For a team that once looked to field three cars in the 2010 IZOD IndyCar Series season, Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing is beginning to look a little gaunt.
During last year's season finale at Homestead, reporters suggested that Alex Lloyd would drive the team's second car in 2010. Nothing suggested that Graham Rahal would move on from his seat in the No. 02 car, and November reports even claimed that Hideki Mutoh would join the team in an unprecedented third car.
Mutoh signed with the team in February, but sponsorship fell through for both Rahal and Lloyd, requiring both to move on. This means that the team will likely focus all of its efforts on Mutoh for 2010, instead of running a second car with shaky sponsorship as it did last year.
Mutoh was, for his part, decent during Barber testing in February, consistently putting the car in the top 10. But the loss of one of the best American drivers in the series is definitely being felt, both in the NHL garage and around the paddock. Rahal was one of the series' most marketable drivers, and failing to retain him will hurt both the team and the series.
Rahal led NHL last season, finishing seventh in points after scoring two poles and podium finishes at Richmond and Motegi. He improved over his 2008 rookie standing by ten positions and 97 points, although he failed to win a race, as he had in his first career IndyCar start at St. Petersburg. Oriol Servia scored the best finish for the team in its other car, a fourth place run at Motegi. Robert Doornbos also ran a dozen races for the team, with four ninth place finishes to show for it.
NHL is one of the teams considered the "best of the rest" in IndyCar - that is, the teams that won't win a championship, but should fight for a race win or two. Focusing all of their efforts on Mutoh may only strengthen their program, but Mutoh needs to step up his driving efforts. He has two podium finishes in two Iowa starts, his four top fives in 2009 were a personal best, and he had fewer DNFs in 2009 than his 2008 rookie year. If he continues his upward progress, the team may contend in 2010.