ST. PETERSBURG, Fla — Will Power is the king of qualifying on the streets of St. Pete. The Team Penske driver earned his ninth career Firestone Grand Prix of St. Pete (2:30 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network) pole on Saturday afternoon in circling the 1.98-mile street circuit with a time of 1:01.0369-seconds in his No. 12 Chevrolet. It was also his 62nd career NTT IndyCar Series pole. Only Mario Andretti’s 67 is more on the all-time ranking.
Power, will start on the front row for the sixth straight year at St. Pete and 10 in the last 11 years overall. His worst qualifying spot since 2014 was fourth, a race he coincidentally won. What’s odd about this race though is just once (2007) has this event been won from the pole. Power, is 0-for-8.
Despite that, three of the last four winners on the season have come from the pole and five straight from the front row at that.
Is that a good omen or not for Power?
This was Power’s fourth pole in the last seven races on the season at that and fifth of 2020. Power bested four Andretti Autosport prepared cars behind him on Saturday afternoon.
Joining Power on the front row is Alexander Rossi. The Andretti Autosport driver qualified his No. 27 Honda with a time of 1:01.1730-seconds. Rossi, qualified sixth and finished fifth last year.
Colton Herta rolls off third in his No. 88 Honda. Herta, went 1:01.1815-seconds.
These are the three worth watching for Sunday’s race too. They’re the hottest drivers in the series right now, combining to win three of the last four races – with Power winning two of them and Herta another.
Herta, has five top six finishes in his last six starts on the season. Rossi, has four straight podiums overall.
In Mid-Ohio, Power, Rossi and Herta went 1-2-9 in Race 1, and 1-2-7 in Race 2. At Indy earlier this month, they went 2-4-6 and 1-2-3 respectively.
Also, nine of the past 11 race winners at St. Pete have come from the Fast Six.
34 of the last 36 INDYCAR races have been won from a driver starting in the top four rows. 11 of the last 15 have been won from a top three starting spot including the last six.
James Hinchcliffe (1:01.3626-seconds), Jack Harvey (1:01.3675-seconds) and Pato O’Ward (1:01.7725-seconds) rounded out the Fast Six.
Here are my main takeaways.
Dixon Struggles In Qualifying Again, Newgarden Not Much Better
Scott Dixon just can’t find the speed in his No. 9 Honda. He was only 16th in practice on Saturday morning and qualified only 11th for Sunday’s race. It was just the second time in the last 11 years that Dixon failed to earn a top 10 starting spot on the streets of St. Pete.
Dixon, hasn’t been qualifying well lately either. That’s contributing to his slump. Saturday was his fourth time in the last five races that he qualified 11th or worse. He only did so twice (both at Iowa) in the previous nine races on the season. In those nine races, he had six top two results and eight top fives. In the last four, his best finish is eighth.
That’s how Josef Newgarden has erased 85 points off Dixon’s lead over the last five races. Newgarden, has just one finish worse than fourth in that time frame and qualified third or better in three of them.
But, he wasn’t able to capitalize on Dixon’s struggles on Saturday either. Newgarden, will start just eighth himself. He started ninth in Mid Ohio 2 and only improved to finish eighth. He was ninth in Indy 3 and came home fourth.
He has to make up 32 points on Dixon on Sunday but it’s going to be hard to find his way to the lead to get any bonus points.
Dixon, is struggling but still may be alright after all.
Andretti Autosport Strong Again This Weekend
It’s no secret, the first nine races of the 2020 season were dismal for Andretti Autosport. Combined, they had just six top five finishes and one podium. Four of the six top fives belonged to Colton Herta. Alexander Rossi’s third place effort in Road America 2 was their lone podium through Aug. 30.
But, once we got to Mid-Ohio though in September, everything has since changed. Herta scored a win in the second race of the weekend and was ninth in the other. Rossi, had dual podiums with Hunter-Reay being fifth and third respectively himself to give AA a 1-2-3 effort in Race 2.
At Indy, it was more strength. Herta was fourth and second respectively and Rossi second and third himself.
One podium in nine races followed by seven in four races after.
Now, it’s to St. Pete to where they’re looking strong again. Half of the Fast Six went to AA cars. Throw in Jack Harvey and you get four of the six with their alliance. They’ll start 2-3-4-5 in fact.
AA is ending the year on a high note, which bodes well for 2021.
James Hinchcliffe is a sleeper to watch with him being second in practice earlier and fourth in qualifying.
Jack Harvey A Quietly Good Qualifier In 2020
We have no more qualifying rounds left this season. With that said, the underrated qualifier of the year has to go to Jack Harvey. The England native qualified in the top 10 for 11 of the 14 races. In fact, he was in the top 3 Rows in half of the races in his No. 60 Honda including a fifth place starting spot for Sunday’s season finale.
Harvey, qualified seventh and finished 10th in this race last year and currently has three top eight finishes in his last four starts on the season at that. Watch out for Harvey on Sunday.
“We had a pretty good qualifying car, and our pace at the end there was still pretty decent,” Harvey said. “There’s no reason we shouldn’t have a great race. We’ve been in the top five now in every discipline of track – road courses, ovals, street circuit. Now, it’s just a nice day to show myself, the team and the rest of the paddock that we can do it on all types of tracks.
“It was a good day. I think the relief of coming back to St. Pete is the biggest thing this weekend. I know that COVID hasn’t gone away , but it kind of feels like it’s come full circle in some ways because we left St. Pete in March having no idea what the future looked like, and we still don’t know exactly what it will look like apart from that we can tackle it.”
Rookie Driver Always Shines Lately In St. Pete
Two year ago, Robert Wickens made his INDYCAR debut at St. Pete and not only qualified on the pole, but led the most laps too. Last year, Felix Rosenqvist started third and finished fourth. This year, Pato O’Ward is a rookie at the track and will roll off sixth. Does he continue this rookie trend on Sunday?
Bourdais Shining This Weekend
AJ Foyt Racing has been climbing up hill for the last several years. They just can’t seem to get this ship steered towards the right direction. But, with signing Sebastien Bourdais, they felt like this was the move that would get them back towards the front of the grid.
So far, it’s paying off.
Bourdais, was P5 in practice on Saturday morning then P3 in the first round of his group and advanced to the second round of qualifying. He was seventh in the second round too. This was just the third time since 2011 that Bourdais even made it out of the first round of qualifying here.
“A much better start to the weekend here in St. Petersburg compared to our starting positions in Indy, so really proud of the group on the 14 car,” Bourdais said. “It’s still touch and go; you never know what you’re going to get.But it all worked out today. We’ll get P7 out of qualifying and start there tomorrow, so looking forward to it, and thanks for everybody’s support.”
The Frenchman is giving this Foyt team a shot in the arm and a boost of confidence in the season finale. It gives them plenty of hope for 2021. Mission accomplished.
That’s part of why they put him in the No. 14 Chevrolet early. It was to get them a leg up on setups for next year as well as trying to keep the car in the top 22 of entrant points as well.
In Indy on the road course earlier this month, he said it was a struggle. It was his first time in the car since the COTA test back in February. They kept going in the wrong direction and he qualified only 16th and 21st respectively over the two days. He finished 21st and 18th in the two races.
Nine of the last 10 races, the 14 car had qualified 19th or worse. Now, they get a top 12 starting spot. That’s saying something for a guy that’s been in this car just two weekends total now.
Hunter-Reay/Sato Surprise 1st Round Exits
Takuma Sato and Ryan Hunter-Reay are normally very good qualifiers on the streets of St. Pete. Sato, had five Fast Six qualifying appearance in his last seven starts on the Florida street circuit. But, his No. 30 Honda narrowly missed out on advancing past the first round and will start 13th instead. That’s been par for the course lately too though for Sato. He’s started 17th or worse in four straight races entering this weekend.
Same for Hunter-Reay. He had two straight Fast Six appearances here including three in the last four years. Furthermore, RHR had a top 4 Rows starting spot in St. Pete in seven of the last eight years too. Now, he’ll roll off a career worst 19th on Sunday in his No. 28 Honda. It’s also his worst qualifying effort of the season as well.
That’s shocking to me that the duo didn’t make it out of a brutal first round.
McLaughlin Found Out How Hard Qualifying In INDYCAR Is
Scott McLaughlin, the newest signee in the NTT IndyCar Series found out just hard how and close qualifying is in the open wheel series. McLaughlin, knew that he would be in store for a challenge this weekend in St. Pete. He’s never raced in an INDYCAR before, only tested one in COTA. That occurred back in February.
Here he is in the season finale, trying out the series in preparation for his full season debut in 2021. The New Zealand native looked good in practice in chiming in with the 10th fastest speed in the lone session around the street course on Saturday morning.
But, in qualifying later on in the day, McLaughlin found out the hard way with how difficult this series is. He qualified his No. 3 Chevrolet on the second to last row in 21st. From 10th to 21st in one session.
McLaughlin turned in a top qualifying lap of 1:01.6409-seconds.
“We were probably better than where we ended up,” McLaughlin said. “But I stuffed up my red tire lap – I just need to get used to the grip. It was nice in practice because I had a lot of black tire runs but only got one on the red, and it was the same in qualifying.
“I’m not making any excuses. With a little more time, we will be OK.
“I’m disappointed with myself, but it is what it is. It’s tough to learn on a road course and learning the space around you. I’m used to knocking mirrors off on a wall, not necessarily my tire. We are just pushing trying to find our limits in a fast–forward motion. I just need to thank everyone with Shell V-Power Nitro +, Team Penske and everyone. We will have a go at it tomorrow.”
Now, he’ll have his work cut out for him in trying to come through the field on Sunday. He wasn’t expecting a top 10 finish anyways as this weekend is all about learning and seat time.