2018 in Review: A.J. Foyt Racing

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A.J. Foyt Racing

I’ll be the first to admit that I thought 2018 would be a breakthrough season for A.J. Foyt Racing after a few years of disappointing results.  Four years removed from their last win with Takuma Sato in 2013, the proud organization ushered in a fresh new line-up featuring an exciting, young rookie as well as a former series champion and Indianapolis 500 winner.

Fully expecting a transition period would be present, my preseason predictions still included a Foyt surprise win in 2018.  While they fell short of that goal, not all was lost this summer as the group has set themselves up nicely for 2019 and beyond.

Hot out of the gate

With a fresh line-up of on-track talent in place, A.J. Foyt Enterprises hit the ground running in St. Petersburg.  Brazilian rookie Matheus – or as the boss likes to call him, Matt – Leist cracked the Firestone Fast Six en route to qualifying 3rd for the season-opener.  Fellow countryman Tony Kanaan had a fine run as well, slotting in 10th on the grid.

It was the first time since 2016’s season opener that two Foyt teammates had qualified inside the top-10, a total streak of 33 races.  As the race unfolded, Leist was off to a quick start and held position inside the top five while Kanaan settled into the 110-lap grand prix.

Unfortunately, on lap 16 it would be Leist exiting the season’s first race after wall contact and issues with the electronics and gearbox.  Soldiering on, Kanaan methodically maintained position around the top-10 before coming home a respectable 11th place.

It wasn’t a perfect day, but it was a start for the Foyt operation.

Matheus Leist

Matheus Leist struggled to replicate his February pace in Phoenix, finishing 19th in April’s race (Chris Owens/INDYCAR).

When the series shifted to the newly-rebranded ISM Raceway in central Arizona, the attention was again focused on Leist.

The rookie driver had performed exceptionally in spring testing at the short oval and many were waiting to see if those results would translate to success in race two.

As the two-day race weekend began to unfold, the pace in April was a tad behind February’s markings in the new Dallara IR-18 aero kit.  Leist ended up qualifying 16th while Kanaan did well to place 9th on the grid.

The race would unfold favorably for Kanaan – a back-to-back winner at Phoenix in 2003 and 2004 – as he would bring Foyt a top-10 result by finishing 8th.

In an eventful night, Leist nursed his No. 4 ABC Supply Chevrolet to 19th.  He was the final car running at the finish, 9 laps back of the leaders.

Kanaan’s finish of 8th pushed him to 9th in the championship standings through two races, and it would be the highest either driver would be in the points for the rest of the season.

Despite another strong top-10 run for Kanaan at Long Beach (where he once again finished 8th), TK would drop to 11th in points while challengers Alexander Rossi, Will Power, and Josef Newgarden all put points on the veteran.

In a rather uneventful race, Leist started and finished 14th.  The rookie completed each lap on a challenging street circuit, an experience that would help him later on in the 2018 season.

Bumpy terrain

From late April through early June the Chevrolet-backed Foyt operation lost their footing a bit, with the exception of one lone bright spot at Indianapolis.

At Barber Motorsports Park, Leist and Kanaan would turn in two of their worst qualifying efforts of the season by gridding 21st and 23rd, respectively.  As the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama unfolded over a rain-soaked two days, Kanaan could only muster an 18th place finish while Leist did improve to finish 12th.

Entering the month of May, Kanaan was firmly slotted in at 11th in points while the rookie was running 18th in the championship.

The INDYCAR Grand Prix on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course was a mixed-bag day for A.J. Foyt Racing.  While each driver completed every one of the 85 laps – an important feat for each race with a new universal body kit – neither could improve on their qualifying positions.

Leist started the day 21st in the 24-car field.  After two hours of racing that is where he would finish, still on the lead lap in 21st.  For Kanaan, he would start 12th for the second year in a row in the INDYCAR Grand Prix, eventually dropping two positions by the end to finish 14th.

With the road course race behind them, Foyt began to focus on the ever-important Indianapolis 500.  A.J.’s two drivers had been selected with the Indy 500 at the forefront of his mind, and with a former ‘500 race winner and Freedom 100 champion in his stable, the prospects of another Indy victory were possible.

While talk of qualifications bumping dominated the airwaves in the days leading up to qualifying, Foyt’s bunch would safely make the 33-car field with safe runs on Saturday’s Bump Day.  When the field’s times were reset for Sunday, Kanaan and Leist made the most of their second runs to qualify side-by-side in row four.

Tony Kanaan

Tony Kanaan led 19 laps before crashing on lap 187 of the Indianapolis 500 (Jason Porter/INDYCAR).

Race day conditions for the 102nd Indianapolis 500 would be vastly different than qualifications one week prior, with temperatures nearing record levels for the final Sunday in May.

The slick track conditions coupled with a true lack of downforce played tricks on many Indy 500 veterans, eventually claiming Kanaan himself on lap 187 despite a solid day spent around the top-10.  Kanaan would come home a disappointing 25th after leading 19 laps, though a silver lining was in place.

Leist validated his dominating 2017 Freedom 100 victory by running a clean month on the IMS oval, as well as a flawless race where he completed the full 500 miles and came home 13th.

Finishing as the second-highest rookie in the race, Leist gave Foyt something to be proud of with prospects of improvement still in sight for 2019’s Indianapolis 500.

As the team shifted focus away from Indianapolis and back to street course racing, Leist would continue his consistent runs by finishing each lap of the Detroit doubleheader without issue.  The 19-year-old driver would finish 15th on Saturday and 14th on Sunday, two admirable runs in the 23-car field.

Kanaan had a nice bounce-back weekend as well following Indy, placing 14th on Saturday before picking up his third top-10 run of the year in race two.  The 2013 Indy 500 winner posted his best finish of the year by piloting the No. 14 Chevrolet from 22nd on the grid to 7th in the final results.

One long, hot summer

After the two races at Belle Isle, Foyt struggled to improve at the same gradual rate they enjoyed in the season’s first third.  In race number nine at Texas Motor Speedway, Leist had to hurriedly escape his Dallara when the car caught fire just five laps into the event.

The Texas fire began a string of difficult runs for Leist through the summer months as he went through June and July without finishing better than 15th.  A steering issue for Leist cut another race short at Iowa as he was forced to retire after just 40 laps.

With that being said, the No. 4 team continued to log laps and accumulate data for 2019 as Leist finished all but one lap in races at Road America, Toronto and Mid-Ohio.

At Pocono Raceway in mid-August, Leist would notch his best finish of the season when he brought the red-and-blue ABC Supply machine home 11th with 197 laps completed.  Finishes of 16th at Gateway, 14th at Portland and 19th at Sonoma would cap Leist’s rookie campaign, resulting in an 18th place points finish.

While Leist would only finish in front of one other full-time driver (Max Chilton of Carlin), it is the experience gained that needs to pay dividends in 2019.  The three DNFs at St. Petersburg, Texas and Iowa were difficult to swallow as each was an early-race exit, but in the other 14 events Leist would only miss a total of 15 laps.

In theory, the races finished at Long Beach, Belle Isle and Toronto should benefit the team’s stunted progress at St. Petersburg, and a full-race run at Phoneix in 2018 can help the team’s return to Iowa in 2019.

For Kanaan, success down the stretch was somewhat easier to find.

The DXC Technology 600 at Texas as just as kind to Kanaan as it was to Leist, with the 2003 series champion being wiped out just 26 laps after his teammate departed in a crash.  Kanaan finished 21st that evening, resulting in a combined 36 laps of competition out of a scheduled 506 for the two Foyt cars.

After finishes of 14th at Road America and 17th at Iowa, Kanan would secure his best finish of the year following a 6th place run at Toronto.  In what would be the final top-10 for Kanaan in 2018, the veteran driver led a lap and voiced his pleasure at the team’s improvement.

“Great day for the ABC Supply team – we finally had everything going our way,” said an exuberant Kanaan after the tough street race.  “We had good stops, good passing and obviously, we had a couple people do us some favors on the racetrack – that’s the way this race goes.

“It’s the best result for the team so far – top six on a street course where we’d been improving our car all weekend. Really happy for ABC, Larry (Foyt, team president) and for A.J. (Foyt, team owner). He’s (A.J.) not here, so I wanted to give him a good result.”

Unfortunately, TK would struggle to regain that form for the season’s final five races.  At Mid-Ohio, the No. 14 team finished 18th after qualifying 19th.  A few weeks later in Pocono, Kanaan would avoid the early-race carnage that took out multiple cars before an issue of his own resulted in an early retirement.

A malfunctioning throttle would sideline the oval daredevil after just 16 laps, resulting in a 17th place finish.

In the final three races of the year, though, Kanaan would jump back on a promising path when the team finished 13th at Gateway before placing 11th at Portland and 12th at Sonoma – the last two races featuring 25-car fields.

In some ways, the 2018 season was incredibly similar to 2017’s campaign for A.J. Foyt Racing.  Their two full-time drivers finished 16th and 18th in points, just as Conor Daly and Carlos Munoz did one year ago.  The No. 14 car grabbed another top-10 run at Long Beach, and there were enough bright spots to offer hope in 2019.

At the same time, 2018 took a step back from 2017 when you look at pure results and form to finish the season.

Last year, Foyt notched nine top-10 finishes between their two cars.  With Kanaan and Leist in the fray, 2018 only produced four top-10 runs, all of them from Kanaan.  Additionally, the last five races of this season came with an average finish of 15th while Daly and Munoz produced an average result of 11.2 to close out 2017.

Yes, there are things to be happy with following 2018 but the team isn’t trending much better entering this offseason than they were last year before Foyt unceremoniously dismissed both Daly and Munoz with pink slips.

In 2019, the team must qualify better (average starting positions of 14.9 for Kanaan and 17.6 for Leist put both drivers in precarious positions to start races in 2018) and take advantage of data gleaned from this past season to have a clearly-formulated plan in place by the time St. Petersburg rolls around in March.

The driving talent is there, and 2019 should be a year that Foyt expects to take a step forward.  Will they?  That’s the multi-million dollar question.

Header image by James Black.

Tanner Watkins

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