Monday, December 9, 2019

Daly, ECR Join Forces for 2020

A year ago, Conor Daly's IndyCar career was at a crossroads.

After having a full-time ride with Dale Coyne Racing and A.J. Foyt Racing in 2016 and 2017, respectively, Daly was only able to run four races in 2018 and things looked bleak for the 2019 season.

Daly eventually got a ride for the Indy 500 for Andretti Autosport. Back in May I felt this race was a make-or-break moment for his career, and Daly delivered. He was impressive all week in practice, qualified 11th and came home in 10th place for the best finish of his career.

There was certainly a different edge to him that month, as he was about as laser-focused as we have seen him. He was able to run six of the last nine races of the year, and performed well on the ovals while with Carlin, finishing P11 at Texas, P13 at Iowa and P6 at Gateway.

That effort definitely made him a free agent of note, and his plans for 2020 were cast in stone Monday when he was named the "road course" driver of the No. 20 Ed Carpenter Racing Chevy. That means he will drive all 12 road courses for ECR next year, and then will also have a ride for the Indy 500. His sponsorship will come from the United States Air Force, which was on his car at Indy, as well as at the season finale at Laguna Seca where he drove for Andretti Autosport.

Daly jumps into the seat that belonged to Ed Jones in 2019. Jones, who posted three podium finishes in 2017-18 with Chip Ganassi Racing, could only manage a season-best finish of P6 at the Indy GP, which was his only Top 10 finish of the season. Daly is the second new face at ECR for 2020, joining rookie Rinus VeeKay, who this past year won seven races and finished second in the Indy Lights standings.

In both seats, I think ECR made serious upgrades, but none more so than with Daly. For his career, Daly has run 51 IndyCar races, 34 of which have come on road courses, where he has nine Top 10 finishes. Given he hasn't always had quality rides, that is more of an impressive stat than it might look at first glance.

Then comes the Indy 500. Daly will be the No. 2 man on a team that focuses a lot of energy to that one race. ECR always finds lots of speed at the Brickyard, as Ed Carpenter has sat on the pole three times and the team has put a driver on the front row six of the last seven years. 

This past May, Carpenter, Pigot and Jones started P2, P3 and P4, respectively, with Carpenter leading seven laps and coming home sixth. As good as Daly showed he could be at Indy this year, he could be even better in an ECR machine, especially with Chevy power, which this year was the better motor at the 500. 

Though Daly isn't entered in the other four ovals -- those are Carpenter's drives -- it wouldn't surprise me to see something get worked out for him to appear in one or two, if not all four races. If he does run the full 17-race schedule, I think he will easily establish a career-best in the championship standings.

2020 Start Times Released

It's always good to have the schedule set in stone for the next season in December, which hasn't always been the case in the past. While the dates for the 2020 season were announced back in September, the times were still being worked on. 

The start times next year should satisfy everyone. Iowa is back to being an "official" night race after having a 6 p.m. local time start this year. Of course, weather pushed the start of the race very deep into the night, but this year's 8 p.m. start makes it a full "after dark" event. In fact, all of the ovals except for the Indianapolis 500 are true night events, with all of them going off after 7:30 p.m. local time.

It seems like IndyCar responded to fan feedback on the Mid-Ohio race, which will start at 12:45 p.m. The Mid-Ohio race is heavily attended by fans from Indiana, who had a tough time getting home and getting ready for the start of the week when the race started later in the afternoon. Road America, which is much in the same situation, has a 12:50 p.m. green flag.

Eight of the 17 races will be on network television next year, including the final two races of the season at Portland and Laguna Seca. 

Photo credit: Joe Skibinski/IndyCar Media

Monday, December 2, 2019

The Best of the 2019 IndyCar Season

Photo credit: Chris Owens/IndyCar Media

Last Friday, I wrote about some of the bigger stories of the year in the NTT IndyCar Series in 2019, and today I'm going to focus on what happened on the track this past season.

As I've done several times in the past, I'm going to highlight some of the drivers and performances that we saw this past year, sort of an awards show, if you will. We definitely have plenty to work with this year, so let's get started.

Driver of the Year: Josef Newgarden. In the past, I haven't necessarily given this award to the driver who won the championship, but this year Newgarden is a worthy recipient. Newgarden started off the year with a win at St. Pete, then finished on the podium in three of the first four races. He later added three more wins (Detroit 1, Texas and Iowa) and did what he needed to do over the final few races to keep himself on top of the points standings. With only three finishes outside of the Top 10 all year, Newgarden did exactly what you need to do to win an IndyCar title: win a lot, and when you don't win, finish near the front.

Drive of the Year: Alexander Rossi and Simon Pagenaud. With the rules the way they are and competition at the level it is, it's certainly hard to dominate a race, but that happened three times this year. Rossi won the pole at both Long Beach and Road America, and ran away with both races, winning by 20 and 28 seconds, respectively. Pagenaud, meanwhile, dominated the entire weekend in Toronto, running quickest in the practice sessions, winning the pole and running away with the race win.

Race of the Year: Indianapolis 500. Come on, do you really think it would be anything else? Twenty-nine lead changes among nine drivers, 300,000-plus fans, the prediction of rain that eventually didn't happen. It was the greatest race on the planet in 2019, and if you think I'm wrong, prove it. In the end, Pagenaud made a pass in Turn 3 of the penultimate lap, and went on to his first win while sweeping the Month of May.

Let's relive it, shall we?

Coolest Race of the Year: Iowa. OK, there was nothing super spectacular on paper about this race. Newgarden led 245 of the 300 laps to win his fourth and final race of the year. But still, it may have been the coolest race I've ever watched. Rain and lightning meant the race didn't start until almost midnight, then experienced another red flag for rain. By the time the race ended it was almost 2 a.m. local time. Being there, it was so cool to experience something like that, and in the end, this race belonged to the fans that stayed with it until the end. 

Rookie of the Year: Colton Herta. With all due respect to the official ROY, Felix Rosenqvist, Herta was the best of a very solid rookie class that included Rosenqvist, Santino Ferrucci and Marcus Ericcson. Herta, at 18 years and 259 days, became the youngest winner in IndyCar history when he took the checkered flag at Circuit of the Americas, then bookended that with a win at Laguna Seca to finish off the year. He eventually captured two wins and three poles on the year and, with his move to Andretti Autosport for 2020, showed he was one of the rising stars in the series for next year and beyond.

Comeback Driver of the Year: Simon Pagenaud. After winning the IndyCar championship in 2016, Pagenaud went through a sort of "slump", winning just two races combined in 2017-18. By the time the circus reached Long Beach in April, many were speculating that Pagenaud was in his final season as a part of Team Penske. Those people hadn't been paying attention, though, because Pagenaud was racing as hard as he ever had in his career, he just didn't have the results to show for it. Confidently defiant, Pagenaud took on Scott Dixon in the rain at the Indy GP in early May, and came away with the win with a late-race pass, then won the pole and the race at the Indianapolis 500. From his win at Toronto until the end of the season, Pagenaud never finished worse than P7 and finished the season just 25 points back of Newgarden for the series championship.

The start of the 2020 season is still a long way off, but we're getting closer. It's been 10 weeks since the season finished, and we have 15 weeks to go until St. Pete. Hopefully next season will be just as exciting, both on and off the track, as 2019 was.