Carpenter starting to show signs he's ready to win

IndyCar Series driver Ed Carpenter gets labeled a lot of things.

Tony George's stepson. Old-school USAC short-track throwback. Or one of the few drivers with the cojones to call out Danica Patrick.

Well, here's a couple more labels to ponder slapping on the Illinois
native: Marketable American star from the heartland and maybe the next first-time winner in the IndyCar Series.

Carpenter, 27, is in his fourth season driving for Vision Racing, the IndyCar Series team formed by George, the Indy Racing League and Indianapolis Motor Speedway CEO. He's currently 10th in the IndyCar standings, second in class behind Watkins Glen winner Ryan Hunter-Reay among drivers not affiliated with the series' big three teams -
- Target Ganassi Racing, Andretti Green Racing and Team Penske.

More importantly, Carpenter has showed on several occasions during the last two seasons that if the right strategy or the right breaks came his way, he's capable of winning an IndyCar Series oval race.

"I think he can definitely win," George said. "There's no question that on an oval, he understands the cars that we are running today. I would put him in the top five of oval drivers currently, as far as having the whole package to go out and win."

Carpenter began racing quarter midgets before his mother, Laura, married into the Hulman-George family in 1989.

The relationship certainly helped open some doors for the fledgling racer, and made USAC midget and sprint car racing the most obvious career path. Carpenter eventually transitioned into rear-engine Indy Lights single seaters in 2002 and drove his first full season of IndyCar for Cheever Racing in 2004.

The Georges formed Vision Racing for the 2005 season and made Carpenter an integral part of the management team. It is Tony George's intention to turn the team over to his stepson when Ed's driving career is over.

"Obviously part of the reason I started the team was to allow him to be part of building it and ultimately managing it," George said.

That's a long-term scenario that suits Carpenter. He's one of the few drivers on the grid with a college degree (in marketing from Butler
University) and he relishes the opportunity to grow as a businessman in the future.

"I really enjoy the team side of things and someday I'd like to get more involved, when the time is right," Carpenter said. "I was really active in 2005, but really had to stay focused on getting better as a driver and not be so involved with the team. Whether you realize it or not, it takes a lot of energy out of you and puts your mind in the wrong places.

"It's definitely something I look forward to in the future, hopefully not too soon. I feel like I have a lot left to accomplish here and as long as the team keeps improving and I keep improving."

With no road-racing experience at all prior to racing Indy cars, Carpenter knows that's an area where he needs to make some gains -- especially if the series continues to drop oval venues in favor of road- or street-course events.

George has hired Bryan Herta to assist Vision Racing as a driver's coach for Carpenter and A.J. Foyt IV, who also has limited road-racing experience. And there remains the possibility that Champ Car veteran Paul Tracy might compete in one or more IndyCar road races this season in a satellite Vision Racing entry.

"I really need to improve a lot more on the road courses, but I'm looking forward to the increased amount of road courses because it's the only way you can get better," Carpenter said. "If you had a really experienced guy it would definitely lessen the learning curve a little bit for A.J. and me, and maybe take some of the pressure off of having to develop the car. You could let someone else do that and just go out and focus on driving.

"It would be nice if we could get some more funding and grow our team back to three cars and bring someone in. Until we can grow the team and do it properly, I think we'll just keep doing what we're doing."

That seems to be working fine on oval tracks. Carpenter is coming off an eighth-place finish at Nashville Superspeedway, third in the non-Ganassi-Penske-AGR class, and he's hoping for solid runs in the remaining two oval races in 2008 at Kentucky and Chicagoland Speedways.

His best finishes so far this season were a pair of fifths at Homestead and Indianapolis, and a sixth at Motegi.

"It's one of those seasons where I feel like the team is performing much better than we have before and I'm performing better, but we just haven't been able to show all the results for it," Carpenter said. "We're still hanging in the top 10 in points, but I think if things had fallen more our way, we could be in the top five easily.

"The results don't show it, but as far as my confidence and how I feel about myself and the team, it's still the best year I've had to date," he added. "And to do it with increased competition in the unified series it makes me feel better about my place in the sport."

And George remains confident that Carpenter and the Vision team can ultimately step up to compete with the IndyCar Series' big three.

"I think we've managed to work through some of the distractions that caught us out early in the season to get back on track," he said. "We've had a few more consistent good finishes and we want to continue to work on execution and consistency as a team. Hopefully that will lead to higher finishes week in and week out, and higher rankings in the standings as the season goes on.

"[Ed's] performance and his development as a driver has improved and the chemistry is very good right now. It's good to see him doing so well this year in what I see as a pretty competitive and deep field from top to bottom as any series going today. I guess it's coming together for him nicely."

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.