By Joey Barnes, Editor-in-Chief
Since the departure of Josef Newgarden to Team Penske, Ed Carpenter Racing has now become the best remaining option for drivers seeking a ride for the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season.
A smaller team in numbers to industry giants such as Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Autosport, team owner and part-time driver Ed Carpenter has made the most of his organizations time in North America’s top open wheel series.
Newgarden showed tremendous pace throughout the Month of May and the 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, falling short of what ended up being a fuel mileage race and ending the historic event third. The 25-year-old Tennessean also dominated the Iowa Corn 300 at Iowa Speedway in July, setting a staggering series record for laps led in a race at 282 en route to his third career win.
Losing Newgarden hurts ECR, but his departure was likely after legendary owner Roger Penske came calling. What may hurt Carpenter’s team worse is losing Newgarden’s engineer, Jeremy Milless, to Andretti Autosport. The highly-rated race engineer is expected to serve on newly crowned Rookie of the Year Alexander Rossi’s squad.
The void left at the No. 21 team allows a tremendous opportunity for the series’ next up-and-coming engineer, but a conundrum on which direction it should go with its driver lineup.
With drivers rumored to be in the mix, it’s time to examine the contenders.
The possible candidates include: Juan Pablo Montoya (whom Newgarden replaced in the No. 2 at Penske), Tony Kanaan (RACER reported that he has been made an offer from A.J. Foyt Racing, but likely will return to Ganassi), Conor Daly, Spencer Pigot, and J.R. Hildebrand.
Sage Karam, Zach Veach and Matthew Brabham could get some serious looks, especially Veach after a positive test with the team at Sonoma Raceway prior to the season finale.
Oddly, there’s been little to no talk on Gabby Chaves or Jack Hawksworth, even though both showed promise in their respective season with Bryan Herta Autosport (Chaves in 2015, Hawksworth in 2014), the pair have struggled as of late – Chaves with funding to secure a seat for a full season and Hawksworth with solid results at A.J. Foyt Racing.
Veterans Montoya and Kanaan make a ton of sense to pilot the No. 21 in what could be viewed as a transitional year for ECR, however, there’s a lot to like in some of the other candidates as well.
What is there not to like about the potential possibility of Daly getting the nod from Carpenter? The 24-year-old Hoosier is blistering fast and if not for double points would likely be the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series Rookie of the Year with a team in Dale Coyne Racing that is on a significantly smaller budget than that of an Andretti Autosport. Daly and Carpenter share the Hoosier connection as well and the prospect of an Indiana native in an ultra-fast car in the Indy 500 is enough to get any longtime fan giddy. With much owed to Dale Coyne for putting him in a seat for a full season, it’ll be interesting to see how long he will be able to hold on to Daly.
Pigot, the 2015 Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires champion, ran 10 races in the Verizon IndyCar Series this season, having jumped on with ECR in June after running three races with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. The 23-year-old Californian ran opposite of Carpenter in a part-time role exclusive to road and street courses, showing flashes of promise along the way with a career-best finish of seventh at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.
Hildebrand might make the most sense here. The 28-year-old Californian has been a part of ECR in some capacity since 2014, having stepped in this year during testing to replace an injured Newgarden. In fact, Newgarden was quick to point out that his dominant win was due in large part to the setup on the car, of which Hildebrand was largely responsible for. The transition would be seamless for Carpenter – let him run the No. 21 and bring in another young driver or continue with Pigot to switch out the No. 20 for road and street courses.
The remaining drivers listed are longshots, but if one were to get a look out of the bunch one would have to think its Veach. He’s long overdue for an opportunity and has seen everything the Mazda Road to Indy ladder has to offer, so there’s no reason to think he would be in over his head by moving up to the top series.
A common theme in the Verizon IndyCar Series has become having so much youthful talent ready to be infused, but not enough seats to let them showcase it. Regardless of the route Carpenter goes, proven vs potential, the future has never looked brighter for the sport as it continues to move forward.