2018 in Review: Harding Racing

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With the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season wrapped up, Open-Wheels.com takes a look back at the season for each of the 10 full-time teams.

In the first edition, we review the season for Harding Racing. For the new year, the team stepped up to full-time competition. By the time the checkered flag flew at Sonoma Raceway, that would be far from their only change.

A Major Step Up

Coming into 2018, Harding Racing entered new territory on and off the race track. In December, Brian Barnhart was added on as the Team President. It would mark a reunion with Al Unser Jr., the team’s driving consultant. Barnhart helped guide Unser to two Indianapolis 500 wins and two IndyCar championships.

Harding Racing began their first full IndyCar Season at St. Petersburg (James Black/INDYCAR)

The 2018 Firestone Grand Prix would be a monumental occasion for Harding Racing and driver Gabby Chaves.

Not only did it mark the beginning of their first full-time season, but it would also be the team’s debut on a non-superspeedway.

Chaves, who had been with the team for all 3 races in 2017, made good on the newfound promise.

The 2015 Indy Lights Champion qualified eighth for the 110-lap race. Despite dropping to 14th in the final running order, Chaves finished on the lead lap.

After a three week break, Harding made their short oval debut on the 1.022-mile ISM Raceway in Avondale, Arizona.

This race would not be as kind to Chaves, as he started in 19th. He did work his way up to 15th by race’s end but was a lap behind winner Josef Newgarden.

The next few races would not be kind to the team. At Long Beach and Barber the following two weeks, started 19th and 20th, while finishing 19th and 17th, two laps down in each race.

After a three-week break, the team began preparations for their first Indianapolis Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Chaves qualified 22nd, his worst starting spot of the season to that point. By the end of the 85-lap race, the driver of the No. 88 Dallara-Honda would find himself 17th. Chaves did complete the full race distance, his first time doing so since the season opener.

A few days later, preparations began for the 102nd Indianapolis 500. For Team Owner Mike Harding, it would be an especially big milestone. A year earlier, the Indianapolis businessman entered his team in an IndyCar race for the first time.

This time, Chaves improved his qualifying efforts from 2017. The 2015 Indianapolis 500 and IndyCar Rookie of the Year started 22nd.

For the third time in four starts, Chaves would complete all 200 laps and finished 14th. Despite equaling the starting effort in the second Belle Isle Race a week later, the doubleheader yielded finishes of 18th and 19th.

Struggles Mounting

Following Belle Isle, the team traveled to Texas Motor Speedway. A year earlier, Chaves earned his best career finish (5th) at the track.

A low-downforce package meant a change in the complexion of the race. This change did not arrive in Chaves’ favor. Chaves struggled to keep pace with the field. By night’s end, he found himself eight laps down in fifteenth.

The struggles continued at Road America, where he started a season-worst 23rd. Chaves and Harding did improve to finish 19th but failed to finish on the lead lap for the third straight race.

After struggling at Iowa Speedway two weeks later, the team retired Chaves’ entry despite completing only 99 of 300 scheduled laps.

Changing Course

For the next race at Toronto, Harding made a shocking change. Conor Daly was announced as the driver for the event at Exhibition Place. Daly, who had only started the Indianapolis 500 in 2018, qualified 11th. In the race, he managed a 13th-place, the team’s best effort of the season.

Daly entered three races for Harding in 2018 (Chris Owens/INDYCAR).

Daly continued on with the team at Mid-Ohio following a week off. After giving the team their best start on a road course (14th), Daly fell to 22nd and finished two laps down.

At Pocono, the team proved unable to duplicate their 2017 success at the track, which included their best qualifying effort to date.

After qualifying last on the 22-car grid, Daly struggled with the handling on his car. After brushing the wall, Daly brought his car to the pits to end his day early in what proved to be his final start of 2018.

For the following week’s race at Gateway Motorsports Park, Chaves returned to drive for the team. In his first start at the track, Chaves would roll off the grid 19th when qualifying was rained out. Unfortunately for him and his team, their oval struggles continued. He did improve on his starting position to finish 18th but ended the night eight laps down.

Another new track for Chaves would be on the schedule the following week. Chaves qualified 21st in the series’ return to Portland International Raceway. The 1.967-mile road course proved to be a solid track for Chaves.

He finished on the lead lap for the first time since the first Belle Isle race in June. By the end of the 105-lap race, Chaves turned in a 13th-place finish. This marked Chaves’ best finish of 2018 and his best finish on a road course since a 14th at Sonoma in 2015.

Chaves would not get an opportunity to improve upon that effort in 2018. For the Sonoma finale, Harding Racing looked to the Indy Lights grid to fulfill an attempt at fielding multiple cars. Freedom 100 winner Colton Herta would take over Chaves’ No. 88 entry. Herta’s Indy Lights teammate and series champion Pato O’ Ward entered the race in the No. 8 machine.

Herta (left) and O’Ward debuted at the Sonoma finale. The two will drive for the team full-time in 2019 (Stephen King/INDYCAR).

Both drivers completed the f85-lap race distance, with Herta starting 19th and finishing 20th. O’Ward would be the one making headlines in his IndyCar debut.

The IndyLights Champion qualified fifth, giving Harding Racing their first appearance in the Fast Six. Despite early frustrations, O’ Ward rebounded and finished in ninth.

Looking Ahead to 2019

Harding Racing has wasted little time in beginning their 2019 preparations. On Wednesday, the team announced a partnership with Indy Lights’ Steinbrenner Racing. The team, owned by George Steinbrenner IV, previously helped field Herta’s Indy Lights effort in 2017 and 2018.

For 2019, Herta will join O’Ward at Harding for the full IndyCar season. Andretti Autosport has also announced they will provide technical support for the team. Harding Steinbrenner will continue to utilize Chevrolet engines, in contrast with Andretti’s Honda alliance.

With continued changes into next season, the rebranded Harding Steinbrenner Racing will be worth watching this offseason and into 2019.

Header Image By Chris Owens/INDYCAR

Spencer Neff

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