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

Graham Rahal and Simon Pagenaud lead a pack at the Firestone Grand Prix of St Petersburg. © [Al Arena / Spacesuit Media]

Graham Rahal and Simon Pagenaud lead a pack at the Firestone Grand Prix of St Petersburg. © [Al Arena / Spacesuit Media]

by Paul Gohde

Those who know their IndyCar racing say that the likes of Pato O’Ward, Colton Herta, Rinus Vee Kay and Alex Palou are part of the next wave of IndyCar’s stars. But even the experts didn’t think that the ‘next wave’ would come ashore on the hills and valleys of Barber Motorsports Park last week with the win by Barcelona, Spain native Palou and the fourth place run by O’Ward.

The organizers of this week’s NTT IndyCar Race on the Streets of St. Petersburg course must hope that the excitement generated by that unexpected win will carry over to the Florida city that began holding Indy car races in 2003.

Race Facts: This will be the eighteenth Indy car race to be held in downtown St. Petersburg, with Helio Castroneves having won the inaugural CART race there. The 100-lap, 181-mile chase will be run on St. Pete’s 1.8-mile, 14-turn course, which is actually a combination of shoreline streets and parts of the nearby airport runway. Helio has won there three times while Team Penske has been on the top step of the podium for ten races. Will Power has been a pole winner nine times. Oddly, wins seem to come in pairs here as Josef Newgarden (2019-20), Sebastien Bourdais (2017-18), Juan Pablo Montoya (2015-16) and Helio Castroneves (2006-07) have each won twice in consecutive races. Newgarden holds the race record (2020) at 2:06:12.59, (85.572 mph).

Previous St Petersburg Race: Due to the COVID pandemic delay in 2020, the St. Petersburg event (normally the series’ opener) closed the season in a dramatic way as Josef Newgarden did all he could do to hold off Scott Dixon’s charge for a sixth NTT championship. Newgarden, who had led the point’s chase from race one, started eighth, taking the lead on a lap 80 restart and worked to distance himself from Dixon (in third) while under pressure from Pato O’Ward in second. But Dixon stayed in third, just enough to win the NTT season title,16 points ahead of Newgarden. It was Newgarden’s fourth race win of 2020, having done all he could do to hold off Dixon, but in this case, winning wasn’t enough.

IndyCar Statistics: 2021 NTT Series point standings after one race: 1. Alex Palou, (53) Honda …2. Will Power, (41) Chevrolet …3. Scott Dixon, (35) Honda …4. Pato O’Ward, (34) Chevrolet …5. Sebastien Bourdais, (31) Chevrolet.

Entries: Similar to last week’s Barber race, the same 24 cars/drivers are entered at St. Petersburg.

Notes: Many eyes were on the trio of NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson, F1 veteran Romain Grosjean and New Zealand V8 Supercar champion Scott Mclaughlin at Barber, as each one continued to find his IndyCar way. Johnson spun on lap 10, but recovered to finish 19th, three laps down, while McLaughlin finished 14th and Grosjean 10th, both on the lead lap. There’s much for each of them to learn, but many more races to run…An incident that occurred on the first lap Sunday involved five cars, but Josef Newgarden took the blame for triggering the turmoil. “I got loose coming over the hill (exiting Turn 5),” the 2019-20 Barber winner said. “I thought I had the car and (it) touched the grass, and once it touched the grass it pitched me sideways. I really felt bad for anyone that got involved. Obviously, my mess created a bigger mess.” Newgarden and Ryan Hunter-Reay could not continue…Sources report that there are 34 confirmed entries as of today for the Indy 500, with several more expected…The race at Barber last week marked the beginning of IndyCar’s (combined with IRL’s) 26th season.

Our Take: As we wrote last week, the series’ youngsters appear ready to challenge the likes of Dixon, Power and Newgarden, veterans who have dominated IndyCar for the past several seasons. But who knew that it would happen so soon, as Spaniard Alex Palou, with help from his Ganassi team, proved that a good race plan, combined with careful driving, could derail those veterans? Yes, six-time series champ Dixon, along with Power and Sebastien Bourdais were nipping at Palou’s bumper. But along with pole-winner Pato O’Ward finishing strong in fourth, the coming generation did what many thought might take most of the season to accomplish; a win this soon. With only three ovals to navigate (with Johnson and Grosjean sitting out) during the seventeen-race season, those road course-savvy young’uns might be finding their footing earlier than expected. We’ll see if their talents transfer to a tight street course like St. Pete this week.

“They Said It”: Jimmie Johnson, #48 Carvana Chip Ganassi Racing Honda: “Bring on St. Pete. I had such a great time at Barber (19th place finish after spinning out). My first IndyCar race did not disappoint on any level. I’m really excited to get on my first street course. I’ve never been on one other than a lap in a pace car last season at St. Pete. I did spend a little time on the sim so that’s helpful. I also got some time on the street circuit tires at the Sebring test session. A couple of things were working my way (at Barber) but I’m still showing up as green as one can be for one of these street circuit events. I have a great team around me and am really excited about the experience I had ahead and the experience ahead and look forward to seeing everybody down there.”

Next Series Race: Texas Motor Speedway, Ft. Worth, TX, Doubleheader: Saturday, May 1, Geneys 300…Sunday, May 2, XPEL 375.

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