Nerves are raw and anxiety is high for some teams as the clock winds down on the NTT IndyCar Series season.
With three races left to showcase talent, earn one of the valuable Leaders Circle (LC) contracts, and prove to sponsors that committing dollars in 2021 is a worthy exercise, the close to the 2020 calendar has become a flurry of unexpected silly season developments.
At a time where we’re usually focused on the drivers’ championship, changes in the cockpit at three teams – and counting – have been confirmed, and at least two other teams are turning up at one or more of the final races for something other than fun and enjoyment. It’s yet another strange component within an exceedingly odd year for IndyCar.
The first move came with the signing of Sebastien Bourdais as a full-time driver by A.J. Foyt Racing. Although 2021 will mark his undivided return, Bourdais is getting a head start in the No. 14 Chevy for the upcoming Harvest Indy GP doubleheader and will stay in the seat for the finale at St. Petersburg. There are two good reasons behind the decision.
By using the three rounds to learn about the car, learn about the inner workings of the team, and put those lessons to work in the offseason to benefit next year’s competitive fortunes, Bourdais will help the Foyt gang to open the next championship in a stronger position. And in a more practical manner, his presence in the No. 14 should prevent the car from missing out on the top 22 in entrant points.
With IndyCar’s long-standing LC program – which has committed an average sum of $1 million to each team that finishes inside a predetermined number in the entrants’ championship for nearly two decades – the number for 2020 is 22. And with 23 full-time entries, teams with cars near the threshold of missing out on LC payments – which account for 15 to 20 percent of their annual budgets – have been busy searching for ways to avoid being 23rd when the checkered flag waves over the season.
Foyt’s No. 14 Chevy, by chance, heads into the Indy Harvest GP doubleheader on the LC bubble, holding 22nd with a one-point lead over Ed Carpenter Racing’s No. 20 Chevy. Separate from all the competitive benefits of starting early with Bourdais, there’s a significant financial incentive involved to ensure the No. 14 runs stronger with the Frenchman behind the wheel and moves to a safer spot in the Entrants standings.
While considering the LC, driver talent, and the need to appease and retain sponsors, the situation at Andretti Autosport is far more complicated. Despite the suggestion made by one media outlet, Zach Veach did not quit the team, nor did he happily stand down from the No. 26 Gainbridge Honda with three races left on his contract, and the team’s contract with Gainbridge.
We rarely get to know the inner workings of such deals, but financial incentives are the norm – being paid to move aside – when the team decides it’s time for a divorce. It happened late last year with Bourdais at Dale Coyne Racing, and with James Hinchcliffe at Arrow McLaren SP.
As we wrote following the DCR and AMSP dramas, in a war of legal resources, teams can out-spend and out-last almost every driver. So despite having a valid contract to drive for however long, if a team wants to make a change, the smartest option for a person in Veach’s position usually involves signing the divorce papers (that also include a non-disparagement clause), taking the buyout, and searching for new opportunities. What follows on social media and in press releases from the driver tends to be something overly polite (to comply with the aforementioned clause) as they privately fume and put hexes on those who deserve such things.
Within an hour of Veach’s exit, Hinchcliffe was mentioned as the prime candidate to complete the season in the No. 26 Honda, and while the car isn’t in immediate jeopardy of missing out on a LC contract while sitting 20th, one position ahead of Marco Andretti’s No. 98 Honda in 21st, the concerns cannot be ignored. There are plenty of parallels between Bourdais’ early inclusion at Foyt and Hinchcliffe’s assignment to one of Andretti’s underperforming entries, with the shared need to ensure all is well in their teams’ bank accounts as the most obvious connection. In Andretti’s case, however, the overarching financial needs span multiple entries in its five-car fleet.
Some had hoped for an up-and-coming driver to be given Veach’s seat, but Andretti needs a proven talent to settle the waters and deliver quality results and increased marketing returns for Gainbridge. With that trio of tasks in mind, Hinchcliffe was the easy choice.
Signing Gainbridge to a new contract, placing a stronger sponsorship foundation beneath Colton Herta’s No. 88 Andretti Harding Steinbrenner Autosport Honda, and determining whether DHL will return, or if a new primary sponsor is required for Ryan Hunter-Reay’s No. 28 Andretti Honda, all weigh heavily on the team. Adding to the complexity, Hunter-Reay is also in need of a new contract to stay after St. Petersburg.
Looking ahead, the fate of the No. 26 and its Gainbridge sponsorship is where most of the intrigue is found. Would it be a surprise to see Colton Herta’s car unveiled next year in Gainbridge colors? Not if the plan we’ve heard in recent months comes to fruition.
Continuing the theme, if Andretti manages to hold onto Gainbridge, and it’s headed to Herta’s car, who would step into Veach’s former seat? Rumors of coveting Conor Daly and his Air Force sponsorship to fill the No. 26 have persisted throughout the summer months.
Daly enjoyed his most competitive Indy 500 to date when he joined Andretti’s team in 2019 with Air Force backing. Sharing the No. 20 Ed Carpenter Racing Chevy this season on road courses while Carpenter handles the ovals, Daly’s best finishes in 2020 have all come while competing against ECR on the ovals in Carlin Racing’s No. 59 Chevy. With Andretti Autosport recently rediscovering its front-running pace, Daly could have an interesting proposition to consider.
It’s also worth reiterating that the No. 20 Chevy is last in Entrants’ points, which might complicate budgetary matters if it remains in 23rd; assuming the No. 26 Honda stays inside the top 22, its next driver would have a smaller sponsorship number to satisfy.
Factor in Hinchcliffe’s desire to stay with Andretti and make a full-time return, plus some of the ongoing financial concerns, and it’s entirely possible the team will have more than one lineup change to announce before the end of the year.
There are no LC complications to ponder with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing making a late-season appearance with Sage Karam, or in Scott McLaughlin’s upcoming race debut with Team Penske.
Having signed a new sponsor in Oil2Soil for the Harvest GP, Karam and DRR will contest their second and third road races of 2020 as part of an initiative to embark upon a wider part-time campaign next season. DRR fits into the please-spend-for-2021 category with its Indy road course efforts, and if all goes well, its chances can only improve.
For McLaughlin, who’s expected to become Penske’s fourth full-time entry, the guest appearance at St. Petersburg could be viewed as a pressure-packed audition, but nothing we’ve heard would suggest it’s a make-or-break weekend. Based on his pace in pre-season testing, think of it in the same vein as Bourdais’ early introduction to the team in a racing environment to use as a springboard to next season.
And finally, for now – or until another driver change happens prior to the Harvest GP – we have the Oliver Askew situation at AMSP and Helio Castroneves entering the building. Talk about nerves and anxiety on the rise. We’ll cover that topic in our next update.