NTT IndyCar Series: Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg Preview

NTT IndyCar Series driver Felix Rosenqvist during the Firestone Grand Prix of St Petersburg on the Streets of St Petersburg. © [Andy Clary / Spacesuit Media]

NTT IndyCar Series driver Felix Rosenqvist during the 2019 Firestone Grand Prix of St Petersburg on the Streets of St Petersburg. © [Andy Clary / Spacesuit Media]

by Paul Gohde

It has taken almost seven months, but the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, scheduled to open the season in March, will close the calendar, and wind up deciding the NTT IndyCar Series Champion. With the cooperation of the Florida city’s governing leaders, the street/airport layout was reconstructed in time for this weekend’s fall event. Scott Dixon’s Chip Ganassi Racing Honda leads Josef Newgarden’s Team Penske Chevrolet as the two battle for the NTT IndyCar Series crown in a year dominated by postponements, cancellations and rescheduling, but will finish with 14 races instead of the intended 17. Dixon has never won here but has been a runner-up four times while Newgarden had one “top-of-the podium” St. Pete finish a year ago.

Race Facts: Sunday’s race, the 17th IndyCar event at St. Pete since 2003, will run for 100 laps/180 miles; ten laps shorter than in 2019 when Josef Newgarden won there for the first time. The challenging temporary street/runway course measures 1.8-miles (14-turns), with a portion running through the city’s waterfront airport. Team Penske has won here nine times while Will Power and Sebastien Bourdais have each won twice among active series’ drivers. Power has also captured eight poles. Newgarden’s win last season set a race record speed of 95.572 mph in 2:04:18.25.

Last Season @ St. Petersburg: Newgarden went on to win the 2019 season championship after his spring win in Florida, grabbing three more victories. He edged teammate Pagenaud by 25 points for his second NTT crown for Team Penske Chevrolet. Newgarden’s other Penske teammate, Power, took advantage of his pole position start last year and surged to an early lead while remaining near the front until he and other leaders pitted. Using a different strategy, Newgarden waited five extra laps before stopping, while building a sizeable lead on the clear track. He changed to Firestone’s softer alternate tire on that stop as others found themselves on the harder compound primary rubber. Newgarden used that strategy to win by 2.899 seconds over Dixon who has never won there despite being a five-time series champ.

2020 Season to Date: Current standings after 13 of the 14 2020 events: 1. Scott Dixon, 4 wins, 502 points, Honda…2. Josef Newgarden, 3, -32, Chevrolet…3. Colton Herta, 1, -101, H…4. Will Power, 1, -114, H…5. Pato O’Ward, 0, -126, C…7. Takuma Sato, 1, -174, H…8. Simon Pagenaud, 1, -191, C…10. Felix Rosenqvist, 1, -208, H…

Dixon has led from the beginning of the abbreviated schedule once it got underway in April. Newgarden has pursued him all season with Dixon experiencing a poor stretch of finishes at Mid-Ohio (10th place in both races) and Indy Harvest GP (9th and 8th) while Newgarden was better (2,8/1,4) in the same stretch prior to St. Petersburg. “It was a trying last few weeks between Mid-Ohio and Indy G.P.,” Dixon admitted as his points lead weakened. “We struggled to get comfortable with the balance of the car the last few weeks.” But with no double-points being up for grabs in the season’s finale, his lead appears a bit safer.


The Grid: 24 cars:

For Honda:

Andretti Autosport: Alexander Rossi/Ryan Hunter-Reay/Marco Andretti/Colton Herta/James Hinchcliffe

Chip Ganassi Racing: Scott Dixon/Felix Rosenqvist/Marcus Ericsson

Dale Coyne Racing: Santino Ferrucci/Alex Palou

Meyer-Shank Racing: Jack Harvey

Rahal Letterman Lanigan: Graham Rahal/Takuma Sato

For Chevrolet:

Team Penske: Josef Newgarden/Simon Pagenaud/ Will Power/ Scott McLaughlin

Ed Carpenter Racing: Rinus VeeKay/ Conor Daly

Arrow McLaren SP: Oliver Askew/ Patricio O’Ward

A.J. Foyt Racing: Charlie Kimball/ Sebastien Bourdais

Carlin: Max Chilton

Notes: TV: Race: NBC, Sunday, 2:30 p.m. ET…Qualifying: NBCSN, Saturday, 8:00 p.m. ET (delay)…2020 will mark the first time that the St. Petersburg event has closed the schedule and decided the championship…Points leader Scott Dixon has competed in 15 of the previous 16 St. Pete event…Since 2012 the NTT series has averaged nine different winners/season. There have been seen seven in 2020’s shortened season…Twenty-seven-year-old IndyCar rookie Scott Mclaughlin jumped out of his Team Penske Australian Supercar after completing the Bathurst 1000 last weekend and flew for 22 hours to Charlotte before joining Team Penske for his first IndyCar run, with more races a possibility in 2021.

Our Take: With Dixon chasing his sixth series’ crown, and Newgarden his third, race strategy will play a major part in determining the 2020 champ. Will teammates be a factor in helping-out the two combatants? Will caution flags, at opportune or inopportune times, help or hinder their strategy. Weather, tire choice and pit stops will all be important. Dixon has had some lower-than-usual finishes recently while Newgarden has had four single-digit finishes. Both drivers and teams have been through this drill before. Look for something unusual to perhaps decide the race and the championship. Remember, neither one must win the race to be the champion, but Newgarden, being -32 points behind, has to finish at least 33-points ahead of Dixon, no matter where they each wind up, in order to be a three-time series’ champ…Let the Green Flag fly!

They Said It: Scott Dixon (No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Honda): (Quote from March, 2020, the original race date postponed due to COVID-19. Interesting that what he says is also pertinent for Sunday’s series’ final race, too) “I think the circuit itself is a really great layout. It has opportunities to pass. Typically, it’s been one of our longest races, but they’ve made some adjustments to the actual race this year (shortening the race by 10 laps). The city really embraces the race, too…For me it’s more about it being a really tough track from the driver’s side. Quite technical and difficult to get right…A challenging race; one that we’ve seen in the past that, for whatever reason, can kind of flip the field. We’ve had a lot of winners come from the back of the field.”

Next Race: IndyCar hopes to open the 2021 season just like they are closing the 2020 schedule. Reverting to the traditional IndyCar calendar, the streets of St. Petersburg will host the 2021 opener on Sunday, March 7 (pandemic issues permitting).




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