2017 Verizon IndyCar Series preview

Joe Skibinski/INDYCAR

By Aaron Bearden, Motorsports Editor

If you were to take only a fleeting glance at the Verizon IndyCar Series ahead of the upcoming season, you’d likely think that not much has changed.

Aerokits have been frozen for the coming year. Team Penske still have a dominant -albeit slightly altered- quartet of drivers. The schedule remains largely unchanged, save for the addition of a summer showdown at Gateway Motorsports Park.

In a North American motorsports world riddled with constant change and inconsistency, IndyCar has found themselves in a good position entering 2017 due to relative consistency.

The schedule’s been set for months. Most drivers were announced before the cold of winter hit – even Dale Coyne Racing (DCR), a perennial last-second driver announcer, have had both of their drivers signed for months.

Despite the surprisingly quiet offseason, there’s still plenty to watch for in the upcoming IndyCar season, which is set to begin with this weekend’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

Here are a few of the year’s top stories to follow.

Ganassi’s Honda Return 

When Scott Dixon arrived at Phoenix International Raceway for a Feb. test, he stole the show for Chip Ganassi Racing Teams (CGR) with a rare all-white machine and drivers suit. With Target no longer sponsoring the New Zealander, his machine at Phoenix sported an all-white livery, devoid of any prevalent sponsorship.

Given Dixon’s impressive resume in the sport – four championships and an Indianapolis 500 victory among them – seeing the veteran’s car devoid of sponsorship, even if only temporarily, proved shocking enough to lead headlines for Ganassi despite the fact that the team as a whole were logging their first official laps since announcing a return to Honda.

However, while Dixon may have stolen the show at the time, the story for the coming year will be Ganassi’s return to Honda, a move both sides hope will translate to the same success seen in prior runs together.

Ganassi has found at least a stroke of success in every machine they’ve fielded, but the company’s greatest triumphs have nearly all come with Honda. In fact, CGR has managed nine championships in 12 attempts with a Honda, a feat that stands out largely because the company has won only twice in its other eight years competing for other OEMs.

CGR last ran with Honda in 2013, a year that saw the company earn a championship with Dixon. However, team owner Chip Ganassi elected to transfer the team over to Chevrolet for 2014 after criticizing Honda throughout the 2013 season.

The move led to another title for Ganassi in 2015, courtesy of Dixon’s incredible comeback in the final race to best Juan Pablo Montoya in a tiebreaker, but CGR’s overall effort with the bowties were outshines by championship rival Team Penske.

Honda’s been a step behind Chevrolet for the majority of the schedule over the past few seasons, but with the addition of Ganassi to its ranks the OEM has an opportunity to close the gap once more ahead of the new kits in 2018.

Team Penske’s Top Four

Simon Pagenaud and Team Penske proved utterly dominant in 2016. (Photo: Joe Skibinski/INDYCAR)

Team Penske had one of the greatest seasons a team has ever managed in 2016, claiming the three of the top four points positions and earning a dominant championship with Frenchman Simon Pagenaud.

Now, with Ganassi gone, Penske remains as the top team at Chevrolet, with Ed Carpenter Racing (ECR) and recent transfer A.J. Foyt Racing hoping to climb the mountain.

Penske returns for 2017 with a lineup of four drivers that could easily win a championship.

Pagenaud comes back after by far the best season of his career. 2014 champion Will Power returns after overcoming a missed race to finish second. The ever-consistent Helio Castroneves makes his way back to the paddock for another year after seeing several close brushes with victory lane go awry last season.

Then there’s the new kid: Josef Newgarden.

The worst-kept secret in the paddock was confirmed last fall when Newgarden was announced as the full-time replacement for Montoya, who endured a surprisingly mediocre 2016 campaign after his runner-up performance in 2015.

Newgarden, 26, proved to be one of the few drivers capable of contending with Penske’s top trio last season, overcoming a terrifying shunt at Texas Motor Speedway to claim a dominant victory at Iowa Speedway and contend for the championship to the late stages of the season with ECR.

In his second year with ECR, Newgarden ended the season a career-best fourth in the standings in 2016, catching the eye of “The Captain” Roger Penske and earning himself a ride with the paddock’s current top team.

Now Newgarden’s rise to the top is complete. He has every opportunity to succeed on the grandest stage, which means the expectations of his success have also risen. Only the learning curve associated with a new team and his championship-capable teammates stand as potential hinderances.

Throw in Montoya as a fifth driver for the 101st Running of the Indianapolis 500 Presented by Penngrade Motor Oil (and potentially other starts), and Penske are firmly established as the top dog entering the final year of the current aerokits.

Could another Chevrolet team steal the season? Possibly. ECR nearly accomplished just that with Newgarden last season.

In a similar tone, could Honda surprise people this year? Absolutely. The addition of CGR and their current wealth of teams with Andretti Autosport and DCR provide many opportunities to shine.

Still, based off of last year’s success, Penske is the de-facto favorites until proven otherwise.

Andretti’s Return to Relevance

Is it feasible that a team could dominate the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 and still consider the year a letdown?

If there’s any way for that to be possible, such was the case for Andretti Autosport last season.

Andretti were the top team in Indianapolis, earning an incredible victory with rookie Alexander Rossi, but save for that brief time of celebration 2016 turned out to be utterly disappointing for the organization.

Ryan-Hunter Reay, a former champion of both the Indy 500 and the IndyCar Series, proved uncharacteristically slow in a winless season. Rossi’s Indianapolis surprise gave way to a season riddled with inconsistency and struggles. Marco Andretti endured arguably the worst season of his IndyCar career, and Carlos Munoz failed to breakout, ultimately leading to what was essentially a swap between himself and Takuma Sato with Foyt.

After one of their worst seasons as an organization, Andretti has reasons for optimism in the coming year.

The team brought on two quality engineers – Eric Bretzman (technical director), Jeremy Milless (for Alexander Rossi’s team) – and have four drivers all looking to bounce back and make a statement in the coming year.

2016 was ugly for Andretti. 2017 needs to be better.

Hello, Goodbye

While much of the paddock remained the same, there were a few changes to follow for the upcoming season.

Chevrolet

  • Hello: A.J. Foyt Racing. The team, owned by the legendary “Super Tex” himself, have made the move to Chevrolet to chase speedway and victories with a new driver lineup for the upcoming season.
  • Goodbye: Ganassi.

Ed Carpenter Racing

  • Hello: JR Hildebrand, who gets an opportunity to redeem his early career struggles after proving strong in limited opportunities with ECR over the previous few years.
  • Goodbye: Newgarden

A.J. Foyt Racing

  • Hello: Munoz and Conor Daly. After multiple seasons with Sato and Jack Hawksworth, Foyt’s elected to make wholesale changes and go with a young, promising lineup for 2017. Both Munoz and Daly earned their share of headlines in 2016, with Munoz coming just short of victory in Indianapolis and Daly surprising to earn a podium in Detroit with DCR.
  • Goodbye: Sato (to Andretti) and Hawksworth.

Dale Coyne Racing

  • Hello: Sebastien Bourdais and Ed Jones. The first is a veteran with victories in each of the past three seasons, arriving back at DCR after leaving the now-defunct KV Racing. The latter is a promising young shoe set to compete as the only full-time rookie in the upcoming season.
  • Goodbye: Daly (to Foyt), Luca Fillippi and Gabby Chaves.

The Road to Indy

Perhaps IndyCar’s most underrated asset, the Mazda Road to Indy is set for another year of stellar racing action.

The talent pool on IndyCar’s prospect ladder is as deep as ever, lending potential for strong championship battles in each of the three tours on the Road to Indy.

The storylines begin in Indy Lights, where a talented group including Colton Herta, son of 1993 Indy Lights champion Bryan Herta, 2015 USF2000 champion Nico Jamin, Dalton Kellett and Kyle Kaiser.

Andretti will field four entries this season as part of the newly-formed Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing partnership. Carlin will supply four teams as well, with Belardi Auto Racing adding an additional three including oh-so-close 2016 runner-up Santi Urrutia.

Pro Mazda doesn’t have quite the same bevy of storylines as Indy Lights among first glance, but a group of USF2000 graduates and prospects offers promise for the season to come.

Reigning USF2000 champion Anthony Martin leads the way for Pro Mazda, with a group of drivers including TJ Fischer, Bobby Eberle and Sting Ray Robb poised to offer competition with their respective teams.

The name of USF2000, as always, are the least recognizable on the tour, but that goes to show it’s serving it’s purpose – offering the first step in the ladder for teams looking to ascend to IndyCar.

Last season saw a great championship battle unfold in the MRTI’s lowest tour, as Martin got the best of teammate Parker Thompson for the title.

Out With the Old, In With the New

The last thing to watch for this season is discussion and announcement of the new single-spec body kit set to replace the current aerokits in 2018.

Not much is known about the future kits thus far. A handful of initial renderings were revealed at the North American International Auto Show at Detroit back in January, but otherwise INDYCAR has stayed largely quiet on the topic.

Still, given the large change the sport will see with them, expect this storyline to be a constant presence throughout the upcoming year.

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