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IndyCar 2015 Preview Part 3: The Challengers

by Frank Santoroski

challengersLast week we took a look at the top Chevy and Honda teams in the Verizon IndyCar Series as the season opener in Brazil was quickly approaching. With the sudden cancellation of that event, the teams now have three additional weeks and the season will open at St. Petersburg on March 29.

The loss of the event came as a shock to many within IndyCar. The reasoning behind this move has more to do with the political and economic climate in Brasilia, rather than any dysfunction within IndyCar. However, it is still a black eye for a series that is struggling to build an audience.

This week, we will have a look at three teams in the series with the potential to contend for the win: CFH Racing, KVSH Racing, and A.J. Foyt Enterprises.

CFH-Racing-Owners-2Of those teams, I really like the chances of CFH Racing. This new team was created by the merger of Ed Carpenter Racing and Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing. As business partners, Carpenter and Fisher make a great match. They both grew up in racing, they have a mutual respect for one another, and they have worked together in the past. It was Ed Carpenter that drove Fisher’s car to the team’s first IndyCar win back in 2011. Wink Hartman, the third partner in the venture, is a savvy businessman who offers the team a tremendous amount of financial support.

Combining the resources of two smaller teams into one only serves to make the overall team stronger. Carpenter’s team had a banner year in 2014 with three race wins and the pole at Indianapolis. Carpenter, realizing his own limitations on street and road courses split the seat time in the #20 car with Mike Conway.

filippi3For 2015, the situation will be the same as Carpenter takes the wheel on the ovals. Conway, who is departing the series to run Sports Cars, will be replaced by Italian driver, Luca Filippi. The 29-year old has eight prior starts in the Series over the past few seasons, and a racing resume that includes six victories in International GP2 racing.

While the split schedule will make a championship virtually impossible for either driver, the third driver in the stable, Josef Newgarden, will run the full schedule.

Newgarden, who hails from Hendersonville, Tennessee, will be in his fourth season with Sarah Fisher in the #67 car.

drivers_bio_josefNewgardenOver the past three years, he has hit the podium twice and finished in the top five on six occasions. The combined resources of the Carpenter and Fisher-Hartman teams might be just what the talented driver needs to climb to the top of the podium and claim his first IndyCar win.

The team will run the Chevrolet power plant and aero kit in 2015. The #20 car will carry sponsorship from Fuzzy’s Vodka while the #67 will fly the colors of Hartman Oil.

Of all of the so-called second tier teams, CFH racing is the one that will give the Penskes, Ganassis and Andrettis of the world a serious run for their money.

Newgarden is primed and ready to join the list of IndyCar winners. While I don’t believe that Luca Philippi will be quite as good as Mike Conway on the tight street circuits, expect his talent to come through on some of the natural terrain courses like Mid Ohio or Sonoma.

I would expect Ed Carpenter to deliver at least one win on his oval-only schedule, possibly on the biggest stage in racing: The Indianapolis 500.

kvphotoSBKKJVSulliOver at KVSH Racing, things have been a bit quiet through the off season as the team prepares to capitalize on a 2014 season that brought them three poles and one win. The team, owned by partners Kevin Kalkhoven, Jimmy Vasser and James Sullivan, will be returning with a two, or possibly three, car effort in 2015. The team will use the Chevrolet engine and aero kit in its effort.

While the driver and sponsor of a second or third car is still unannounced, we do know that Sebastien Bourdais will return in the #11 entry funded by Mistic, a manufacturer of e-cigarettes and Hydroxycut, a weight loss supplement. Additionally, the team has confirmed an Indy-only ride for Bryan Clauson in conjunction with Jonathan Byrd’s Racing.

1b4f1adc1a7b11e4a4b890e2ba64ce20_8Bourdais is a four-time champion in the now-defunct ChampCar Series. Since leaving that series in 2007, he ran two seasons of Formula One and then became a bit of a journeyman driver, running Sports Cars and eventually landing in the IndyCar Series.  He seems to have found a home at KVSH. In 2014, he returned to the winners circle, taking the win at Toronto.

His 32 wins in American Open Wheel racing puts him second only to Scott Dixon in terms of experience and success. We should expect him to again be strong in 2015, particularly on the street and road courses. He would probably be a dark horse at best when it comes to the Championship, given his lackluster performance on the oval tracks.

With the teammate situation up in the air, there is no shortage of available drivers. We have heard the name Justin Wilson associated with this car. We may also see young Canadian driver Mikael Grenier, who has a development contract with the team. Another possibility is American driver Ryan Phinny who would be able to bring backing from Casamigos, an American tequila company owned, in part, by actor George Clooney. Expect an announcement on the second KVSH seat in the coming weeks.

Foyt2015lineup1-1Meanwhile, just north of Houston, Texas, A.J. Foyt Enterprises are gearing up for a major change in 2015. The team, owned by the legendary 4-time Indy 500 winner, will expand to a full-time two car operation.

The team solidified its 2015 plans back in October when they signed Englishman, Jack Hawksworth, to partner alongside Takuma Sato for the coming season.

The team will return with Honda power and veteran chief engineer Don Halliday. Larry Foyt handles the day-to-day operation of the team, while eighty-year old ‘Super Tex’ remains involved and seems as tough as ever.

SatoP1AwardTakuma Sato has an aggressive driving style that often sees him involved in an off-track excursion or an on-track skirmish. However, it is that same ‘never day die’ attitude that allowed Sato to give the team three pole positions and one race win over the past two seasons. Personally, I’m a fan of Sato. He is one of the most talented drivers to ever come out of Japan, and he came within two turns of winning the Indy 500 back in 2012.

The stability of returning to the same team for a third season will likely agree with Sato as he looks to improve on a mediocre 2014 season that left him 18th in points.

HawksworthAt-Foyt-StdThe addition of Hawksworth will only serve to make the team stronger. The 23 year old driver spent his rookie season with Bryan Herta Autosport and managed to lead 23 laps and take one podium in 2014. His efforts were rewarded with the prestigious Tony Renna Rising Star Award at the championship banquet.

He is an exciting and enthusiastic driver with a ton of personality. In my mind, guys like Hawksworth are what the sport needs to appeal to new fans.

While I wouldn’t expect either driver in the A.J. Foyt stable to contend for the Championship, it wouldn’t surprise me to see one or both of the ABC Supply cars at or near the front of the field mixing it up with the big dogs.

Join me next week as we look at the rest of the grid for the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series.

The earlier entries of this article can be found here: part one and part two.

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