With the Verizon IndyCar Series driver lineup all but set for the 2017 season, it seems another lineup has formed.
These are the drivers most needing to capitalize on the new opportunity presented them.
The list of drivers on the list is certainly long and it includes veterans, past race winners, former series champions and the reigning Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires champion.
Debate the order presented below until the green flag waves for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 12, but waste little time debating the list in general terms.
These drivers need to make the most of their new opportunity.
Take them in this order:
No. 7: Josef Newgarden, Team Penske: Simon Pagenaud struggled for results in his first Penske season – he finished 11th in the 2015 standings with only two podium finishes (third in a Detroit race, third at Mid-Ohio) – so Newgarden in ’17 is no sure thing. The good news is Newgarden will work from a multiyear contract and he will be given time to grow with the organization.
No. 6: Carlos Munoz/Conor Daly, A.J. Foyt Racing: The pressure isn’t as much on the drivers as it is the team, but this overhauled organization will be under a significant spotlight in 2017.
No. 5: Sebastien Bourdais, Dale Coyne Racing: The Frenchman’s professional driving future isn’t in doubt – Bourdais figures to still have years to go, especially given his sports car prowess – but it would be good for him to capitalize on the investment Dale Coyne has made in this team. Craig Hampson and Olivier Boisson have joined the engineering group and they’ve already had a test together.
No. 4: Max Chilton, Chip Ganassi Racing: His first Verizon IndyCar Series season ended 19th in the recently completed season with only a pair of top-10 finishes – seventh at Phoenix International Raceway, 10th at Watkins Glen International. While Chilton’s opportunity isn’t new, it’s still one to watch. Having funding behind him offers more stability than other drivers have, but it won’t look good if he doesn’t have enough quality performances to show for two years with Ganassi.
No. 3: Ed Jones, Dale Coyne Racing: The reigning Indy Lights champion should know past Indy Lights champions have struggled to stick in the Verizon IndyCar Series. The past four Lights champions – Spencer Pigot, Gabby Chaves, Sage Karam and Tristan Vautier, respectively – do not have full-time Verizon IndyCar Series rides as of this writing. Since 2002, only two of the Indy Lights champions (Newgarden and JR Hildebrand) have made it to the second year as an INDYCAR regular.
No. 2: JR Hildebrand, Ed Carpenter Racing: The Californian has been patiently and strategically waiting for another full-time opportunity in the series, and this ride will be a good one. Hildebrand needs to reward team owner Ed Carpenter for giving him the opportunity, but managing expectations, especially early in the season, will be crucial. The No. 21 car will have a different driver, a different lead engineer and different chemistry.
No. 1: Takuma Sato, Andretti Autosport: Sugarcoat it as you’d like, this is the best chance Sato has had in INDYCAR. If things don’t go well, it could well be his last chance.
Curt Cavin recently became INDYCAR’s vice president of communications after 30 years covering Indy car racing for The Indianapolis Star.