Open Wheelin’ Blog: Musical Chairs; With Conway Out, Who Steps Into The CFH No. 20?

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INDIANAPOLIS — Column by Race Chaser Online Open Wheel Correspondent Joel Sebastianelli — Chris Jones/IndyCar photo —

The new IndyCar season is still four months away, but the PRI Trade Show in Indianapolis has thrown the series back into the spotlight with exciting new announcements breaking from the conference.

Buried beneath several other important news stories emerging from the week was Ed Carpenter’s announcement that Mike Conway would not be returning to CFH Racing in 2015. By now, the announcement was expected, and although nothing has been officially confirmed on Conway’s end, it is suspected that the Brit will take over the seat of a factory Toyota in the WEC.

For Conway, expanding his partnership with Toyota is a huge career move in the sports car world, but he leaves CFH with a tough decision to make. Splitting the seat with owner-driver Carpenter, Conway raced all right turns for the team in 2014, earning victories at Long Beach in just the second race of the season and at the second leg of the doubleheader in Toronto. In six years behind the wheel, Conway won four races and was consistently one of the top performers on road and street courses in the series.

However, the loss of Conway could also be a great gain for CFH and one deserving driver on the market. As is usually the case in IndyCar, there are more talented drivers deserving of a race seat than there are actual race seats. The No. 20 is not a full-time ride, but it is a high quality opportunity that could provide a much-needed kick start to the career of a young driver aiming to squeeze back through the door of opportunity.

Now, Ed Carpenter has some phone numbers to dial and some decisions to make. Here’s a look at five names that could come up in the discussion to partner with Carpenter in 2015.

J.R. Hildebrand

Hildebrand’s name is the most likely of all the candidates because of the pre-existing relationship he has with CFH Racing. The 26-year-old Californian raced most of his IndyCar career with Panther Racing, but once his two and a half year stint there ended with a disappointing 33th place finish in the 2013 Indianapolis 500, Hildebrand got a second chance with Carpenter’s team in 2014 and qualified and finished in the top 10 at IMS.

Although that was his only race of 2014, Hildebrand does have another test with the team under his belt too. The talent is still there, but the clock is ticking on his career and if he wants to be a full-time staple in the series, this ride could be his only opportunity. The personal connection between Carpenter and Hildebrand seems to be strong, giving J.R. the inside edge he would be unlikely to get anywhere else.

The real question is whether or not Hildebrand is really the most attractive candidate. I don’t anticipate full-time sponsor Fuzzy’s Vodka spurning any viable driver, but Hildebrand’s one-off ride at IMS was primarily sponsored by Preferred Freezer Services. He has not won a race since securing the Indy Lights championship in 2009, and fair or not, he is best known for a mishap on the final corner of the 2011 Indy 500 more than any accomplishment. He’s a good guy and a good driver, but even with 13 top 10s in 42 races with middle-tier equipment, his resume doesn’t jut out of the pile and he’s still two seasons removed from his last consistent effort in the series.

At this point, the odds are most likely in his favor, but Hildebrand is not a shoe-in candidate.

Conor Daly

Conor Daly’s case is an enigmatic one in the open-wheel world. Regarded as one of America’s most promising developing talents, Daly won more than half of the Star Mazda Championship races in 2010 en route to winning the title then vanished from the U.S. racing scene. After spending time in GP2 and GP3, Daly appears to have his sights set on America again.

Like Carpenter, Daly is an Indiana native and despite making only one start in the series in his career with AJ Foyt Enterprises at the 500, he’s still a familiar site in the IndyCar paddock and one of American race fans’ favorite drivers. He brings along charisma, name recognition value, and everything besides funding, the biggest Achilles heel in his racing career. Considering that Fuzzy’s is already on board with the CFH No. 20, some funding fears could be alleviated.

Carpenter and Daly would be a near-perfect match. While Ed is strongest on ovals, Daly’s background in Europe has been focused solely on road and street courses. Even on the Road to Indy ladder, seven of Daly’s nine victories came on these circuit types.

The team as a whole would be a good fit for Daly too. His car-mate would be Ed Carpenter, but his teammate at CFH Racing would be Josef Newgarden, who also served as his teammate in Indy Lights competition in 2011. Securing two of the top American drivers under the age of 25 would be a great strategy both on the track and in the PR division. Their social media presence is as good as anyone else in the series, and combined, this could be the most entertaining tandem to watch in 2015 — with each seeking their first win in a stronger ride than they’ve ever had before.

Daly turns 23 years old on Monday, and I can’t think of any better birthday gift than his first sustained opportunity in an IndyCar.

Jean-Eric Vergne

When talented Frenchman Jean-Eric Vergne departed Scuderia Toro Rosso in Formula One, his options seemed limited. Even though he finished in the points in seven races in 2014 and scored more than double the points of teammate Daniil Kvyat, he went from being an exciting driver with great potential to sitting on the sidelines as a man without a series. GP2 is not an attractive, career advancing option for an ex-F1 driver, and even though sports car rides could arise, it is not a path that moves drivers closer to their career goals in open-wheel.

Faced with an important decision, Vergne decided to publicly set his sights on IndyCar. He has no experience on ovals, but he would not need to race ovals with CFH. Nobody else in the field of potential drivers has anywhere near the upper-echelon experience and road course chops of Vergne, who could also secure some international funding for the team by tapping sources of income previously unavailable.

Vergne is far from a lock in any Indy seat, but he makes for an intriguing candidate. Also in the discussion would be Andretti Autosport, who he signed with this weekend for Formula E in Uruguay, snagging the pole and leading until car trouble bounced him out of the running late. Then again, the fourth seat at Andretti also appears to be leaning toward Zach Veach, so CFH could be the best and most likely place for Vergne to sign if he gets an opportunity in IndyCar.

Alexander Rossi

Rossi is another young American whose F1 aspirations appear to have washed up, leaving him to consider a shift in the career path towards the IndyCar Series as well. Rossi seemed primed for a ride with Marussia in Formula One more than once, but Max Chilton eventually resolved his financial troubles and the team did not fill Jules Bianchi’s seat after his tragic accident at the Japanese Grand Prix.

Funding was a hitch overseas for Rossi too; that problem wouldn’t go away Stateside, but it also wouldn’t matter as much at CFH because of sponsorship deals already in place. Still, the former GP2 and GP3 winner does not seem likely to fill the seat despite his desire to run in an open wheel series or ride that would only run road courses.

Gabby Chaves

2014 Indy Lights champion Gabby Chaves is another name fans would be familiar with from the development ladder. The Colombian has shown prowess on all types of circuits and even in sports cars (piloting the DeltaWing, of all things), proving he is ready for a big time ride.

His championship season demonstrated a well-rounded skill set, securing one street course win at Long Beach, one natural terrain victory at Barber Motorsports Park, and victories at Indianapolis and Pocono on high speed tracks. He’s only 21 years old but his ability goes far beyond his birth certificate, making few mistakes on the track and performing consistently each week.

Winning the championship in Indy Lights also means Chaves was awarded a $1 million scholarship package to assist in securing a full-time IndyCar ride, but reports and whispers have indicated he may be a more likely fit at Bryan Herta Autosport.

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