PRUETT: IndyCar silly season update, Mid-Ohio edition

Gavin Baker/Motorsport Images

PRUETT: IndyCar silly season update, Mid-Ohio edition

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PRUETT: IndyCar silly season update, Mid-Ohio edition

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IndyCar’s silly season continues to move at a rapid rate on the approach to Mid-Ohio. It’s been over a month since my last update, so let’s do a comprehensive run through of all that’s gone on and what’s in motion at the moment.

In recent weeks, my private conversations have turned to the narrowing of options in the paddock, with the No. 7 Chevy at Arrow McLaren SP currently driven by Felix Rosenqvist serving as the prime example of how fantastical possibilities that blow up on social media can fade in an instant.

First, it was Chip Ganassi Racing’s Alex Palou who was contacted by AMSP entering May with an eye towards taking over the No. 7 next season and getting in on McLaren F1 testing with a goal of earning a Super License. An effort to unwind the reigning IndyCar champion from his contract was unsuccessful, and with his obligation to CGR intact, the Palou-to-AMSP play went nowhere.

The next effort to replace Rosenqvist in the No. 7 involved courting CGR’s bedrock, six-time champion Scott Dixon, with offers of a race seat and a long-term leadership role — with long-term financial security — to help AMSP president Taylor Kiel steer the team once he retires.

Like Palou, Dixon’s under contract beyond 2022, so there will be no immediate movement from either driver, but they could be inclined to leave CGR once their deals are completed.

With both of those items known at the most recent race in Road America, plus the recent confirmation of McLaren’s F1 drivers continuing next year and the signing of Rosenqvist to an extension without specifics as to whether he’ll stay in the No. 7 Chevy or be deployed to McLaren’s new Formula E program, we’re right back to where we were a few months ago.

Entering July, McLaren is still undecided on who will partner next year with Pato O’Ward and Alexander Rossi, Rosenqvist is in limbo — but does have new security in which team he’ll drive for — and AMSP’s pursuits of big-name drivers, which have been in motion all year, have largely stalled due to timing.

And with AMSP making repeated runs at Chip Ganassi Racing’s drivers, it’s worth asking whether Ganassi will work to extend Palou, Dixon, and championship leader Marcus Ericsson, who is in the first of a new two-year deal, in the coming weeks and months. As McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown recently told RACER, “As I fully expect, whether it’s Penske or Andretti, or Ferrari or Mercedes in Formula 1, they’re looking for the best talent they can get. And that’s why you’ve got to make sure when you have superstars, you keep them off the market as long as you can.”

Dixon is the most fascinating driver in this regard. Signed through 2023, the 41-year-old has no immediate plans to retire as he chases a seventh IndyCar title and a second Indy 500 win. But there will come a time when the best of his generation — now in his 21st season with Ganassi — decides to step out of the cockpit, and when he does, as McLaren has already shown, Dixon’s vast driving experience and competitive wisdom will be a coveted asset.

Most of the time, it’s not too difficult to score Dixon’s signature. But which team will be able to get one when the Kiwi’s contract is up? Michael Levitt/Motorsport Images

I can’t say if Ganassi has thought about or put together a post-driving offer for Dixon, but if he hasn’t, I’d have to believe McLaren’s rumored enticement package of equity in the team, and a long contract to remove any worries about income stability, could spur CGR into action with a long-term offer of its own. Losing Dixon — CGR’s competitive engine — to a rival is the last thing they can afford.

Ericsson is another driver to think about in a different light. Yes, he’s fortunate to have a longtime backer who brings a budget for the new Indy 500 winner to offer, but the days of viewing Ericsson as a paycheck first and a driver second are gone. In addition to leading the championship for CGR, he’s become the team’s top and most consistent performer this year. As adversaries start to search for front-running drivers to fill vacancies when their drivers leave or retire at the end of 2023, Ericsson could be among the top targets unless CGR intervenes.

Circling back to the No. 7 Chevy, the talks I’ve had with a lot of smart people have all ended up in the same place with a belief that keeping Rosenqvist in the car for one more year is the smartest call. He’s surging right now, works incredibly well with and is loved by O’Ward, and he’s immensely popular within AMSP.

Just as AMSP is starting to give headaches to the long-established Big 3 teams, the idea of adding two new drivers at once is a surefire way to risk all the gains they’ve made. And with a bunch of star drivers hitting the market leading into 2024, the notion of waiting until next summer to reel in a big catch has a lot of merit. Will O’Ward and Rossi become fast friends and go on a race-winning rampage together? Or will things turn frosty? It’s hard to say, which is why maintaining the chemistry and consistency O’Ward and Rosenqvist bring — while onboarding a strong talent and unique personality like Rossi — is what makes the most short-term sense.

Turning to Meyer Shank Racing, Helio Castroneves’ full-time return to IndyCar has not been the smoothest of rides as the Indy 500 legend sits a distant 17th in the championship standings — one spot behind RLL rookie Christian Lundgaard — but I’ve recently heard the Brazilian is expected to return for another full-season run. That’s a significant change.

MSR is known to have spoken with a few of this year’s main free agents as those drivers made stops throughout the paddock to see what might be available for next year. Castroneves is also keen to continue in the No. 06 Honda, so it would be a surprise if an extension isn’t signed.

Continuing on the theme of doors closing, there’s still a chance we could see Rinus VeeKay head for AMSP, but it feels like the smart call for the Ed Carpenter Racing driver might be to sign a one-year deal to stay and continue searching for the best long-term fit in the paddock. Looking ahead to 2024, is there a vacant seat at Penske or Ganassi or Andretti or MSR that could turn the young Dutchman into a title contender? For a driver who wants to be the top dog at a leading team, there just aren’t any obvious options that fall into that category among the seats that are left to fill next season. Staying put makes a lot of sense with how this year’s silly season game has gone.

The Andretti team is set with its next roster as A.J. Foyt Racing’s Kyle Kirkwood heads to backfill Rossi’s entry. Rossi and Grosjean, I’m told, aren’t exactly best friends, so from a chemistry standpoint, I wonder if the surfing Floridian might bring something new and more positive to the quartet.

Can Kirkwood rebalance the chemistry within Andretti when he arrives for next season? Motorsport Images

The Foyts are losing the best young talent they’ve had in forever, and while I’d love to see them go and hire another young star to take over for Kirkwood, the ongoing payment issues with the No. 14’s primary sponsor could force the team to seek a funded driver. As Ericsson has shown at CGR, a driver who can bring sponsorship isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and with that in mind, 22-year-old Indy Lights talent Benjamin Pedersen who has backers ready to step up to IndyCar could find himself on pole position to land in the car.

So far, every driver and team scenario has involved teams staying at their current number of entries or expanding. With Foyt and its No. 11 Chevy, we have our first possibility of contraction. Dalton Kellett is likely to return in the No. 4 Chevy with his family-owned K-Line sponsorship, and while it’s tough to say who will be the primary sponsor for the No. 14, that car means everything to the team and funding will be found.

It’s the No. 11 that’s at risk of falling off the grid — as early as Toronto in a few weeks — unless the immediate sponsorship concerns are resolved, and from there, worrying about whether the car returns in 2023 seems like something best saved for another day.

Chip Ganassi told us this week that his team will be “status quo” next year with its four drivers returning. The main item to answer, and it’s way too early to get anything definitive, is whether Tony Kanaan will be back as CGR’s fifth driver for the Indy 500. Considering how big of an impact he had on the team’s competitiveness at the Speedway, Kanaan is a must-have for the 500.

Dale Coyne Racing has an option on Takuma Sato that its team owner said he expects to exercise and Sato’s rookie teammate David Malukas is on the first of a multi-year contract with DCR, so for the first time in a good while, the team should have year-to-year consistency with its drivers. As we wrote last week, an expanded relationship with HMD Motorsports to place another car on the grid — for HMD’s Indy Lights championship leader Linus Lundqvist — is also a high probability.

Of the remaining full-time teams, Ed Carpenter Racing’s VeeKay has been covered, leaving Conor Daly to quickly explore. He’s on a new multi-year contract with ECR, and despite the daily doom and gloom around cryptocurrency values, he recently told me that all is good and stable with his crypto-based sponsors.

Juncos Hollinger Racing wants to keep Callum Ilott and Ilott recent told RACER he intends to stay. Although JHR hasn’t made a formal statement of its plans, the team is known to have a few drivers on its radar to test in the coming months, all with an eye to adding a second full-season car alongside Ilott’s No. 77 Chevy. Provided that driver is anywhere near as good as the Briton, and a race engineer of comparable talent can be found, this team could be headed for big things.

No changes are expected for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s trio of Graham Rahal, Christian Lundgaard and Jack Harvey, although former RLL driver Santino Ferrucci is known to have a big interest in returning to the team. It’s not clear whether they’re receptive to the idea, but the little sparkplug from Connecticut wants back in and wants to help turn the team’s fortunes around.

Finally, as The Captain told me a few days ago, Penske’s trio of Josef Newgarden, Will Power and Scott McLaughlin will be back in their respective Chevys.

For a final run through, Andretti, Coyne, Ganassi, MSR, RLL and Penske are set, provided all of the new contracts or extensions are signed. AJFR, AMSP, ECR and JHR have vacancies or new cars to fill, or drivers to assign or re-sign.

Yes, the silly season is winding down, but there’s a lot left to resolve before the championship is over.

PROJECTED CAR COUNT

A.J. Foyt Racing: 2
Arrow McLaren SP: 3
Andretti Autosport: 4
Chip Ganassi Racing: 4
Dale Coyne Racing: 3
Ed Carpenter Racing: 2
Juncos Hollinger Racing: 2
Meyer Shank Racing: 2
Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing: 3
Team Penske: 3

TOTAL: 28

MX-5 CUP | ROUND 9 – ROAD AMERICA

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