After disappointing 2017, Carpenter putting pieces in place for '18 team

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As his race team prepares for 2018, Ed Carpenter offers a bottom-line assessment on the past Verizon IndyCar Series season.

“I don’t want to make excuses for anything, but it wasn’t a good year,” said Carpenter, the series’ only current owner/driver.

Be it his own misfortune and unsatisfying results when he was driving or the team not improving on road and street courses, he expects Ed Carpenter Racing to consistently contend for race wins and be in the championship conversation.

He cited both shortcomings in announcing last month that Spencer Pigot, who had been driving Carpenter’s No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet on road and street courses, would replace JR Hildebrand as a full-time driver next year in the No. 21 Chevy.

“I didn’t view it as much coming into it, but looking at the season now, it was a bit of a transitional year with drivers and people and a lot of things,” Carpenter said. “I didn’t see us ultimately getting fully to where we want to go with keeping things status quo. I do see a ton of untapped potential in Spencer. It’s really hard to find guys like that, that you can develop into contender guys, no different than where Josef (Newgarden) is and how long it took him to get to this point.”

Newgarden developed into a winning driver in his two years with Carpenter’s team, collecting three victories, before moving on to Team Penske this season and capturing the series championship. Carpenter sees that career arc in the 24-year-old Pigot as well.

“That’s really the big reason to invest in Spencer and continue his development, to try to develop our own talent, even if it means a little slower progress,” Carpenter said. "Hopefully it’s not too slow. I feel like we’re close to turning the corner with him. Certainly, there are some things we need to improve on this offseason with the team, but we’re focused on that. I see all the tools he needs to be successful, we just need to tap into it.”

Allan McDonaldOne of those tools has been added in veteran engineer Allen McDonald (right), who comes to ECR from Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. McDonald will join Matt Barnes and Brent Harvey – who have been with ECR since its inception – to form the team’s engineering nucleus.

“We’re excited to have Allen on board at ECR,” said Tim Broyles, the team’s general manager. “I’ve worked with him in the past and have a huge amount of respect for him. He’s a very accomplished engineer within our paddock and he is a great addition to our team.”

The promising Pigot had three top-10 finishes on road and street courses and showed enough improvement to earn the promotion, Carpenter said. Hildebrand, in his first full-time ride since 2013, finished 15th in the points.

The team is traditionally strong on ovals and those tracks provided the top highlights in 2017. Hildebrand had the team’s best finishes on ovals: second place in the Iowa Corn 300 and third in the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix. Carpenter’s best showing in seven starts was seventh at Phoenix.

The No. 1 priority is always the Indianapolis 500, in which Carpenter has started 14 times and won the pole twice. A pit problem dropped him to 11th in May’s race.

“When I evaluate this year (compared to) last year, I feel like we were a lot more competitive everywhere we went,” Carpenter said. “It was just one of those years where things did not go well. We had some mechanical issues and missed the whole first practice at Phoenix, had a pretty good race to get back into the top 10 from last, passed a lot of cars.

“I felt like we were fast and competitive everywhere, we just didn’t get results. We had problems in the pits at Indy that kind of took us out of it. Just little things here and there. But as far as my driving and the pace of the team and the cars we had, it’s what we needed, I felt good about that.”

Carpenter conceded he was bitterly disappointed after the season’s 15th race, when he crashed out in last place after five laps of the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 presented by Valvoline at Gateway Motorsports Park in late August. He was trying to avoid Team Penske’s Will Power, who spun, got caught up with Andretti Autosport’s Takuma Sato and hit the wall, too. Since it was the final oval race on the schedule, it ended his driving season on a sour note.

“I was pretty dejected coming out of St. Louis,” Carpenter said. “I couldn’t get out of that track fast enough. My emotions that night were I just couldn’t wait for this year to be over because things didn’t go as planned. That being said, I think it was a good year for me from a confidence standpoint in feeling I still have a lot to prove.”

Carpenter, 36, has three career wins, the most recent at Texas Motor Speedway in 2014. In addition to his optimism that he’ll contend for race wins next year, he envisions Pigot eventually taking the next step to put ECR in the championship mix. Carpenter has yet to announce who will drive the No. 20 car on road and street courses.

“The expectations are to be more consistent, to be competing for wins at all types of venues again, and hopefully working our way into being a part of the championship discussion,” Carpenter said. “Whether that’s top five next year, I don’t know, that would be great, but certainly be better than where we’re at right now.”

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