IndyCar’s top team could be facing a huge problem

Marcus Ericsson, Indy 500, IndyCar - Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Marcus Ericsson, Indy 500, IndyCar - Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports /

Everything appears good at Chip Ganassi Racing. But is their overarching success to start the 2023 IndyCar season just the calm before a big storm?

One look at the IndyCar championship standings, and all seems right with the world at Chip Ganassi Racing. 2021 series champion Alex Palou leads by more than one full race, having not placed lower than eighth in seven races this year, and teammate Marcus Ericsson sits in second place, having not placed lower than 10th.

Six-time champion Scott Dixon is only a bit behind Ericsson, and aside from being taken out at Long Beach, he took hasn’t placed lower than seventh.

But you don’t have to look far to see that perhaps this is just the calm before the storm, a storm that has the possibility of entirely reshaping the IndyCar grid in both the short term and the long term.

Save for the fans who may have only just started watching the world’s most competitive racing series this year, everybody knows about the Palou situation from last summer.

Chip Ganassi Racing announced that they had picked up an option in his contract for 2023, shortly before McLaren announced that they had signed him.

Palou made clear his intention to leave Chip Ganassi Racing and join McLaren — whether that meant Arrow McLaren’s IndyCar team was unclear — but the situation turned legal, and Palou ultimately ended up back behind the wheel of the No. 10 Honda for another year.

There is no secret that Chip Ganassi wants his driver — dare we call him his top driver at this point? — back for the 2024 season and beyond. While that still does seem possible, the consensus is that Palou, who is currently the reserve driver for the McLaren Formula 1 team, will end up making the full move to McLaren next year.

The issues don’t stop there.

It was said at one point last year that Palou wanted to leave Chip Ganassi Racing after he felt he was not given a good enough offer to remain with the team. Other theories have been floated since then, specifically the one about him eyeing a future in Formula 1.

But true or not, the lack of a strong offer is exactly what we are now seeing with Ericsson.

Ericsson, a pay driver and former Formula 1 driver who won last year’s Indy 500, is without a contract to return to the team in 2024. He feels that he has done enough to earn the right to be treated like a top driver in the series.

He has won races every year since 2021, he is an Indy 500 champion, he came closer than anybody in more than two decades to repeating as Indy 500 champion this past May, and he is a perennial championship contender.

That, by definition, makes him a top driver. That’s not a matter of opinion. But the team would prefer that he continue to bring the funding, which may not be possible after the 2023 season. Unsurprisingly, he has been linked elsewhere, and there are certainly plenty of potential suitors if driving the No. 8 Honda is not in his future past 2023.

As for Dixon, there are no issues here, other than the fact that he won’t be driving forever. At some point, probably in the near future, the No. 9 Honda will need a new driver. The fact that it could happen amid all this other turmoil isn’t ideal, but it is what it is.

Chip Ganassi, as usual, doesn’t comment on the contract statuses of his drivers, and he is smart to keep quiet, especially after the Palou situation last year. His drivers know when they can and can’t speak to and/or about other teams, and given where Palou is now, they know they will be held to that. So why would Ganassi say more than he needs to say himself?

Long story short, Dixon’s career is nearing its end one way or another, Palou has a future with Chip Ganassi Racing if he wants it, which he might not, and Ericsson walking looks like a much stronger possibility than it did two months ago.

And yes, this is the same IndyCar team that has its three full-time drivers in the top four in the championship standings.

This is not to say that Chip Ganassi Racing will have any real issues finding viable talent to fill these three seats, should they become vacant.

Callum Ilott was known to be high on their list last year, Rinus VeeKay has been mentioned more than once, and David Malukas seems poised to end up competing against his father’s team at some point in the near future. Marcus Armstrong is also a good candidate for a full-time seat. Those are just four of many possibilities, some of which aren’t even competing in IndyCar.

But solid drivers driving for top teams doesn’t always equate to results. Just look at what happened in 2018, when Chip Ganassi Racing lost three drivers, downsized from four cars to two, and brought in Ed Jones. Jones, who had an impressive rookie season with Dale Coyne Racing in 2017, was cut after a single subpar season.

That’s exactly why this situation can absolutely elevate to the level of becoming a problem, and a big one at that. At least with their current roster, they know exactly what they’re getting. That could end after 2023, and what makes things worse is the fact that their competition could and likely will improve.

Is Arrow McLaren at Chip Ganassi Racing’s level yet? Quite simply, no, they are not, even though they get a ton of hype. They have four total wins since McLaren entered the sport in 2020. Chip Ganassi Racing have four wins since the 2022 season finale alone.

However, they are absolutely making up ground. Signing Palou, Ericsson, or both, even if that results in Felix Rosenqvist being dropped, will only accelerate that growth. A driver lineup consisting of Palou, Ericsson, Alexander Rossi, and Pato O’Ward isn’t going to be intimidated by a lineup consisting of…well, who even knows?

Then there is Team Penske. A Chip Ganassi Racing team suddenly deprived of Palou, Ericsson, and Dixon might as well be packaged up and gift wrapped to Tim Cindric and Roger Penske with a certificate redeemable for multiple Borg-Warner Trophies and Astor Cups.

Josef Newgarden is performing at the highest level of his career. Actually, no he isn’t, which is a scary thought. He’s still getting there, as hard as that may to believe. If winning a championship in his first year with Team Penske in 2017 wasn’t enough, he added a second in 2019.

While he hasn’t won a title since, he is coming off of his first ever five-win season in 2022 and just won the Indy 500. And worth noting is the fact that from 2020 to 2022, two of his three runner-up finishes in the championship standings came behind Chip Ganassi Racing drivers.

Are they soon-to-be ex-Chip Ganassi Racing drivers? You have to like the sound of that if you’re a fan of the elder Bus Bro.

And what happens if Team Penske add a fourth car for somebody such as, dare I say it, Ericsson? It’s all fun and games until the (no longer) sneaky Swede is drinking the milk at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for a second time, this time with Roger Penske congratulating him on winning him his 20th Baby Borg.

Chip Ganassi Racing and their drivers are all focused on winning the 2023 championship. It’s what any one of the three will tell you if you even attempt to ask them about their futures. The immediate future reigns supreme on their list of priorities, as it should.

All-time IndyCar wins list. dark. Next

But beyond that, the top team in the NTT IndyCar Series could enter a rebuild phase so quickly they become unrecognizable. For their sake, let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. But for the drivers’ sakes, let’s hope they all make the decisions they feel are right for their careers — and, of course, legal.