dixon’s team and rookie Felix Rosenqvist has a two-year deal, so adding Rossi would mean a third car, while Schmidt’s lineup could stay unchanged with James Hinchcliffe and Marcus Ericsson, and Jack Harvey in the Shank car. RLL is happy with Takuma Sato teaming with Graham Rahal but Bob Rahal, is always open to a third car with proper funding. Ditto for Coyne. But Honda’s position is made tricker by the fact that outside of Ganassi, HPD might struggle to find a seat that Rossi would see as appealing. Or to put it another way, why would he give up a good Chevy ride with Andretti or Penske to be the third driver at RLL or SPM?

Penske has first-hand experience with Rossi through its Acura DPi program in IndyCar. Image by Levitt/LAT

And despite Roger Penske telling NBCSN they were only running four cars at Indy next year, RACER.com can report that The Captain is very much in the hunt for the guy who spanked his team last Sunday at Road America.

Team Penske president Tim Cindric has been an avowed critic of running four cars full-time, but Rossi’s talents and availability obviously triggered a rethink.

In terms of money, there is little doubt that R.P. could make Rossi an offer he couldn’t refuse, and it’s damn near impossible to say no to IndyCar’s premier team.

Asked about the possibility of having their rival join Team Penske, Newgarden said: “That’d be cool,” while Power added: “Sure, as long as he doesn’t take my seat.”

But there are a couple of other things to consider.

I don’t know this, but I feel like Rossi may feel a loyalty to Andretti and/or Honda. They gave him a shot when nobody else wanted him, and he seems more driven by results than a paycheck.

So why would he want to leave engineer Jeremy Milless, crew chief Scott Marks, strategist Rob Edwards and a solid crew on a team that is undeniably his for the next several years? And a group that regularly beats Penske and Ganassi the past two years?

Financial security for the first time in his career? A chance to win three or four more Indy 500s? A home with Team Penske for the forseeable future?

Andretti, Honda and Penske all want Rossi, and maybe we’ll know something by the time we get to Toronto next month.

“It’s in God’s hands,” he said Sunday when pressed about Penske. So that could either be a euphemism for The Captain, a tongue-in-cheek way of trying to move onto another subject, or a simple nod to his deep religious faith.

If Rossi leaves Andretti, one of the best seats in the paddock opens up. If he goes to Penske, it totally upsets the balance of power in IndyCar. If Andretti goes with Chevy and keeps Rossi, Honda will be scrambling to stay competitive.

It’s the most crucial decision of his life and affects a lot of players, so you can understand why Rossi is reluctant to say anything to anyone. It’s the off-track story of the year, and will shape the immediate future of IndyCar.

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