By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
For the first time since 2004, the NTT IndyCar Series kicks off its season in February. Like in 2004, the championship trail began in Florida, but rather than Homestead-Miami Speedway, it’s at the St. Petersburg street circuit.
Entering the first round of a 17-round odyssey, the field is arguably one of the more stronger ones in recent memory. This Sunday, 26 drivers are eager of getting the campaign going with aspirations of delivering a strong result.
Some drivers like Will Power and Alexander Rossi aren’t hesitant of putting 2021 in their rear view mirror. Others like Romain Grosjean and Jack Harvey hope their new ride will lead to their best season yet, perhaps get their maiden win. Then there’s the stacked rookie class where it’s about which junior formula ladder have the best crop of talent like F2 alumni Christian Lundgaard and Road to Indy ace Kyle Kirkwood.
Finally, you have the young guns featuring defending champion Alex Palou, Pato O’Ward and Colton Herta. Their challenge is going up against the established veterans of Scott Dixon, Josef Newgarden and Will Power.
A year ago, it was the youth movement that ruled the sport, notably the last time the series raced in St. Pete as Herta led all but three laps en route to his first of three wins. Should Herta repeat, it’ll be his third straight win dating back to last September.
Time will tell if we’ll see a replicate performance from Herta or any of the racers this Sunday. But like most INDYCAR races, there’s plenty of stories to unfold and at race’s end, we’ll have the first piece of the puzzle as to who may stand out in 2022.
By the Numbers
What: Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, NTT IndyCar Series Race No. 1 of 17
Where: Streets of St. Petersburg – St. Petersburg, Florida (Opened: 1985, first INDYCAR event was 2003)
When: Sunday, February 27
TV/Radio: NBC 12:00 p.m. EST / INDYCAR Radio Network (SiriusXM Channel 160)
Track Size: 1.8-mile street course
Race Length: 100 laps, 180 miles
2021 Race Winner: Colton Herta – No. 26 Andretti Autosport Honda (Started first, 97 laps led)
Track Qualifying Record: Jordan King – No. 20 Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet (60.0476 seconds, 107.914 mph – March 10, 2018)
From the Driver’s Seat
Helio Castroneves – No. 06 Meyer Shank Racing Honda
“It’s always a challenge every time you go into a place. However, the place is the same, obviously. They might have some new patches here and there, but at the end of the day, the layout is the same.
“I do believe the experience that I have there will still apply, even though I haven’t been there for three years, three or four years. At the end of the day a racetrack is a racetrack. As long as you’re comfortable with the race car, that won’t be an issue.”
Will Power – No. 12 Team Penske Chevrolet
“You can never put it down to just one thing. I’d say there’s been — I’ve raced there in many different styles of cars, as INDYCAR has evolved and changed over the years. The setups have been quite different. It’s a technical track, but you know, it’s like any other track. You’ve got to get all the little bits right, all the sectors right, and obviously the setup right.
“Then it’s up to you to put the lap together. I think that track I’ve had more poles there than any other track, so there might be something to just — flows well for me there that those happen. Like Indianapolis for Helio (Castroneves), just seems to flow well for him. But I can’t really say there’s one particular thing that makes me quick there.”
Last Time at St. Petersburg
It was all but boring behind Colton Herta, who smacked the competition at St. Pete, leading 97 of 100 laps. As dominant as the win was, he did face pressure from Josef Newgarden at race’s end but still denied him the top step of the podium.
The victory came after a disastrous season opener at Barber where he wasn’t in the hunt for a win.
“Great to kind of reset after last weekend and give such a big confidence boost to everybody involved in the team,” said Herta.
“It was very difficult. Obviously Josef in the last stint breathing down my neck the whole time, couldn’t give me an inch. But yeah, that’s what you want to see in INDYCAR. You want to see good hard racing and that’s what we saw there at the end was me and Josef pushing it to the absolute limit.”
The madness behind Herta proved costly for several drivers. The most notable incident involved Alexander Rossi and Graham Rahal. On the 37th lap of the race, pit stops were taking place and Rossi had just exited out of pit road.
But there was little real estate, creating a tangle between the two and it led Rossi hitting the barriers. Both competitors continued but their days were ruined.
Behind Herta in the final running order were Team Penske’s Newgarden and Simon Pagenaud, but one Penske driver that stood out was Will Power. He fought and clawed his way from the 20th starting position to finish eighth, showcasing that track position is crucial in St. Pete.
Weekend Schedule (All Times Eastern)
Friday, February 25
- NTT IndyCar Series Practice No. 1 (3:40 p.m. to 4:25 p.m. – Peacock)
Saturday, February 26
- NTT IndyCar Series Practice No. 2 (9:00 a.m. to 9:45 a.m. – Peacock)
- NTT IndyCar Series Qualifying (12:30 p.m. to 1:45 p.m. – Peacock)
Sunday, February 27
- NTT IndyCar Series Warmup (8:45 a.m. to 9:15 a.m. – Peacock)
- Indy Lights Race (9:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. – Peacock)
- NTT IndyCar Series Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg (12:00 p.m. – 100 laps, 180 miles – NBC/Telemundo/INDYCAR Radio Network)