PRUETT: The IndyCar summer break Silly Season update

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PRUETT: The IndyCar summer break Silly Season update

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PRUETT: The IndyCar summer break Silly Season update

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Ed Carpenter Racing’s rise in overall performance, thanks to Rinus VeeKay, has returned the team to a place it hasn’t been since Josef Newgarden began making waves with the outfit. That being said, the goals for ECR are the same as they’ve been for many years: solidify the No. 20 Chevy with Carpenter in for the ovals and a funded driver to take over for the road and street courses, and run with a full-time driver in the No. 21.

VeeKay is that driver for the No. 21 as part of a multi-year deal he signed prior to the 2021 season. On the No. 20 side, Carpenter told me he’ll be back for the ovals in 2022, so that’s great. As for his ride-sharing teammate Conor Daly in the No. 20, his return is entirely dependent on his providing the majority of the budget, just as it’s been for many years with a number of drivers who’ve been in the car.

If a driver like Daly, or one of equal or greater talent, emerges with a full budget for ECR, Carpenter would go to two full-time drivers and put a third ECR car in motion for himself on the ovals. If the Air Force returns with Daly, an extension will likely be in the offering. Without that budget, VeeKay will have a new teammate next season. Currently holding 18th in the championship to VeeKay’s eighth with six races left to run, Daly’s time to shine is now.

Meyer Shank Racing and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing – winners of the last two Indy 500s – are unexpectedly intertwined in the silly season. As we wrote last week, Shank was under the impression Jack Harvey would sign a new contract to stay with MSR in the No. 60 Honda for his sixth season and beyond, but with the anticipated driver change for RLL’s No. 30 Honda piloted by Takuma Sato, an old fashioned case of supply and demand emerged.

Within RLL, Graham Rahal has spoken kindly of Harvey in past interviews, and team president Piers Phillips, who came to RLL from Arrow McLaren SP at the end of 2018, got to know Harvey during that season where MSR partnered with AMSP and is understood to be a big fan of his countryman.

If Sato is indeed winding down his full-time participation with RLL, there would be a decent sponsorship gap to fill, and in that area, Harvey’s loyal support network would be a perfect fit to keep the No. 30 on track and motoring. RLL’s third car aspirations for 2022 remain active; don’t be surprised if an Oliver Askew or another championship-winning driver held in high regard by the team is given a tryout with a few races with the No. 45 Honda.

Santino Ferrucci has been exceedingly fast in the No. 45, so it will be interesting to see how others fare in the same car and how RLL decides on which one deserves the seat at however many races it appears next year. Fast drivers aren’t hard to find; with RLL needing more overall pace from the engineering side to match the Andretti, Ganassi, and Penske entries, a rapid driver with excellent technical feedback would be the ultimate solution for RLL.

The continued support of sponsors such as the US Air Force will play a role in determining whether Daly has a future at ECR. Barry Cantrell/Motorsport Images

Returning to MSR, Helio Castroneves is the only full-timer in the house at the moment with the No. 06 Honda. As part of the team’s expansion to two cars for 2022, MSR will need to put a dedicated crew in place with the No. 06, as its Indy 500-winning crew was comprised of MSR staffers borrowed from IndyCar and IMSA, plus some short-term helpers.

As for who might replace Harvey in the No. 60, Shank and co-owner Jim Meyer have some intriguing opportunities. Andretti’s Kirkwood would be a perfect solution if the team is unable to place the Floridian in a car of their own. Team sponsor AutoNation and Ryan Hunter-Reay have a close relationship, and while RHR might not be a driver with a long runway ahead in IndyCar, the thought of having a pair of Indy 500 winners to push the team forward has a lot of upside. And then there’s Simon Pagenaud.

The plight of the Team Penske driver continues as the Frenchman searches for opportunities to remain in IndyCar if he or Roger Penske elect to part ways once his contract expires at the end of the season. I continue to hear that Pagenaud wants a fresh start in IndyCar, but his options appear to be extremely limited.

One team that’s often thought of a landing spot for the 2016 series champion is Arrow McLaren SP, where he caught Penske’s attention (under the Schmidt Hamilton/Schmidt Peterson Motorsports banner) from 2012-2014, but I can say with confidence that there are no openings for a return to his former team.

I’ve heard nothing about Andretti, Ganassi, or Rahal holding an interest for his full-time services, but the brand-new development with Harvey’s upcoming departure from MSR could open a door to keep Pagenaud in the series. Like RHR, Shank would only benefit from having an Indy 500 winner in the program, and with the 37-year-old holding sixth in the championship, Pagenaud’s more than capable of elevating the team’s game.

Of all the driver options MSR might consider, it’s the full package that Pagenaud offers – he’s an elite engineering and feedback resource, is always focused on all the tiny details, has vast operational experience from Penske, and has years of chemistry from working with Castroneves – which should be hard to overlook. Factor in how Pagenaud – the 2010 ALMS LMP champion – would also be an invaluable addition to MSR’s IMSA prototype program at the endurance rounds, and the team seemingly has exactly who they need.

Pagenaud could be a perfect solution for MSR’s unexpected vacancy – but would that create a headache for Penske? Barry Cantrell/Motorsport Images

MSR has a lot of improvements to make before it can hassle the bigger programs on a regular basis; its choice of driver for the No. 60 Honda will have a massive influence on where it’s going in the series.

In the absence of a switch to MSR, Pagenaud’s best options would be with Penske in IndyCar if that’s even on the table, moving with Penske to the upcoming Porsche Penske Motorsports IMSA LMDh program, or a move outside the IndyCar and sports car universe.

Keep in mind how Penske has said he intends to stay with four cars in 2022, and an even deeper question is raised. If Pagenaud wants a change of scenery, and young or mid-career stars like VeeKay and Rossi are locked down for another year, where does Penske go to find a driver that fits its well-defined checklist?

RACER’s Robin Miller hounded team president Tim Cindric for years to sign Josef Newgarden, but as the Penske boss said each time, they prefer to let others put young talent through IndyCar college before hiring becomes an option.

Noting the lack of front-running drivers in the paddock to hire at the moment – unless they swoop in and grab Grosjean – trying to hold onto Pagenaud for a year, taking a flyer on a recent F1 driver in the hope of finding another Grosjean, or dropping down to three cars looks like the most obvious solutions to consider.

So how’s that for a silly season update? When the biggest, wealthiest, and most successful team in IndyCar history is facing limited options on the driver market, you know things are crazy. And don’t forget the secondary race going on right now as teams with expansion plans, poor showings so far in 2021, and those who are close to a breakthrough all chase the same top-tier engineers and crew members to transform their future results.

Almost every team has some form of change coming next season, and it won’t be long before our third silly season update will be in the works.

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