Photo: Walter G. Arce, Sr./ASP, Inc.

TORRES: Takeaways on Chip Ganassi Racing’s 2021 Driver Lineup

By Luis Torres, Staff Writer

Chip Ganassi Racing has been all the rage when it comes to its 2021 NTT IndyCar Series lineup because they have quite the diverse lineup unlike any other team in the paddock.

Their four-driver lineup will still have the newly crowned six-time series champion Scott Dixon and Marcus Ericsson, who wrapped up quite a noble debut season with the team. However, it’s the other two new signees and one leaving is what I’d like to dive further on how I feel about those changes.

Obviously, Jimmie Johnson will be making the jump from NASCAR to IndyCar, but now we know more details on his 2021 deal. He isn’t alone as CGR also announced Thursday that Spanish racer Alex Palou will replace Felix Rosenqvist in the No. 10 NTT Data Honda. Rosenqvist will replace Oliver Askew in the No. 7 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet.

It’s quite the dynamic change to have two legendary racers and two that are simply looking to furthering their worth in the world of motorsports which I do firmly feel can work out despite Dixon being the only one with long-term experience.

Johnson is one of currently two confirmed rookies (Scott McLaughlin being the only full-time rookie) and Ericsson had just completed his second full IndyCar campaign. Palou on the other hand, completed a rather impressive rookie campaign with Dale Coyne Racing with Team Goh.

Let’s dive further on how I feel about each decision Chip Ganassi has made over the past couple of days.

Same Number, Brand New Look

This past Saturday, Johnson confirmed he’ll only run the 13 road and street course races, so there won’t be an Indianapolis 500 debut anytime soon. However, the main announcement was that he’ll get to bring his iconic No. 48 to the sport with Carvana as the primary sponsor.

Continuity is ever important these days when an all-time racing great moves into another racing discipline. So the fact Johnson will have a number he made synonymous to not just NASCAR but racing in general should speak volumes on how Ganassi values “Seven Time” on his brand new adventure.

People on social media were skeptical on his sponsor because not many realize Carvana has been around since 2013, but like myself, didn’t know much about them because they’re not heavily shoved down our throats from an advertising perspective.

It’s a huge plus when an online used car retailer are interested on sponsoring a driver in IndyCar. More so when the sport are facing a huge unknown when it comes on drawing new eyeballs, which I’ve been vocal about and perhaps will write about someday.

CEO of Carvana Ernie Garcia was asked why he chose the No. 48 Ganassi team and the sport of IndyCar to promote the brand, it boils down to the sport’s excitement and having tremendous communications with both Ganassi and Johnson.

“I think there’s a lot of things that are attractive about this opportunity. Obviously being part of INDYCAR is extremely exciting and makes sense for our brand. But I do think just joining a winning team like this is even more exciting,” said Garcia. “I think getting to know Chip a little bit over the last couple weeks, being incredibly impressed. I think the team is incredible. We’re excited to be a part of that team.

“Getting to know Jimmie over the last month or so, learning about his story of being a legend and a champion and being willing to go back to square one and start over again, do it in front of the entire world, I think takes tremendous courage. It’s something I have a ton of respect for.

Everyone chases a dream. We’ve all got dreams. To watch a legend chase his second dream, I think that’s incredible. We’re very, very excited to be a part of that.”

The pandemic has done more damage than good for the sport and having Carvana onboard shows some glimmer of hope on the brands willing to dive into a sport that’s overdue for a true renaissance.

Brand New Chapter for Felix

Not going to lie, I was surprised Ganassi dropped Rosenqvist. He’s been a serviceable teammate that has a win under his belt, but 2020 wasn’t the best compared to 2019.

In fact, it was a sophomore slump because since his maiden victory in the second Road America race, a fifth in the first Harvest GP was the only time he’s ever reached the top-five. Rather than Ganassi giving him another year to bounce back from a disappointing 11th place points finish, they decided to let him go after this season.

Rosenqvist didn’t have to struggle finding a ride though as a few weeks ago, news broke that Arrow McLaren SP signed the Swedish driver for next season and will be teammates with Pato O’Ward, who finished fourth in the championship trail.

“I can’t wait to take the next step in my career and join Arrow McLaren SP. The team has shown itself to be a consistent challenger this year and I’m looking forward to working with Pato to help take it forward,” said Rosenqvist in a press release. “I want to thank Sam, Ric, Zak, and the entire team for giving me this opportunity and I’m already working to be as prepared as possible for next season. It’s going to be fun.”

To be blunt, this may be the ideal approach for Arrow McLaren SP going forward because they’ll need good publicity following the fiasco of Askew’s concussion and how the team went about releasing him. In fact, they might’ve not recovered from sacking James Hinchcliffe last year. So it’s one of the more positively received announcements in quite some time.

Having Rosenqvist is the team’s gain, but does it hurt Ganassi? To an extent it does because it just doesn’t bring proper continuity and while CGR got their 13th title, Team Penske and Andretti Autosport at least can keep their guys afloat which does matter.

If a team doesn’t have consistency on its driver lineup, it can hurt them because one driver can do so much. At the same time, Rosenqvist’s replacement may shine a lot more and could spell trouble for the rest of the competition.

From Virtual Unknown to Future Champion?

Alex Palou is a prime example of a guy that’s fast, but the results doesn’t always show his raw potential due to the fact of the car and team he’s driving for. Then again, the pandemic factored into some of the woes, but based on what we saw, he adapted quite well.

In fairness, Dale Coyne Racing has had great drivers in recent memory, but how much better would they do if given a huge honor to drive on an elite team like Ganassi?

Well, we’re going to see that question being answered next season as Palou will be with CGR.

Mike Hull commented that Palou’s job at DCR with little seating time has been admirable and now that he’ll be joining CGR in 2021, there’s a lot more people haven’t seen of the 23-year-old racer.

“I love to watch the growth of young drivers,” said Hull. “This year racing Indy cars has been very difficult for young drivers like Alex who hadn’t had the opportunity to visually see the tracks in advance, nor have days of practice in private team testing, or open testing or three-day weekends. Putting that into perspective, he did a heck of a job. We had an opening, and he became available, and Chip has a great eye for talent.

“Alex has that spark, that intangible thing you combine with talent that is a lot of fun. It’s a great exploration thing, actually. You’re exploring how far you can go, and he has one year of experience with a quality team, quality engineering and a quality teammate. He stood up to that test extremely well.”

The Super GT and Super Formula standout went from a guy not many knew about into a guy people should be keeping an eye on. Palou’s new ride may be lethal for the entire paddock because Ganassi is no slouch on finding foreign talent that showed promise in open wheel racing.

Dixon being among those Ganassi picked up following PacWest’s demise in early 2002 and the rest was history.

Could history repeat itself with Palou? Time will tell, but based on what we saw from him. Watch out for the new signee. He may give the competition some hell and if he doesn’t end up winning at least two races, it may be a disappointment in my book.

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From the Pacific Northwest, Luis is a University of Idaho graduate with a Bachelor's degree in Broadcasting and Digital Media and a three-time National Motorsports Press Association award winner in photography. Ever since watching the 2003 Daytona 500, being involved in auto racing is all he's ever dreamed of doing. Over the years, Luis has focused on writing, video and photography with ambitions of having his work recognized.