By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
The brave men of the NTT IndyCar Series are back this weekend in one of sport’s traditional venues — the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
Over the last 14 seasons, the 1.8-mile circuit have kicked off the season for 11 of those campaigns.
Per usual, a lot of unknowns with racers moving to new places and others looking to make their names in INDYCAR.
Among the major headlines are Arrow McLaren’s ongoing quest of pursuing that elusive Astor Cup and become the first team since 2003 to win the title that isn’t Newman-Haas Racing (Champ Car 2004-07), Andretti Autosport (2004-05, 2007, 2012), Chip Ganassi Racing (2008-11, 2013, 2015, 2018, 2020-21) or Team Penske (2006, 2014, 2016-17, 2019, 2022).
Arrow McLaren expanded to three full-time entries as Alexander Rossi defected from Andretti Autosport to join the organization. The 2016 Indy 500 champion said he hopes 2023 is the year he gets back into true championship form like he was back in 2018.
“It’s a fantastic organization whose results speak for themselves. I think what they’ve done the past couple of years is very impressive,” said Rossi in early February.
“They’re a great organization with great partners and great people. Getting to work now with GM and Chevy has been pretty cool as well, to see what they’re doing, how they’re helping push the program forward.
“It’s been a lot of conversations and things in theory. We don’t really know anything until we get on track. But from where we sit right now, we’re very excited about what’s to come.”
Defending St. Petersburg winner Scott McLaughlin, who won three races last season, said that while Team Penske are poised of being title contenders, he realizes the big picture.
Not only he knows 2023 is expected to be the year he’s a legit title threat, so are his rivals outside of teammates Josef Newgarden and reigning INDYCAR champion Will Power.
“I know that we made a massive step personally for me last year. That was due to a number of things, things clicking, working out really good,” said McLaughlin.
“But now what we know of INDYCAR racing, you just need to continue stepping up a little. McLaren is going to be fast, Andretti, Ganassi as we know is unreal. We need to continue to build as a team, myself. I’ve certainly looked at negatives that I can improve on. Hopefully that bodes me well for the rest of the season.”
Andretti Autosport brought back Kyle Kirkwood to the organization after a frustrating rookie season with AJ Foyt Racing.
During Spring Training at Thermal Club in California, Kirkwood showed some muscle with some saying this season is a do-over year where the Road to Indy scholar truly shines. As been the story his entire junior career where he had scorched the competition.
“I felt like (last year) I was trying to mimic what the Andretti car was like, and I feel like I kind of never got to that point with the AJ Foyt car,” said Kirkwood.
“I’m so curious to get back in that car and see and know what we were missing. It’s something that’s kind of been eating me alive through the off-season because you know that’s something that Andretti is not going to tell me. But once I get in the car and I’m able to feel it, it’s going to be pretty cool.
“I’m excited. I couldn’t be more ecstatic about this opportunity and getting back with a team that I won a championship and a very important one to my career.”
Speaking of rookies, there are four drivers that’ll look to shine throughout the 17-round championship trail. Those being Indy NXT graduates Sting Ray Robb and Benjamin Pedersen, Formula 2 standout Marcus Armstrong (road/street courses only) and Argentine racer Augustin Canapino.
One man that won’t be a part of the 2023 rookie class is reigning Indy NXT champion Linus Lundqvist, who remains a free agent. When the green flag waves in Florida, it’ll be the first time since Kyle Kaiser in 2018 that the reigning Indy NXT champion didn’t compete in the season opener.
As it stands, Lundqvist is endangered of being the first scholar since 2010 Indy NXT champion Jean-Karl Vernay to not even have a ride in INDYCAR period. Time will tell but in the meantime, four rookies will be a part of the 27-car grid this weekend.
The seven-month odyssey will have its unpredictable moments, but the ultimate goal is ending the tour as the man who’ll hoist the Astor Cup at Laguna Seca.
For now, a solid start this Sunday comes a long way in this sport.
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, March 5
TV/Radio: NBC 12:00 p.m. EST / INDYCAR Radio Network (SiriusXM Channels 85 & 160)
Track Size: 1.8-mile street course
Race Length: 100 laps, 180 miles
2022 Race Winner: Scott McLaughlin – No. 3 Team Penske Chevrolet (Started first, 49 laps led)
Track Qualifying Record: Will Power – No. 12 Team Penske Chevrolet (59.3466 seconds, 109.189 mph – February 26, 2022)
From the Driver’s Seat
Will Power – No. 12 Team Penske Chevrolet
“You don’t get much rest around that track. It’s a very rhythm track, a lot of 90-degree turns. For whatever reason it really suits me. I really like it a lot, the way it races. Just the track layout actually. It doesn’t race as well as some other tracks. As far as getting speed out of it, I really enjoy it.
“It’s just one of those tracks that really clicked with me. A few of them on the circuit where you are naturally fast, but you still have to work on it. Sometimes you struggle.
“I love the flow of that track. I love it. Yeah, really getting close to walls. Just seems to suit my style.”
Last Time at St. Petersburg
Team Penske’s quest for another title began in Florida with second-year driver Scott McLaughlin leading the field to green. McLaughlin made the most out of outside pole sitter Will Power’s slip-up and gained an early sizeable lead.
On Lap 20, Power would later regain second from 2021 winner Colton Herta after going low entering Turn 1. Five laps later, David Malukas crashed out of the race after making wall contact in Turn 4, bringing out a full course caution.
In typical INDYCAR fashion, a caution spiced up the delicate game of pit strategies. Alexander Rossi would lead the field back to green while McLaughlin restarted in 12th.
It wouldn’t be a good while until McLaughlin regained the race lead. Alex Palou stayed out a lap longer, but wasn’t able to beat McLaughlin on the track after exiting pit road.
In the closing laps, Palou fought hard to dethrone him from P1. Even if Devlin DeFrancesco’s aggressive driving to stay on the lead lap, Palou just couldn’t beat McLaughlin, who became a first-time series winner.
Before race day, McLaughlin’s goal was simply scoring a top-7 result which changed after winning the NTT P1 Pole Award. Following his qualifying efforts, his goals changed and was proud of the overall efforts at St. Petersburg.
“It was just a phenomenal weekend. Perseverance. You just don’t give up. You don’t doubt yourself. I knew I could do it,” said McLaughlin. “I had a great sleep because I just said to myself, I’ve done this before, let’s just — I did it with a roof over my head. Now it’s just a matter of just feeling it and seeing what I had today.
“Look, I had a great start, got into a rhythm and away we went. I’m very proud, great for DEX Imaging. It’s their home race. Team Chevy gave us awesome fuel mileage and drivability, as we’ve said all weekend.”
McLaughlin, who had a superb showing, made a single error by accident. Once he got out of his No. 3 Chevrolet, he fell down onto the ground. Sheer adrenaline led McLaughlin to brush it off and became a trademark to do a rollover following each win.
“Yeah, I just ended up on my ass at the podium, but that’s okay,” said McLaughlin. “Felt a little roly-poly, but anyway, that wasn’t part of the act. I’ll never forget it.”
Weekend Schedule (All Times Eastern)
Friday, March 3
- NTT IndyCar Series Practice No. 1 (3:00 p.m. to 4:15 p.m. – Peacock)
Saturday, March 4
- NTT IndyCar Series Practice No. 2 (10:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. – Peacock)
- NTT IndyCar Series Qualifying (2:15 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. – Peacock)
Sunday, March 5
- NTT IndyCar Series Warmup (9:00 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. – Peacock)
- Indy NXT Race (9:50 a.m. to 11:05 a.m. – Peacock)
- NTT IndyCar Series Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg (12:00 p.m. – 100 laps, 180 miles – NBC/NBC Universo/INDYCAR Radio Network)
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