Skilled IndyCar Rookie Class of 2016 Prepares for Season Finale in Sonoma

This is the time of year when most kids are heading back to school, but for the “kids” of the Verizon IndyCar Series, it’s crunch-time! Max Chilton (No. 8, Chip Ganassi Racing), Conor Daly (No. 18, Dale Coyne Racing), RC Enerson (No. 19, Dale Coyne Racing), Spencer Pigot (No. 20, Ed Carpenter Racing / No. 16 RLL Racing), and Alexander Rossi (No. 98, Andretti Herta Autosport) are preparing this week, for the last exam of the racing year.

Let’s take a closer look at how the season has panned out for the 4 full-season rookies. (It is worth noting that since Enerson will have only started 3 IndyCar Series races this year, he would still qualify to have a full Rookie season and be eligible for Rookie of the Year contention, should he sign for a full-time ride in a future season. For that reason, I will not be doing a full profile on him in this piece.)

MAwp-1473384075436.jpgX CHILTON has a best finish of P7 this year, at Phoenix International Raceway. His best start was P4 at Iowa, where he also got his first and only taste of leading the field, leading 2 laps on the short oval. For someone who came into the series admittedly hesitant about ovals, gaining his previous racing experience in Formula One, the guidance from Dario Franchitti must have helped out immensely. I say this because Chilton’s best results have come on ovals!

His experience seems to be crossing over to road and street though, advancing into the Firestone Fast 6 for the first time at Watkins Glen, and started from the outside of Row 3 on Sunday. He completed the gas-mileage-strategy race in P10, ahead of veterans like Juan Pablo Montoya, Ryan Hunter-Reay, his Ganassi teammate Tony Kanaan and a wrecked-out Will Power.

wp-1473384029400.jpgCONOR DALY, a fan-favorite, has been impressive in his debut season. Leading laps during 5 races including his debut at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg and the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis, he’s shown that he is on his way to a long career in IndyCar. Had Daly not run out of fuel in the last corners at Watkins Glen, he would have likely earned his second podium as a rookie; instead settling for P4, his second best finish in 2016.

The initial podium came for the Indiana-native at the first race on Belle Isle, during the Dual in Detroit doubleheader weekend, when he finished P2 between former series Champions Sebastien Bourdais and Juan Pablo Montoya. That’s pretty darn good company to keep in your first trip to the podium.

wp-1473384039658.jpgFour out the five rookies finished the IndyCar Grand Prix at The Glen presented by Hitachi this past weekend, in the Top 10. The only one to not finish in the first half of the field was SPENCER PIGOT in his new Samsung-sponsored Chevy. His day ended with a P15 result. He was part of the exhilarating race kickoff in Turn 1 of Lap 1, where a group of cars went 4-wide into the turn, leading to a few spin-offs, but no contact or yellow. That fact, in and of itself, says so much about the talent throughout the field in this series.

Pigot did mention that he suffered some steering issues from the incident, but nothing to keep him out of the remainder of the race. The ECR rookie certainly wants to stick around in IndyCar, but with the recent commentary from Bobby Rahal saying that they are unlikely to bring another developing driver into their program after picking up Pigot for the obligatory 3-races he was guaranteed for winning the Indy Lights Championship, it’s unclear where he might fit in the paddock after Sonoma. He does have two Top 10 finishes at Road America and Mid-Ohio, but will that garner enough attention for a full ride?

The seats at Ed Carpenter Racing could be filled by anyone at this point. Will Newgarden stay? Will he leave for Team Penske or Andretti Autosport? Will Zach Veach end up coming in as a rookie, given his impressive run during the IndyCar test in Sonoma on Thursday where he clocked a quicker lap than the other Lights drivers and Pigot?

Carpenter has confirmed that he intends to continue driving the No. 20 for a partial season, calling himself “still competitive”. I find it hard to understand how he says that when JR Hildebrand earned more points in a one-off run with the team for the Indy 500 (84), than Carpenter has after competing in all 5 ovals this season (67). I can’t understand why ECR wouldn’t want two full-time drivers, so they could have twice the opportunity to fight for a Championship – because I 100% believe that they could earn one!

Regardless, we all know where I think Carpenter could best serve his team, so I will just say that I’m disappointed, not surprised. Mostly because this makes the idea of an ECR-branded Hildebrand/Newgarden ticket in 2017 all but impossible. But I digress…

wp-1473384080052.jpgThe last full-season rookie eligible for the Sunoco Rookie of the Year award, is ALEXANDER ROSSI. He sits 75 points ahead of Conor Daly in the rookie race, and is likely to take the title after Sonoma, thanks to his double-points win at the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500. Rossi also lead a handful of laps at Belle Isle, Iowa and Pocono even though he ended up with a DNF at the latter of those tracks. He has three Top 10 finishes outside of the ‘500’ at the Grand Prix of Indy, Race 1 on Belle Isle, and at Iowa Speedway.

There has been speculation about where Rossi will end up after the completion of the 2016 season – will he stay with Andretti, move teams, or even change series? If you asked me two months ago I would have told you that I saw Rossi jumping on any Formula One opportunity that opened up to him, but given his enjoyment of the past few weekends and his desire, I believe, to find success in what he agrees is the most competitive racing series on the planet, I think he might be changing his tune and I can see him staying with Andretti Autosport. The speculated change in that scenario is that going forward, his strategy would be called by Michael next season, with Marco Andretti likely under the watchful and skilled eye of Bryan Herta within the merged organization.

The four above-profiled rookies in addition to RC Enerson will take on the twisted track of Sonoma Raceway in the Verizon IndyCar Series season finale on September 18th. Spencer Pigot is the only one in the group with race-time experience at the wine country circuit. He raced Sonoma in 2014 while competing in the Pro Mazda Championship rung of the Mazda Road to Indy ladder system, with Juncos Racing. He finished P5 in the second of two races that weekend.

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Photos by Chris Owens & Chris Jones / IndyCar