Fresh off of a fantastic 2012 campaign, at least as far as the on the track product is concerned, attention is now turning to the 2013 season and which drivers will align themselves with new teams for a run at Ryan Hunter-Reay’s championship crown.
Silly season is going to hinge on the first one or two dominoes to fall, with every one else scrambling to lock up rides after that point.
Ryan Hunter-Reay staying at Andretti Autosport is that first domino. RHR had the best season of his nomadic career in 2012 driving for Michael Andretti and the resurgent Andretti Autosport, culminating in RHR’s first INDYCAR title. Michael proved his loyalty and confidence level in RHR by running him out of his pocket for the majority of the 2010 season, and RHR kept the faith and stuck with the team that he already has an excellent rapport with. Roger Penske is a hard man to turn down, but as many drivers can attest, the grass isn’t always greener on the other side.
I, for one, think this was a really smart move by Hunter-Reay, especially given the recent rumors that he has protection built into his contract to ensure he won’t be unceremoniously pushed out like Tony Kanaan was a few years back.
Graham Rahal signing with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing will be the second domino when the worst-kept secret in the paddock finally becomes official. Graham has done everything but send out the press release since announcing on August 1st that he will not return to Ganassi next season. After watching Graham’s INDYCAR 36 episode, it’s apparent that he feels a level of comfort with his dad regarding racing decisions that he didn’t exhibit with his current squad. Now that he has a personal sponsor, it makes a perfect fit for Bobby and him to team up without stressing the family bank account. The question becomes: will the results for Graham improve running for the family team?
Rubens Barrichello signing with Chip Ganassi Racing will start the seat scramble. I know, I know — I am the only person out there making this guess. All of the smart money has Rubens teaming up with Simon Pagenaud at Sam Schmidt Motorsports. I just have a gut feeling that it will prove harder than some believe to put together a second team at SSM that Rubens feels is worthy of a driver of his stature. Even now, reports are circulating that Rubens has to bring money with him to make the SSM program happen. Chip wouldn’t need nearly as much financial help to run Rubens, and with some BMC sponsorship to ease the load, I just have a hunch that Chip Ganassi Racing will call on Barrichello to replace Graham Rahal. It would be a no-brainer for Rubens since he could still race for Honda and he wouldn’t have to worry about the competitiveness of the team as Ganassi’s impeccable track record in INDYCAR speaks for itself.
Justin Wilson will stay at Dale Coyne Racing. Lots of people are speculating that Wilson could be a candidate to fill Rahal’s ride at Ganassi, and Chip would be foolish not to at least consider the affable Brit for the ride. Part of me thinks there are still some hard feelings in the Ganassi camp towards Justin after his late pit stop at the 2011 Rolex 24, which ended up costing the team the race when the car turned out to be fine. It was no fault of Justin’s, but I don’t recall his name being mentioned at Ganassi as an option the following year. Their loss is definitely Dale Coyne’s gain, as Justin has delivered both of the wins that Dale Coyne Racing can lay claim to in its 26 years of racing in open wheel. That amazing stat in and of itself should be enough to ensure that Dale does whatever it takes to keep Justin Wilson and engineer Bill Pappas in the fold. RACER magazine had an excellent interview with the two in their August issue, and reading between the lines of their answers made it pretty apparent that they both want to continue together.
Panther/Dreyer & Reinbold Racing will retain Oriol Servia. Oriol seems to have brought a sense of stability to the DRR stable, and his results have been pretty spectacular given the troubles the team has had to endure with an early season engine switch and merger with Panther Racing. Oriol is a steady veteran who is a good sounding board for JR Hildebrand, and both teams would benefit from keeping Oriol around.
Picking Oriol to stay at Panther/DRR won’t surprise many people, but my next prediction almost certainly will.
Panther Racing will then rock the INDYCAR boat by signing Ryan Briscoe. Panther has made no secret about wanting to run a second car if sponsorship and a veteran driver could be found. Oriol Servia has filled that void to some extent with the merger at DRR, but I think deep down John Barnes still wants to run his own second entry. Many have Ryan Briscoe slotted in at Ganassi, but as I stated above, I think Rubens Barrichello is the best choice for that seat. If that happens, the next best available seat might be at Panther, as I don’t see Ryan jumping into a KV Racing or AJ Foyt entry. I think Ryan could bring enough sponsorship to help make this partnership a reality, and his feedback would immediately prove the worth of the Panther Racing cars and give JR Hildebrand an excellent source of information to aid in his continuing maturation. I have heard that Chevy wants to keep Ryan in the fold since he did so much of the early engine testing, and this move would surely be looked upon favorably by the folks in charge of the Bowtie Brigade.
Tony Kanaan will stay at KV Racing, mostly due to a lack of opportunities elsewhere. I hesitate on this one given Tony’s obvious frustration with the cars this season, but I can’t really pencil him into the Foyt ride, and I don’t see the Ganassi ride being made available to him. My dark horse for Tony is that he signs with Panther if Briscoe does get the Ganassi ride and Barrichello goes to SSM. (Okay, my head is starting to spin now.)
Michael Shank Racing will choose Arie Luyendyk Jr. Arie and Mike Shank are both looking for some love, so this is a natural fit. (Oh, come on — you didn’t think I was going to write this one without a Bachelorette reference, did you?) Arie needs sponsorship to resurrect his racing career, and Mike Shank just needs to Chevrolet or Honda to give him an engine. With Arie’s PR machine hyping this pairing, I think an engine will materialize. The signs for this pairing have been on the tea leaves for a while now as Arie has already announced he will drive for Mike in the Rolex 24, presumably in a second entry. In an ideal world Mike would like to field co-owner AJ Allmendinger in this ride, but sponsorship makes the world go round and Arie probably has more ability to draw it than the Dinger right now. (Didn’t see myself ever typing that in a sentence before the Kentucky Speedway NASCAR race weekend.)
AJ will pick AJ to drive for AJ. Dinger may have a scarlet letter hanging round his neck at the moment that makes it next to impossible to garner sponsorship, but one team doesn’t have to worry about that. Thankfully for Allmendinger, that team is desperate to add a great driver to its lineup to try and prove its car aren’t also-rans. AJ Foyt brings ABC Supply to the table as a personal sponsor, and I would wager that AJ’s word that Allmendinger is good to go is gonna be good enough for the folks at ABC Supply. All Dinger has to do is come in and drive and, let’s face it, the expectations will be tempered just due to the recent history of this entry, which hasn’t been to victory lane since Kansas in 2002.
I think this will be a one year marriage of convenience with Foyt getting a versatile name driver to bring some attention and fanfare back to his team and Allmendinger getting a shot to prove he is clean as he auditions for a ride with one of the bigger guns in 2014. Who knows — maybe the Foyt cars are better than we have been led to believe and Allmendinger can take Super Tex back to victory lane.
And finally: Penske’s third car will go to… the garage. With sponsorship opportunities slim and his team unable to snag Pagenaud or RHR, I think the Captain decides to mothball the third car for this year and focus on title runs for Will and Helio. AJ Allmendinger is definitely on the Captain’s short list according to his comments from Auto Club Speedway, but I just cant see a sponsor jumping on board quite yet. If Roger can’t have his first or second choice, it’s hard to imagine him settling for a driver that wasn’t originally on his radar.
Those are my picks for the 2013 season. Let’s hear yours! Leave your thoughts in the comment section below.