Photo: Walter G. Arce, Sr./ASP, Inc.

Up to Speed: Previewing the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg

By Luis Torres, Staff Writer

After four months of whirlwind NTT IndyCar Series competition, it’s time to call it a season this weekend at St. Petersburg.

What was supposed to be the season opener until the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic changed the sport as we know it, is now the finale site with two guys fighting for the championship.

Leading the trail after 13 rounds is Scott Dixon, who has led the points since the beginning and hopes to become the first man winning the Astor Cup wire-to-wire. To do so, he’ll have to hold off last year’s winner Josef Newgarden, who has been on fire as of late and poised of scoring back-to-back titles.

“It really all comes down to this weekend. It’s been a year where the No. 1 Hitachi Chevrolet and our team have been through a lot, from success to dealing with mistakes to just the victim of bad timing. But none of that matters headed into this weekend,” Newgarden heading into the finale. “We either win the championship or we don’t. My Hitachi Chevy team has put everything they have into this season, and they plan to keep working hard through the race weekend. It’s going to certainly be a tough battle with Scott Dixon this weekend because he has been so strong and consistent all year.

“We can’t afford to make mistakes, so strategy and execution will be critical. We feel really good with the momentum we have right now, but you can never count out a guy like Dixon. I’m also excited that Scott McLaughlin will be joining us this weekend for his first-ever INDYCAR race. He was so fast at the spring training test at COTA earlier this year, so it’s going to be really great to see how he does in the mix for a race.”

Dixon hopes a similar fate like Juan Pablo Montoya in 2015 doesn’t happen where he loses the championship in the title deciding race. Ironically, it was Dixon who won his fourth Astor Cup that year at Sonoma, but now it’s Dixon’s turn of being labeled as “his championship to lose.”

However, the recent defeats still looms on the back of Dixon’s mind. He made it clear he’s still upset of his rather poor results at Mid-Ohio and the Harvest GP doubleheaders. Nevertheless, he’s still proud of his entire squad for the hard work they’ve put all season.

“I’m just really proud of this PNC Bank team and everyone who works so hard to win. Honda has been pushing hard, and we’re always proud to be powered by them along with HPD,” said Dixon. “For whatever reason, we were just struggling to get comfortable with the balance of the car the last few races and that’s one of the key things we’ll be working on for St. Petersburg.”

The title isn’t the only storyline as Arrow McLaren SP has been in the news since the last race weekend held at Indianapolis. This weekend will be Oliver Askew’s final race with the team as the way he and his agency (Spire) handled the concussion didn’t sit well with the team.

On the other hand, Pato O’Ward will stay with the team, but will be joined by the soon-to-be former Chip Ganassi Racing veteran Felix Rosenqvist, who is seeking for St. Pete redemption after having such an incredible race last year.

While it hasn’t been announced by CGR, time till tell if Rosenqvist plays a role in Dixon’s title hopes, but it just shows that no ride is safe, no matter how good you are.

Last but certainly not least, the much anticipated IndyCar debut of three-time Supercars champion Scott McLaughlin will be this Sunday. Originally slated to run the GMR Grand Prix at Indianapolis, McLaughlin is fresh off his fifth-place result in the Bathurst 1000 and prepared for what may well be the greatest challenge of his career.

“I’m super pumped to finally get a crack at my first INDYCAR race. Feels like it’s been years since I was part of spring training, but due to COVID-19, we had to hold off. But hey, sometimes the best things are definitely worth the wait,” said McLaughlin. “It’s a dream come true to be running an INDYCAR race for Team Penske and Roger (Penske), especially coming off of such a successful Supercars season. I’ve been trying to get to know my team as well as possible virtually for a few months now, so it’s been great being able to see everyone in person and work with them.

“I spent some time last week running in the simulator as much as I could and spent some time at the race shop, as well, to prepare for this weekend. It was a quick turnaround from Bathurst since I flew to Charlotte immediately after, so I’ve definitely been moving at a fast but really exciting pace just to get to this weekend. The Shell V-Power Nitro+ Chevy team is such a talented group, so I feel like I’m going to be a quick study and learn a lot really fast.”

The stage is set, 24 drivers have 100 laps to fight it out and put one heck of a show in front of sizeable Florida crowd. As for Dixon and Newgarden, they have a championship to battle that will down to the absolute bitter end.

By the Numbers

What: Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, NTT IndyCar Series Race No. 14 of 14

Where: Streets of St. Petersburg – St. Petersburg, Florida (Opened: 1985, first INDYCAR event was 2003)

When: Sunday, October 25

TV/Radio: NBC, 2:30 pm ET / Pennzoil INDYCAR Radio Network (SiriusXM Channel 211)

Track Size: 1.8 mile street circuit

Race Length: 100 laps, 180 miles

2019 Race Winner: Josef Newgarden – No. 2 Team Penske Chevrolet (Started second, 60 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

Felix Rosenqvist – No. 10 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda

“Heading to St. Pete, it will definitely be a bit weird without having done any street courses yet this year. Normally we start out with St. Pete, and now we’re ending with St. Pete. It’s a cool place to end the season. There’s a big championship battle going on with Dixon and Newgarden, so obviously the biggest focus for the team is to wrap that one up.

“I think Scott really deserves to get the title there. I am very happy to be back on a street track, which is my best kind of track. I have really good memories of the last time we were in St. Pete racing. It was my first race ever in INDYCAR, and we were leading the race. I can’t wait to get back there.”

Last Time at St. Petersburg

Aside from the technical difficulties NBC Sports dealt with last March, the first race NTT Data took over as the official series title sponsor of IndyCar certainly didn’t disappoint. Thanks to Newgarden and Rosenqvist, who’ve led a combined total of 91-of-110 laps.

Early on, a pair of former champions had car reliability issues as four-time champion and two-time St. Pete winner Sebastien Bourdais, and 2012 champion Ryan Hunter-Reay were the first retirees of the race. Their setbacks proved to be the tale of their seasons as neither visited victory lane in 2019.

Rosenqvist, the man who carried the NTT Data colors, appeared to have the car to beat as neither Newgarden and his Team Penske teammate Will Power were unable to match the Ganassi driver’s tremendous pace under green.

That’s where race strategy became Penske’s blessing as both were able to beat Rosenqvist with Power pitting a lap earlier than Rosenqvist, just narrowly avoided a disastrous collision to take the lead.

Newgarden would be the latest among the three to pit and with Power struggling to get quicker laps and sneaking by lapped traffic, notably Marco Andretti, the Tennessee racer gained control and went on to capture his 11th career victory.

“We were literally talking about (tire strategy) right before the race. We were trying to figure out, should we go used (tires) or new Firestone reds (alternate tires) and we made the call at the last minute to stay with used (tires). We’ll have that advantage if we need it and we used it,” Newgarden on his first St. Petersburg triumph. “It just worked out perfectly. I just can’t thank Chevy enough for all their support and what they put in this weekend. We had an incredible engine, we had everything we needed in fuel mileage and reliability and all the power.

“I’m telling you, we really figured things out on Saturday and it was a rocket ship. I’m so thankful to our group. We have the best of the best working at Team Penske.”

Weekend Schedule (All Times Eastern)

Saturday, October 24

  • NTT IndyCar Series Practice (10:55 am to 12:25 pm – NBC Sports Gold)
  • NTT IndyCar Series Qualifying (3:05 pm to 4:20 pm – NBC Sports Gold (Live)/NBCSN (8:00 pm))

Sunday, March 15

  • NTT IndyCar Series Warm-Up (10:40 am – NBC Sports Gold)
  • NTT IndyCar Series Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg (2:30 pm – 100 laps, 180 miles – NBC)

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From the Pacific Northwest, Luis is a University of Idaho graduate with a Bachelor's degree in Broadcasting and Digital Media and a three-time National Motorsports Press Association award winner in photography. Ever since watching the 2003 Daytona 500, being involved in auto racing is all he's ever dreamed of doing. Over the years, Luis has focused on writing, video and photography with ambitions of having his work recognized.