RACER takes a look at each full-time NTT IndyCar Series team ahead of the new season’s launch this weekend at St. Petersburg, continuing with Ed Carpenter Racing.
2022 Entrants’ Championship (1-25):
12th, No. 21 Chevrolet with Rinus VeeKay
17th, No. 20 Chevrolet with Conor Daly
NA, No. 33/No. 16 Chevrolet with Ed Carpenter/Simona De Silvestro
No. 20 Chevrolet with Conor Daly
No. 21 Chevrolet with Rinus VeeKay
No. 33 Chevrolet with Ed Carpenter (ovals only)
One of Ed Carpenter Racing’s greatest attributes has been its incredible consistency. Look at its timing stands, and the same leaders — from race engineering to race strategy — are found year after year. The same is true among its drivers, with Rinus VeeKay and Conor Daly continuing as teammates for the fourth season with team owner Carpenter joining in on the ovals.
On the full-time race engineering side, Matt Barnes and Rinus VeeKay remain together and they’ve added a new performance engineer to the No. 21 in Jack Ruskell. Peter Craik and Conor Daly are also continuing on the No. 20, which is a positive.
For the most part, the 2023 edition of ECR is no different than the last in terms of the names and faces on the driving and performance side of the equation, but there’s been solid evolution elsewhere within the team as a number of crew chiefs and veteran mechanics — from Bret Schmitt to Jeff Grahn – have either been promoted or shifted across its cars.
Considering how many teams that run ahead or close behind ECR have added high-level staff or made sizable changes to how they operate, it’s worth asking whether the decision to remain largely unchanged from year to year will be enough to move the team forward and out of the midfield position it’s held.
Simply put, will 2023 be the year where ECR moves up a few notches because it’s made no key personnel additions and can hit the ground running while some of its closest rivals lose time as they learn how to work together? Or will ECR stand still — and possibly regress – once its retooled adversaries figure out how to get the best from their revised programs? ECR is standing on faith with its people and believes it has the right ingredients to improve, which says a lot.
Among ECR’s drivers, I see Rinus VeeKay at a crossroads of sorts as he enters his fourth full season of IndyCar. He’s only 22 and has a long career ahead of him, but there was a telling situation last season when he entered free agency, hired an influential manager to find his best options in the paddock, and eventually chose to stick with ECR.
It’s hard to say why his first big appearance on the free agent market led to no upward movement, but there’s another solid round of possibilities in upcoming free agency where a few more big seats could be open at Andretti, Ganassi, and Rahal, at a minimum. That’s why 2023 could be a pivotal year for the Dutchman. He finished a highly respectable 12th in last year’s standings, but for the hard-nosed team owners in the paddock, placing 12th out of 25 full-time entries — nestled between Graham Rahal and Romain Grosjean, who had disappointing seasons — might not have done enough to stoke their immediate enthusiasm.
The new season is another opportunity for VeeKay to dial up interest in securing his services unless, of course, his current team gives him no reason to look elsewhere.
ECR continues to work as hard as ever to advance and give its drivers front-running cars, so there’s no question about its effort or the talent it has on the engineering and mechanical sides. But it hasn’t been close to matching the yearlong outputs of the Penskes, Ganassis, Andrettis or McLarens, and that’s where a super-talented kid like VeeKay finds himself between the proverbial rock and a hard place. Dropped into one of those bigger teams, I’m confident VeeKay would be right up there with the celebrated drivers in the series, but since he’s with a midfield program, team owners have clearly struggled to differentiate whether his inconsistent presence near the front of the field is on him or team.
With Daly, 2022 was a punishing affair with a brief respite offered during the month of May, when a pair of top sixes offered the only bright spot of the season. Although he ran close to, matched, or beat VeeKay in a variety of sessions prior to each race, Daly’s finishing record was rather stupefying as 15 of 17 races were completed in positions that were outside the top 10. Being a regular target of the cartoon anvil didn’t help matters, but once again, the folks who tabulate the points have no regard for the reasons behind the misfortunes and lowly placings.
Owing to the lack of changes to Daly’s No. 20 Chevy program, the new season offers a fresh chance to avoid cartoon anvils and see if race-day adversity pays fewer visits to his entry.
WHAT THEY NEED
For VeeKay, it’s another season of auditioning for other teams and for ECR to prove he belongs in the No. 21 for a few more years. VeeKay’s first win in 2021 continues to stand as his finest achievement in the series, and his pole at Barber last season also served as a great reminder of what he can deliver when ECR’s on its game.
It’s an obvious thing to say, and applies to most of the field, but VeeKay would do wonders for his market value with another win added to his CV. Make that two wins in 2023, and he’ll find himself in the middle of a serious bidding war.
Separate from a need to gather more wins, VeeKay’s most recent season was a bit like a meandering butterfly: Fourth one weekend… 13th the next… fourth at the race after… 19th at the next. Minus his early exit and 33rd-place finish at the Indy 500, VeeKay finishes closer to the top 10 in the standings, but the boom-or-bust cycle he and the team experienced throughout 2022 is the main item to correct this year.
For Daly, it’s a case of needing a complete do-over. Amid all of the dispiriting results, he finished 17th in the standings which matched his career best from 2020. Even if it’s a modest improvement to 14th in the final standings, Daly — at 31 — is at a place in his career where there are only so many chances left to prove he’s better than a 17th– or 18th-place IndyCar driver, which is where he’s finished five times so far since 2016.
Look to most of the teams ECR are pursuing and we have a good idea of where the Will Powers and Pato O’Wards will finish each weekend. It’s been a while since I’ve had that feeling for ECR’s twosome of VeeKay and Daly; is it a sixth and a 16th? A 12th and a 20th? A third and a seventh? As I think of all the strides ECR could make this season, it’s removing the heavy fluctuations in competitiveness from weekend to weekend where the largest gains would be found.
Until that happens, it’s just too hard to predict where their fortunes are headed. For my fellow fans of ECR, I can’t wait to see what the timesheets tell us about their direction once the green flag waves at St. Pete.