IndyCar’s new sleeper team beginning to emerge?

Sebastien Bourdais, IndyCar
Sebastien Bourdais, IndyCar /

With the signing of Dalton Kellett as their second full-time driver, A.J. Foyt Enterprises have all the pieces in place to become IndyCar’s next sleeper team.

A.J. Foyt Enterprises solidified their 2021 IndyCar driver lineup last week by promoting Dalton Kellett from part-time driver of the #14 Chevrolet and #41 Chevrolet to full-time driver of the #4 Chevrolet.

Kellett, who competed in eight races in 2020, is set to join previously confirmed full-time driver Sebastien Bourdais, who is set to drive the #14 Chevrolet after running only the final three races of 2020 for the team.

A.J. Foyt’s team have not seen much success in open-wheel racing in recent years. It has been more than seven years since the scored a win — at which point it had been nearly 11 years since their most recent win — and it has been more than 18 years since they saw a driver finish higher than 12th place in the championship standings.

But their offseason between the 2020 and 2021 seasons could mark a turning point that makes them the sport’s ultimate sleeper team.

I’m not going to glorify the fact that Kellett’s top finishes in his rookie season were 20th place finishes and the fact that his average finish was 23.0. But those statistics obviously weren’t the sole focus of team management when it came to the decision to not only bring him back but to effect promote him to full-time driver.

They believe that the pairing of Bourdais and Kellett can take the team to the next level, and it’s not hard to see why.

Instead of switching drivers in and out of cars throughout the season like they did in 2020, this gives the team two full-time drivers to work with: one veteran capable of winning and one young driver with just eight races of experience who made considerable strides throughout his rookie year despite the results not being exactly where he and the team would have wanted.

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While the previous pairing of a similar nature in veteran Tony Kanaan and rookie Matheus Leist during 2018 and 2019 didn’t quite pan out, it had its chances to do so.

Without the flat tire, Kanaan probably ends up either winning the 2018 Indy 500 or hanging around the top three until the checkered flag. He went on to finish in third place at Gateway the following year, the team’s first podium finish since the second Belle Isle race in 2015, and Leist himself secured a career-high fourth place finish at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course in 2019 after having never previously finished higher than 11th.

Now one year after running a new full-time driver and a trio of part-time drivers, A.J. Foyt Enterprises are committed to a similar strategy, and there is no better veteran than Bourdais who can help them execute it to its fullest potential.

Despite again effectively serving as the sport’s last place team, A.J. Foyt Enterprises showed strength throughout the 2020 season. Charlie Kimball, whom Kellett is set to replace, ran in the top five for basically the entire season opener at Texas Motor Speedway before a last-lap crash knocked him out of contention and allowed Kanaan to finish in 10th place.

Bourdais, in just his third start of the season, finished in fourth place to close out the year on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida via what was an underrated effort that could easily have been considered the team’s best performance since Takuma Sato secured them their most recent win on the streets of Long Beach, California back in 2013.

Kimball finished behind Bourdais in eighth, marking the team’s first double top eight finish since the second Belle Isle race in 2015.

The potential is clearly there. Now it’s just a matter of turning it into reality on a regular basis.

Let’s not forget what happened when Bourdais joined a reeling Dale Coyne Racing team in 2017 as a full-time driver when they hadn’t seen a driver finish higher than 15th place in the championship standings since 2013.

While there are other factors to consider aside from the simple arrival of a new driver, Bourdais went from last to first to not only win but dominate the season opener, and he continued that pace for the once-struggling organization all the way until he was sidelined for nine races due to injuries sustained in an Indy 500 qualifying crash.

Early in the year, the team even tried to blow off his spectacular pace, noting that they had no chance of keeping the pace on the superspeedways and that this was only Bourdais’s road and street course racing prowess showing through. His position in the championship standings would surely fall off once the season began to hit the ovals.

But had Bourdais not wrecked in Indy 500 qualifying, he was on pace for a front row start.

James Davison, his replacement in that race, led two laps late after starting in 33rd (last) place. He was knocked out of contention in a late five-car wreck. Otherwise, he would have had a shot to win. Ed Jones, the team’s other full-time driver, finished in third as a rookie.

Tristan Vautier, Bourdais’s replacement at Texas Motor Speedway, had not been in a car since 2015 and had a career-best oval finish of 13th place at Iowa Speedway. He qualified in fifth and ran at the front, leading 15 laps, until he was involved in an eight-car wreck.

The team hadn’t even been remotely competitive in an oval race since Justin Wilson won at Texas Motor Speedway in 2012, and even that win came when Graham Rahal hit the wall with just two laps to go and effectively handed him the team’s second ever win, their first win since 2009 and their first ever oval win.

Wilson did finish in fifth place in the 2013 Indy 500, but he was never truly in the mix for the victory.

Bourdais’s arrival changed that, and all of a sudden they were a force to be reckoned with, something that even the team hadn’t anticipated.

With the opportunity to run the full 2018 season, Bourdais won the season opener again and delivered the team a seventh place finish in the championship standings, their best since Wilson’s sixth place finish in 2013, and he recorded just their fourth top four finish in an oval race in 35 years with a fourth place effort at Pocono Raceway.

He also backed up his pace at Indy, leading all Honda drivers with a fifth place qualifying effort — pretty good for a team that weren’t supposed to be good on ovals.

The success that Bourdais helped the team find carried over. In 2019, rookie Santino Ferrucci finished in the top four in three of the final four oval races on the schedule — pretty good for a team that had recorded just four top four finishes on the ovals in 35 years prior. He added another one in 2020 with a fourth place run in the Indy 500.

Bourdais, once again, qualified well at Indy in 2019, this time in seventh place, and he ran well before his involvement in a late five-car accident knocked him out of contention.

Can A.J. Foyt Enterprises find the same success with the addition of Bourdais alongside Kellett?

It won’t be easy, but what Bourdais was able to do to close out the 2020 season with Foyt’s team despite limited seat time showed that he is the guy who can make it happen, and as a full-time driver, Kellett is in position to be a key beneficiary of the wide range of experience the 41-year-old Frenchman brings to the struggling organization.

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The 17-race 2021 IndyCar season is scheduled to get underway in about two and a half months on Sunday, March 7 with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida.