FONTANA, Calif. -- Team Penske's drivers lead the Verizon IndyCar Series with five race wins in 2014, and Ryan Hunter-Reay has scored three victories for Andretti Autosport.
Only one other Indy car team comes close to matching those numbers, and it's not Chip Ganassi Racing. Instead, it's Ed Carpenter Racing, with two checkered flags claimed by road course specialist Mike Conway and another by team owner Carpenter, that has come closest to challenging the sport's most successful teams this year.
And it looks like ECR is about to get even stronger. Over the weekend at Sonoma Raceway, it was announced that ECR and Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing will merge for 2015, operating as CFH Racing out of SFHR's brand-new race shop on Main Street in Speedway, Indiana.
Carpenter, who made the decision to step away from road racing in 2014, will obviously remain as a driver, and the team hopes to continue its successful relationship with the Englishman Conway. Perhaps more importantly, CFH Racing signed Fisher's current driver, Josef Newgarden, to an extension to remain with the rebranded team.
Newgarden, 23, is one of the most promising American racers to come down the Indy car path in quite some time. Although the Nashville native hasn't won a race yet, he's been in position to do so several times with one of the IndyCar Series' smaller operations.
At Sonoma, he qualified on the front row and finished sixth at what he said was one of his worst circuits in years past. But the big news was seeing his IndyCar Series future secured for at least another year.
"I'm really excited about the merger," Newgarden said. "Wink [Hartman] and Sarah extending an offer to keep me around for another year is first and foremost. They are the ones who gave me an opportunity to start my IndyCar career, and I'm happy to continue that with them for another year.
"I decided to stay here because I believe in our group and everything that we've built and where we are going," he said. "It's a very strong situation that's on the rise, and I think next year is the year to capitalize on it."
Carpenter is a member of the next generation of the Hulman-George family that controls Indy car racing. He operates his team with considerable behind the scenes guidance from his adopted father, Indy Racing League founder Tony George.
When George folded his Vision Racing operation in 2010, his driver -- Carpenter -- went to work for Sarah Fisher Racing, earning that team's first race win at Kentucky Speedway in 2011.
Working with Fisher was part of what inspired Carpenter to form ECR in 2012, running the full schedule as an owner/driver and winning the season finale at Auto Club Speedway. A skilled oval racer from his USAC background, Carpenter's road racing performance improved, but this year, he made the decision to step out of the car for road and street races and hired Conway to take his place. The arrangement has worked out extremely well, with Conway (who chose to step away from oval racing after a pair of big accidents at Indianapolis Motor Speedway) scoring wins at Long Beach and Toronto, while Carpenter grabbed a win of his own at Texas Motor Speedway.
"It's been a good year," Carpenter said. "To have three wins on the year, it's hard not to be happy with that. I feel like as the year has gone on, as we're all getting used to this arrangement and getting to know Mike more, the whole thing just gets better and better all the time. As far as running this type of program where we're splitting a car between Mike and me, it's the best scenario.
"We've worked hard to be able to expand," he said. "I have seen Josef mature a lot over the past few years, and I really look forward to working with him and continuing his development. I see him as one of the premier talents in this series for the future, and we are very proud to have him on our team."
CFH Racing will have a decidedly American flavor; aside from two American drivers, Carpenter hopes to retain sponsorship from PGA golfer Fuzzy Zoeller's boutique vodka brand, and he is working hard to attract the budget to run American driver J.R. Hildebrand in a third car.
With Fisher, George and Carpenter all key players in the history of IRL-sanctioned Indy car racing, fans of that era will have a rooting interest. Most observers assume the team will use Chevrolet engines, but Honda has powered Newgarden at SFHR the past three years and is expected to make a pitch to supply the team.
On paper, the merger looks like a winner for both sides. Both teams will enjoy the economies of scale that come with running multiple cars, while Newgarden will have full-time teammates for the first time in his career, which should only benefit his development.
"I think Josef has shown great potential, and it is my hope that CFH Racing will help him fully reach his potential and that we can win many races together," Carpenter said.
"I have seen him mature a lot over the past few years, and I really look forward to working with him and continuing his development. I see him as one of the premier talents in this series for the future, and we are very proud to have him on our team."
With Newgarden, Marco Andretti, Graham Rahal and Charlie Kimball all in their 20s and "elder statesmen" Carpenter and Hunter-Reay just 33, the IndyCar Series has a group of American stars that should be around for a few years.
"Ed has been one of the biggest guys who has helped me in my career so far in IndyCar," Newgarden said. "He was one of the first to stick his hand out and lend some advice.
"I really believe in Ed and his group and what they've done. I think he will add many strengths to our unit and that we will be one strong entity for the whole 2015 season."