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IndyCar

EMBURY: IndyCar Pre-Season Team Rankings

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With less than a week before the first green flag of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series championship waves at St. Petersburg, Florida, it is time to rank the 21 car-driver combinations that will be present at all 17 rounds this season.

Following the championship battle a year ago between Team Penske teammates Simon Pagenaud and Will Power, the Captain’s quartet has to be viewed among the top teams in the paddock. Looking at the group assembled for this year, one has to believe at least three of its four drivers capable of challenging for the title. Preseason water cooler talk would make one think the quartets from both Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Autosport will be much improved ahead of the new campaign. There’s also thought that driver changes in the bottom half of the pack could elevate someone into the title fight much as it has in the case of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Graham Rahal in the past two seasons.       

Looking forward to the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, here is how I rank the teams making the trips from chilly Indianapolis to sunny Florida.

1: Team Penske: Nothing from the testing sessions at either Sebring or Phoenix has changed the expected landscape of the 2017 season. And that is that both Penske and engine supplier Chevrolet will continue to head the pack for a majority of the season. Although the Captain failed to win the Indianapolis 500 in 2016, a race he has captured on 16 occasions, his quartet of talented pilots did win 11 of 16 events in 2016 and also won pole positions in 11 out of 16.

The battle for the series title should once again include Power and Pagenaud, with eyes also focused upon Penske’s newest recruit Josef Newgarden, the first American-born pilot to drive for the “Super Team” since Sam Hornish, Jr. did so in 2007. Although he has lost some of the thunder held by his three teammates, Helio Castroneves should also have some flashes of brilliance, especially as he continues his quest for a fourth Indy 500 win.

As for St. Petersburg, the favorite could be Will Power, who won the pole position for last year’s race, only to be held out after suffering from an inner-ear infection. Power’s No. 12 Verizon Wireless Chevrolet was the class of the field in all on-track action before last year’s first green flag, and it would not surprise me if he were to get off to a fast start to open 2017.

2. Chip Ganassi Racing: While CGR is still potent, the task is getting tougher for them. Its two top drivers Scott Dixon (36) and Tony Kanaan (42) are getting up in the age department, and its two so-called “understudies” Charlie Kimball and Max Chilton have yet to make a serious dent on the circuit.

Even though Kimball has a victory at Mid-Ohio in 2013 and three solid efforts at the Indianapolis 500, he has yet to become a consistent threat for high finishes, as has Dixon and TK have been able to do over the last several years. Chilton did spend one year in Formula One, but failed to breakthrough in auto racing’s premier level and also struggled for pace in year one in IndyCar. Improvement will be needed from both Kimball and Chilton to keep CGR relevant, without team boss Ganassi and team manager Mike Hull having to shop soon for a new pilot to replace Dixon and/or TK.

Also of concern is the team’s switch to Honda engines for 2017, an engine that appeared to be inferior in most events in 2016, except of the Indy 500.

3. Andretti Autosport: Only a smart fuel strategy call by Bryan Herta for his driver Alexander Rossi in the 100th Indianapolis 500 prevented Michael Andretti’s camp from going winless in 2016. While Honda has supposedly made gains in the horsepower department, the team will enter the new year without its highest points table placer. Carlos Munoz, who finished second to Rossi at Indy last year, has left to join A.J. Foyt Racing in 2017, while Foyt has sent in return long-time Honda disciple Takuma Sato to replace him. Sato has had his moments in IndyCar, but has also been known for his overaggression, something that will need to be controlled to provide positive results for Andretti.

A bounce back to prominence should be expected from 2014 Indy 500 champion Ryan Hunter-Reay, while 2017 is also a big year regarding a return to early career potential for third-generation driver Marco Andretti. Improvement must also come from Rossi, who outside of the Indy 500, enjoyed few successes as a rookie a season ago.

While on paper there is a decent gap between Andretti and the remainder of the IndyCar full-time fleet, the difference shortened up a bit in 2016 and could continue to do so in 2017 if a return to the previous form in years past is not achieved.

4. Schmidt Peterson Motorsports: Of the rest of the field, Sam Schmidt’s operation appears to have the most momentum. James Hinchcliffe was a threat for victory in the first three-quarters of the 2016 Indy 500 and narrowly missed out on a win at the Texas 600, while teammate Mikhail Aleshin had an equally stout performance at the Pocono 500.

Now the question is can SPM extend its performance outputs to the road and street circuits. The “Mayor of Hinchtown” only managed three top tens on the road courses, all earned in the run-up to the Indianapolis 500. Aleshin opened the 2016 season with an impressive fifth place finish at St. Petersburg, but only managed three other top tens in that same style of track layouts.

Although the eye test should progress, more is needed before Schmidt eclipses Andretti to join IndyCar’s Big Three.

5. Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing: Despite only being a one-car operation, the Ohio-based squad over the past two years, has been the most consistent Honda entry on the IndyCar circuit. Graham Rahal has done a majority of his damage on the road and street circuit, and although he has won a 500-mile race in each of the last two seasons, the second-generation driver has been a non-factor in the Indianapolis 500, since joining his father’s team in 2013.

Although the team does not have Oriol Servia on a full-time deal, expect the Spaniard’s presence to boost the fortunes of the team in areas, not just limited to driving the car. Should contend for top Honda honors again on the final points list for the third straight year and could top the group if Andretti fails to feature again in the winner’s circle.

6. Ed Carpenter Racing: The pressure will be on Carpenter’s squad to remain in a contending position on tracks outside of the high-speed ovals in its first season without the services of Josef Newgarden. The majority of the burden to maintain pace on the road and street circuits will be placed primarily on the shoulders of Spencer Pigot, who relieves team owner Ed Carpenter in those events, as he did for the second half of the 2016 campaign.

The question mark is on J.R. Hildebrand, who has been competitive in three efforts for ECR at the Indianapolis 500, but is four years removed from his last year full-time role when he drove for the now-defunct Panther Racing team. Hildebrand looked good in testing mode this off-season at Sebring, however testing results often are not extended into race mode. So, for now, the jury is out, and the expectation of a drop in ECR’s fortunes is a likely scenario.

7. Dale Coyne Racing: The Chicago runners enter 2017 with its highest expectations in its 31-year existence. The team has added four-time
ChampCar World Series champion Sebastien Bourdais to the fold, along with defending Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires Champion Ed Jones.

The team has also shopped hard in the off-season to improve its engineering and management staffs for the new year, changes that will be put to the test starting at St. Petersburg. DCR feels that they now have the resources to run with the best of the bunch in IndyCar; however, the jury is still out on the assumption.

8. A.J. Foyt Racing: SuperTex’s squad has a new engine provider in Chevrolet and two new talented drivers in Carlos Munoz and Conor Daly, who earned a combined five top-five results last season. However, can the team avoid finishing near the back of the pack as they been confined to in the years following the reunification of the sport in 2008?

Munoz was a factor in the second half of last year’s Indy 500, eventually settling for second, while Daly led several laps in the second half of the Indianapolis Grand Prix road race before fading late and then backed up the effort by finishing second and sixth in the two Chevrolet Duel In Detroit races. Results will be as hard to come by as they were with Jack Hawksworth and Takuma Sato driving for Foyt in 2016; however, more top half efforts should be possible from the new pairing in 2017.

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Matt Embury

An auto racing writer for over five years, Matt Embury's interest in auto racing was influenced from his father's side of the family. His first recollection of live racing attendance was in the early 1990s watching winged sprint car action at Butler Motor Speedway in Michigan with his uncle and dad. A major follower of both the Verizon IndyCar Series and the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, Matt has attended six previous Indianapolis 500s and rates Tony Kanaan's long awaited victory in the 2013 edition of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing as his favorite memory. Outside of following auto racing, Matt is an avid fan of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish athletics program and can often be seen at home games throughout the season or running the audio controls on several ND-related radio programs. A native of Springboro, Ohio, Matt now resides in Mishawaka, Indiana.