Time for Carpenter to hang up his helmet?

A few seasons back any preview of an IndyCar oval race would have featured Ed Carpenter as a contender for the win. Owner of the eponymous Ed Carpenter Racing (ECR) team, the Illinois native has long demonstrated his oval prowess.

Since 2014 Carpenter has balanced team management duties with a role as an ‘oval specialist’ on a limited program. After a bright start, there has been a marked decline in results.

Ed Carpenter IndyCar Chevrolet
Ed Carpenter prepares for his final oval race of 2017. (Image: IndyCar/Shawn Gritzmacher)

From being a contender for wins, he’s fallen completely off the radar. Last season things went from bad to worse as Carpenter recorded a highest race finish of just 18th place.

After a disastrous first lap exit from the Bommarito Gateway 500 last weekend, is it time for Carpenter to hang up his helmet?

Specialisation wins races

Specialization was part of the reason Carpenter split driving duties for his own car from 2014 onwards. The logic being that as an oval specialist, Carpenter would be a better bet than an all-rounder/inexperienced road racer at tracks like Indianapolis and Texas.

Conversely a driver with a road racing pedigree would be best placed to take home points from road/street courses. Carpenter himself knew his road course abilities were limited. And the results from the 2014 IndyCar season overwhelmingly supported the decision.

It was all going so well…

Carpenter took his second Indy 500 pole and contended for the win. Victory at Texas and two top 5 finishes at Iowa and Fontana followed. Meanwhile British driver Mike Conway won at Long Beach and Toronto. Since then results have been much harder to come by.

Would Ed Carpenter sign Ed Carpenter?

At the close of the 2016 season it was hard to imagine Ed Carpenter the team owner having much faith in Ed Carpenter the driver going in to 2017. Would any other driver in the IndyCar series have kept his ride after 5 races comprising 21st (Phoenix), 31st (Indianapolis), 18th (Iowa and Texas) and 21st (Pocono) place finishes?

Compared to those with little oval experience, the value of splitting driving duties with Carpenter has become increasingly limited.

Alexander Rossi IndyCar
Alexander Rossi – from zero oval experience to Indy 500 champion. (Image: Andretti Autosports)

For example consider Alexander Rossi – a complete oval rookie – who has quickly evolved into a pre-race favorite. While Mikhail Aleshin’s days racing IndyCar are probably over, the Russian was similarly quick when turning left too.

Compared against both in their rookie 2016 seasons, oval specialist Carpenter starts to look a lot like the inexperienced newcomer.

2016 IndyCar oval race results

Phoenix IMS Iowa Pocono Texas
Carpenter 21st 31st 18th 21st 18th
Rossi 14th 1st 6th 20th 11th
Aleshin 17th 27th 5th 2nd 16th

The future for ECR and Spencer Pigot

One thing is for certain: continuing to run a partial program for Spencer Pigot is compromising the development of the 2015 IndyLights champion.

Since his championship season, Pigot has only run 2 oval races – both at Indianapolis. Neither race was for Ed Carpenter and the 23 year old has yet to drive a competitive IndyCar weekend at any of the other 5 ovals on the current schedule.

ECR believe Pigot has the potential to emulate the success of former driver Josef Newgarden. In continuing to run him on a limited program, the team is undermining his ability to develop into a championship contender. By implication that says something about Carpenter’s team and their ambitions.

Spencer Pigot IndyCar Chevrolet Ed Carpenter Racing
Off track: Spencer Pigot continues to spend a lot of time off track with ECR. (Image: IndyCar/Chris Owens)

From Pigot’s perspective, no seat time on ovals puts him at risk of becoming irrelevant to teams competing for wins and championships. Whilst there is no reason the two-car ECR outfit cannot once again be in regular contention for wins, Penske and Ganassi are unlikely to take a chance on a driver running partial seasons. Certainly not in comparison to someone like Rossi, Ed Jones or James Hinchcliffe.

2018 – a reset button for Carpenter?

Carpenter is looking forward to 2018 already because 2017 has been awful. The new universal aero kit could offer him a chance – as a driver – to hit the reset button. This may prove enough to get him back to his pre-2015 form.

But the burning question however remains the same: does Carpenter driving ovals improve his team’s chances? Right now, probably not.

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