A sigh of relief and a note of sadness at the Rasmussen-to-ECR news

Sadness and a sigh of relief were my two main responses to Ed Carpenter Racing’s announcement of 2023 Indy NXT champion Christian Rasmussen as its newest IndyCar driver.

The sigh of relief was for the NXT series and Rasmussen. With Linus Lundqvist dominating the championship in 2022 and finding no takers for his services until a seat opened late last season at Meyer Shank Racing due to injury, there was a sizable concern that Rasmussen would also be passed over for an IndyCar opportunity.

Although he was drawing interest elsewhere in the paddock, Carpenter was the only team owner who was serious about giving the kid a shot, and if he wasn’t selected to drive its No. 20 Chevy, Rasmussen was at risk of being passed over in the same vein as Lundqvist and having to fight among a half-dozen other names chasing similar or lesser seats.

Thankfully, ECR chose the fiery 23-year-old Dane, who has all the markings of a seriously fast and formidable talent to develop, and because of that choice, Penske Entertainment has avoided seeing back-to-back NXT champions relegated to the sidelines to open the following season. What a relief.

Rasmussen’s addition adds to a strong contingent of Indy NXT grads in the IndyCar lineup. Gavin Baker/Motorsport Images

Rasmussen’s nomination by ECR means IndyCar will have every Indy Lights/NXT champion since 2018 in the field next year, led by Pato O’Ward at Arrow McLaren, Kyle Kirkwood at Andretti Global, and Lundqvist at Chip Ganassi Racing. The only exception — bearing in mind the 2020 season was cancelled due to COVID — is 2019 title winner Olver Askew, and that’s where the sadness comes in.

If you were fortunate to see Askew in action during his mollywhopping Mazda Road to Indy years, there was no doubt as to whether the lanky kid from Florida — just like his friend and in-state rival Kirkwood — was destined for IndyCar stardom. However, a rough introductory season in the big leagues with Arrow McLaren rarely went according to plan, and to be honest, he wasn’t viewed or signed with the same enthusiasm as O’Ward.

His McLaren stablemate thrived while he found the car a handful to drive, and with a mid-season crash that left Askew with a concussion and a need to step out of the cockpit for a few races, the wave of momentum he rode into IndyCar was lost.

Since then, Askew’s gone wherever the opportunities have presented themselves in IMSA, Formula E, and on occasion in IndyCar. The chance to land the No. 20 ECR Chevy was an important one for Askew, which makes its loss a sad outcome for the 26-year-old. Partnering with Rinus VeeKay was his best chance of returning to IndyCar, but like Rasmussen, it wasn’t his only option. I’m aware of at least one other team that has an interest in Askew, but now he’s in that same multi-driver fight to find his way into the series.

Also, Askew turns 27 in December, and while he’s far from old, the door to IndyCar won’t remain open forever — not with so many other young and funded drivers waiting to fill any available openings. If Askew isn’t on the grid next year, the IndyCar chapter of his life might be over.

I had a third reaction to Rasmussen’s signing, and it was concern. VeeKay ran a close second to Askew in that 2019 Lights championship, and in the four seasons he’s spent with ECR, the Dutchman has matured into one of IndyCar’s finest young talents. His talents have also been largely wasted by ECR. It’s here where I hope the story changes with the kid nicknamed “Razz.”

Since Josef Newgarden’s departure from ECR for Team Penske in 2017, the team has attracted significant talent and burrowed itself into IndyCar’s midfield pack with alarming consistency. JR Hildebrand, the 2009 Indy Lights champion, ran 15th in the 2017 championship for ECR, and his full-time replacement, 2015 Indy Lights champion Spencer Pigot, led the team in 2018 and 2019 with runs to 14th. Upon VeeKay’s arrival in 2020, the rookie maintained Pigot’s form and finished 14th in the standings.

He’d earn his first and only win to date in 2021 and carried the No. 21 to 12th, its best championship placing since Newgarden captured fourth overall in 2016. VeeKay held station in 2022 with another strong effort to hold onto 12th in the standings, and despite a truly impressive sequence of performances to close the 2023 season, ECR regressed, with the No. 21 falling back to a familiar 14th in the championship.

Rinus VeeKay’s fluctuating form with Ed Carpenter Racing is cause for both optimism and concern for new ECR recruit Rasmussen. Jake Galstad/Motorsport Images

As a whole, the team has gone from being a contender to fluctuating between 12th and 14th with its best entry. And that’s not the car Rasmussen will be driving, which is where the concern is formed.

Under the rideshare program with the No. 20 where he’s headed, the likes of Jordan King, Ed Jones and Conor Daly were occasionally competitive on road and street courses, and as we saw last season, Daly and his replacement Ryan Hunter-Reay were rarely in the hunt for quality finishes. On the ovals, Carpenter was the car’s most effective driver, earning second-place finishes at the Indy 500 in 2018 and Gateway in 2019.

Since then, the best oval outing for the No. 20 with Carpenter behind the wheel was a fifth at Indy in 2021, and with his move to the No. 33 Chevy on the ovals from 2022-23, the results were consistently dreadful. Parking the No. 33 as a part-time third ECR entry makes plenty of sense, but it also takes the team back to a practice with the No. 20 that has rarely benefited the road and street course driver.

To find the last — and only period — where ECR’s rideshare plan worked, we need to say hello to 2014, the amazing Mike Conway and the infancy of the Dallara DW12 chassis when the Briton captured wins at Long Beach and Toronto in the No. 20 while Carpenter added a third win for the entry at Texas and placed third at Fontana to close the season.

Since then, the last decade has offered glimpses of potential during ECR’s two-drivers-for-one-car routine, but the results haven’t been flattering for the No. 20’s revolving door of road racers. And so, after a two-year experiment of running the No. 20 as a full-time entry for one driver, Rasmussen and Carpenter will take turns in 2024, with the 42-year-old American in for six races and the Dane in for 11, with a third entry due for him to drive at Indy 500.

It’s not a bad deal for Rasmussen by any means, but he also enters a team that needs to make vast improvements to challenge for meaningful results. After making no changes to its team in 2023 and paying the price for standing still, ECR is said to have Indy 500-winning race engineer Eric Cowdin on his way there once he completes a non-compete period with Chip Ganassi Racing. Assuming he’s eventually confirmed, Cowdin would be a powerful addition to the group of veteran engineers on ECR’s staff.

VeeKay, its best driver, heads into the final year of his contract with ECR, and unless the team takes a big leap forward in 2024, his tenure in the No. 21 Chevy is likely to reach its end. One team came close to making it happen for next season, and with potential openings at two top 10 contenders for 2025, we can expect the 23-year-old newlywed to attract quality offers to upgrade his personal and competitive fortunes.

That might benefit Rasmussen who, in the absence of VeeKay, could have a full-time seat in the No. 21 on the horizon, and with the talented and well-funded NXT racer Josh Pierson signed as ECR’s development driver, the team should have another young driver to integrate into its IndyCar program in the near future.

After two seasons of being routinely lapped and forgotten in the No. 33 entry, getting back into the No. 20 should be a palate cleanser for Carpenter. He’ll embark on his 21st consecutive attempt to win the Indy 500, and although I’m less than fond of Rasmussen being hired as a part-timer, Carpenter’s call to ditch the No. 33, rely on the stronger engineering team supporting the No. 20, and get back to being relevant on ovals is what’s best for him in the twilight of his career.

A reset in the No. 20 could be just what owner/driver Ed Carpenter needs while also serving his young teammates well. Jake Galstad/Motorsport Images

Other than his 13th at Texas, Carpenter finished 20th or worse at every other oval last season, and that’s no way for a three-time Indy 500 polesitter to head into the sunset. NXT held two oval races in 2023, and Rasmussen won both with HMD Motorsports, so while he only has the Indy 500 on his oval schedule during his rookie IndyCar campaign, he should complement the team at the Speedway.

If ECR can break free from the midfield and fire VeeKay in and among the Penskes and Ganassis and McLarens on a semi-regular basis, its odds of keeping him will improve. And if that doesn’t happen, Rasmussen could be the beneficiary, if being handed the keys to the midfield during an ongoing rebuild is considered a gift.

ECR deserves a lot of credit for hiring top talent from Indy Lights and NXT. Other than Andretti Global, no team comes close to ECR’s efforts in signing the best prospects from American junior open-wheel racing, and we’re fortunate to have Carpenter’s ongoing commitment in this regard. We’re less fortunate to watch many of those top-tier drivers languish as their stars fade while in the program.

The upcoming season is a pivotal one for Carpenter, VeeKay and Rasmussen. The young ones need to receive consistent speed and competitiveness from ECR to make the most of their prodigious talent. The veteran needs to feel fast and significant in the oval discipline he mastered long ago.

For most of the teams ECR hopes to catch, 2024 will be business as usual as they trade wins and podiums at each round. And for ECR, another season of “business as usual” is the last thing it can afford.

Story originally appeared on Racer