INDIANAPOLIS – The 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series entry-list is virtually known at this point, as it appears that 21 cars will attempt to run in all the upcoming races this season. One of those entries though is split between two drivers meaning 22 drivers will make up the field. Among those 22 drivers though, are six winless ones and among those six, are very talented racers that are deserving of their opportunities.
What I’m getting at is this upcoming seasons entry-list is among arguably the most deepest as well as potentially the best ever. Yes, there’s only 21 cars regularly in the field, but those 21 drivers piloting those cars are legit. There’s not much drop off from the top to the bottom, as anyone from Scott Dixon with 40 career wins, down to rookie Ed Jones with 0 career victories, can win on any given race day.
With that being said, who will be the next first time winner? There’s a good chance a new driver will pull into victory lane in 2017 for the first time of his IndyCar career.
Conor Daly (No. 4 AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet)
Daly makes a strong case to be the next first time winner in the series. No, his team AJ Foyt Racing hasn’t won a race in nearly four years, but this team is revamped. In are two new drivers with a new engineering staff and a new manufacturer. The team is making a ton of gains and one that I think will see the most improvement from anyone from 2016 to 2017. With the aerokit freeze, Chevrolet who won 13 of the 16 races a year ago will likely be strong again, and with Foyt being a Chevy powered team, look for great results this year.
That benefits Daly who in my mind is going to be a star in this series soon. The 25 year old got his break a year ago with Dale Coyne Racing as the Indiana native was among the best Honda drivers throughout the season. Despite being a rookie, Daly five top six finishes in 16 starts including a runner-up finish at Belle Isle. Now, he’s in a Chevy car with an improving team.
JR Hildebrand (No. 21 Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet)
Hildebrand returns to the series on a full-time basis for the first time since 2012. He’s previously never won and has just 14 top 10’s in 44 career starts. But, he takes over a team that became a championship contender the last two years with Josef Newgarden. This very car won three times in two seasons and was in the mix for the title heading to the season finale the last two years. Plus, Newgarden dominated races last year in which he used Hildebrand’s set ups from him testing the car.
On top of that, Newgarden is familiar with the team as he’s ran his only five starts since 2014 with ECR. He earned three top 10s in those five starts.
Also, like Daly, Newgarden is in a Chevy and Chevy will have a huge advantage in 2017 performance wise.
Mikhail Aleshin (No. 7 Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports Honda)
After what looked like another year out of the series, Mikhail Aleshin’s funding came through last minute and he will return to the seat of the No. 7 Schmidt-Peterson Honda in 2017. To me, Aleshin is most ready to earn his first career win as he’s bold, fast and has a no fear mentality. He will be behind the eight ball a bit with a Honda entry, but Aleshin was extremely quick and brash on the superspeedways in 2016 where Honda’s will be strong at yet again. He qualified in the Fast Nine for the Indy 500 and came home runner-up last August in Pocono. I fully believe this will be the year that Aleshin wins an IndyCar race. It’s his third season and I think this will be his best year yet.
Max Chilton (No. 8 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda)
Chilton has a rough go of it during his rookie year in 2016 with just two top 10’s in 16 races. But, Chilton was fast most race weekend and had a knack for the natural terrain road courses. Unfortunately, unfamiliarity with the track on race day or unfortunate mechanical issues took him out of contention. Now, the ex-Formula 1 driver returns for a second season but this time without Chevy power. Chip Ganassi Racing switched from Chevy to Honda power for 2017 which could affect Chilton again. But, we do know Ganassi is equipped to adapt fast and with Chilton having another go around on the same circuits (minus Gateway) this season, he could wind up in victory lane at some point during the season.
Ed Jones R (No. 19 Dale Coyne Racing Honda)
After winning the Indy Lights championship in 2016, Jones will make his IndyCar debut in 2017. He’s with a rising team with great results lately and hoping to build off of his success in the feeder series the last two years. In 34 career Indy Lights starts, Jones had 23 top fives and 31 top 10’s to his credit. Yes, he only finished outside the top 10 just three times the last two years combined. So, Jones can steal a win somewhere as he’s fast and good on ovals. Like I said about Aleshin, Honda’s will be strong on superspeedways this year and with Jones’ love for ovals and Honda’s strength on them, he could be a contender at some tracks in 2017.
Spencer Pigot (No. 20 Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet)
Another Indy Lights champion makes this list as Pigot won in 2015, the year before Jones did. Last year, Pigot made 10 starts in 16 races (3 with RLL, 7 with ECR). This season, he returns to a part-time role again with ECR as he will drive in all the road/street events. Despite that, I think he can win this year too. Pigot, really starting getting in a rhythm at the end of last year as he was strong at Road America and Mid-Ohio. He had top 10’s at both tracks which was superb for his experience level.
Now, he returns to these tracks again with familiar territory. I really do think Pigot can win at least a race in 2017.