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Tuesday, September 21, 2010

2011 IndyCar Driver Lineup Very Much Up in the Air

Other than existing contracts at the series' top three teams, the driver lineup for the 2011 IZOD IndyCar Series season is still highly uncertain with a single race left to go in 2010.

Unlike in other major professional forms of motorsport, where most future driver contracts are signed before the current season is even finished, IndyCar often does not set its driver lineup until the first tests of the new season in February, and for some teams even later.

Right now, all that we know (or can reasonably expect to happen) are that Helio Castroneves and Will Power will return to Team Penske, Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti will stick with Chip Ganassi Racing, Alex Tagliani has a long-term deal with FAZZT Race Team, and Danica Patrick, Tony Kanaan, and Marco Andretti are under contract with Andretti Autosport. Other than that, everything is up in the air.

The biggest speculation centers around the No. 6 Team Penske car. Speculation has risen that Ryan Briscoe, for the past three years that car's driver, will be out after a disappointing (by Roger Penske's standards) season. Briscoe had three wins and eight runner-up finishes last year, but a series of high-profile mistakes (his pit road miscue at Motegi last year, his crash in the lead while at Sao Paulo, and pushing his car too hard on cold tires at Indianapolis when in position to take a strategic victory) may cost him his job.

Some have suggested that an American driver will take over that ride once again, following in the footsteps of Sam Hornish Jr., who vacated it in 2007. The top two available drivers from the States are Graham Rahal, who has driven for just about anybody willing to put him in a car this season, and Andretti Autosport's Ryan Hunter-Reay, who has been the best driver all season not to run for Penske or Chip Ganassi. Michael Andretti is working hard to keep Hunter-Reay, but no definite prospects have worked out as of yet.

If Rahal doesn't wind up with Penske, his prospects elsewhere also appear strong. Ganassi has expressed interest in running a third car for Rahal, and may be able to offer a reunion with McDonald's, which sponsors Ganassi's Daytona 500-winning stock car with Jamie McMurray. Some have also whispered that Rahal has already signed a contract to drive the No. 4 National Guard car for Panther Racing, replacing Dan Wheldon. If none of these deals work out, Rahal's father, ex-Indianapolis 500 and CART champion Bobby Rahal, will try once again to secure the sponsorship to return his Rahal Letterman Racing team to full-time status.

Whether or not Rahal fills the No. 4, it appears to be the end for Wheldon and Panther, after Wheldon announced he was looking for a job in 2011 in his post-race interview at Kentucky. Wheldon may yet return to Panther, as the National Guard loves his tireless promotion of the organization, but both sides have often been frustrated with one another over the past two seasons. Other drivers in contention for the ride include J.R. Hildebrand and Ed Carpenter.

Despite his close ties with Honda, Wheldon could be headed for the Lotus-backed KV Racing Technology outfit, which appears to be on the verge of wholesale driver changes for 2011. KVRT cars have failed to finish 20 races, mainly due to drivers Takuma Sato, E.J. Viso, and Mario Moraes getting in accidents, and Paul Tracy failed to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 in a fourth car. In fact, the carnage has been so bad this year that Moraes' crash at Motegi was rumored to be caused by an old, failing part that KV had no choice but to run. Despite Sato's Honda connections getting him into the series, Viso's lucrative personal sponsorship deals, and Moraes' strong runs for the team in the past, all three may be gone in 2011.

Whether the team expanded from one car to three too quickly, the drivers simply weren't talented enough, or any other reason, KV appears a lock to downsize by at least one car for next year, especially if their bank account can no longer handle the wreckage. Owners Kevin Kalkhoven and Jimmy Vasser will look to bring in the best available drivers for next year, particularly those who don't tear up a lot of equipment.

Heading further down the line, things are even less certain than the up-in-the-air status of KVRT. Simona de Silvestro is a lock to return to the series in 2010, despite Formula 1 rumblings and an underfunded HVM Racing team. She and the team work well together, and both would like to reunite for next season, but her strong performances in what may be the oldest and heaviest Dallara chassis in the series may have larger teams knocking on her door for next season.

Raphael Matos signed a multi-year contract with de Ferran Dragon Racing before the 2009 season, but how many years that contract lasts is unknown. If Matos doesn't return to dFDR, the team may rely on its connections with series power players to find a replacement. They may be able to rely on co-owner Gil de Ferran's connections with Honda to pick up a manufacturer-supported driver, or on co-owner Jay Penske to convince father Roger to farm out Briscoe to the team once again. (Briscoe ran well for the team in the 2007 Indianapolis 500, placing fifth.)

de Ferran has also been interested in bringing Frenchman Simon Pagenaud, who drove alongside Power in the 2007 Champ Car World Series for Walker Racing, back into open-wheel. Pagenaud drove alongside de Ferran in the American Le Mans Series after that series shut down, but moved to Highcroft Racing after de Ferran went back to IndyCars. Highcroft may enter the Indianapolis 500 next year with Pagenaud, who has stated that he wants to get to Indy by 2012. They most recently attempted the race with Scott Sharp last year, in a partnership with Panther.

Speaking of Walker, that team plans to make a comeback of sorts next year, partnering with the owners of the former Team 3G. Richard Antinucci was the rumored 3G driver this year, while Dan Clarke and Jonathan Summerton drove for Walker in Firestone Indy Lights this season; all three are the most sensible candidates.

Dreyer & Reinbold Racing look to return both Justin Wilson and Mike Conway from this season's lineup. Conway will be fully recovered from his back and leg injuries suffered at Indianapolis in May. Wilson may bolt to another team if a better offer arises, though few have been suggested at this point. Whether Wilson stays or goes, Ana Beatriz may join the team full-time; DRR have liked what they've seen from her in limited outings this year, and she is working diligently to secure the sponsorship to put her on the grid for all 17 races.

A handful of programs have been confirmed, but with few details known. Team Redline Xtreme, sponsored by an energy drink, is looking to run an Indy-only program with an existing team. Junior Strous will supposedly take his Shell sponsorship to the series in 2011, and a show car has already made the rounds in Europe. AFS Racing, which partners with Andretti Autosport in Indy Lights, plans on stepping up to IndyCar with Adam Carroll, though sponsorship remains uncertain.

This leaves a handful of teams out of the silly season loop, most of them ex-Champ Car competitors: Newman/Haas Racing, A.J. Foyt Enterprises, Dale Coyne Racing, and Conquest Racing. Newman/Haas and Foyt seem likely to retain the services of Hideki Mutoh and Vitor Meira, respectively; Mutoh brings valuable sponsorship, while A.J. Foyt likes what he gets with Meira. Coyne and Conquest seem destined to take on at least one pay-driver apiece, though Conquest owner Eric Bachelart will likely fight to keep his Belgian countryman, the rapidly improving Bertrand Baguette, in a car.

The most interesting and wildly speculative rumors center around who will attempt to run the Indianapolis 500 and NASCAR's Coca-Cola 600 on the same day next year, provided that the start time to the 500 is returned to its traditional earlier place. Bruton Smith, CEO of Speedway Motorsports Inc. (owners of the Charlotte Motor Speedway, where the 600 takes place, and host to as many as five IndyCar races next year), has talked about an idea of a $20 million prize to any driver who can win both events, which was conceptualized by IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard early in his tenure.

While Dario Franchitti is the only IndyCar driver who may attempt both events, a handful of NASCAR drivers may try to do the double. Richard Petty Motorsports has campaigned IndyCars the past two years for John Andretti, and may attempt to run ex-Champ Car stalwart A.J. Allmendinger in both races. Robby Gordon frequently used to attempt the double before the races' start times were moved, and may be interested in doing it again; he had tried to hook up with Derrick Walker for this year's race. However, Tony Stewart and Juan Pablo Montoya, perhaps the biggest names in NASCAR that have run the 500 before, are not interested.

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