ST. PETERSBURG, Fla — Normally a season finale consists of non championship drivers just trying to stay away from the ones still competing for a title. They are also trying just to get by to keep their cars in one piece and escape any crash damage for one last race. Meanwhile, the ones racing for a championship, well they just tip toe around for a majority of the race trying to give themselves a shot at a title for the closing laps.
Combine that and you typically a less than thrilling event.
Well, this is 2020. Nothing as we know it is normal. That includes Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Pete. 26 of the 100 laps turned were under yellow flag conditions — all of which coming over the final 64 laps.
We had rain unexpectedly. Two leaders crashing out. Two more winning contenders having problems. Two cars crashing under yellow and the pace car running out of gas.
Well, when the dust settled, it was the top guys in 2020 left standing on top on the streets of St. Pete.
Josef Newgarden and Scott Dixon said on Wednesday that they felt no pressure heading into this weekend despite being the only two of the 24 drivers that had a shot at an Astor Cup.
Later on, Newgarden would say he felt uneasy all day knowing that he had no control over his destiny. Dixon, said that his team was concerned about the amount of points that they had lost over the last five races. 85 of them to be exact.
See, Newgarden knew that he had to win Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Pete in order to give him a shot at his second straight NTT INDYCAR Series championship and third in the last four years. He still trailed Dixon by 32 points.
But, a rough Saturday for both showed that Dixon may just cruise to a title by default. Newgarden was eighth in practice as well as in qualifying. Dixon, qualified 11th.
Still, the duo found their ways to the front. Newgarden was fourth after the first pit sequence then third ahead of the late race chaos.
Errors made by the hottest drivers in the sport allowed for it.
Will Power crashed out on Lap 36. Alexander Rossi led 61 laps but crashed on Lap 69. James Hinchcliffe spun in the last corner under caution and damaged his front wing as a result with contact with Jack Harvey. Colton Herta got off course twice.
That allowed Newgarden to line up third on the late race restarts. He got into second, then the lead on Lap 79. The Team Penske driver would lead the final 21 laps en route to his fourth win of the season and 18th of his career.
But, there Dixon was also. He finished third in his No. 9 Honda to claim his sixth career INDYCAR championship.
Last year, they finished 1-2 in this race. This year, they were 1-3.
“It’s definitely bittersweet,” Newgarden said after his win. “First off, congratulations to Scott (Dixon) and all his guys, his crew. It’s big time to win six championships. I’m sure they’re thrilled. They’re a great competitor. On one hand, I don’t really know what I could do different this year. I don’t know what I could ask my guys to do different. They were flawless. Fastest in the pits all year long. I’m extremely proud to drive for my team. Not just our car, but all the teams combined, all the engineers, all the mechanics – we have an incredible crew that puts in a lot of work.
“We just came up short. That’s all it is. We weren’t good enough. We’ll reset. We’ll hit them harder next year. I promise you we’ll be in the fight; this crew will be in the fight every year. So, I have confidence we’ll come back. So, thank you to Hitachi, Team Chevy. Team Chevy was the engine to beat today and all year long, so big credit to them. Just a little short on points. We’ll come back and hit them harder next year.”
Newgarden trailed Dixon by 117 points heading into the Aug. 30 race at World Wide Technology Raceway. He made up 101 points over the next six races as he trailed Dixon by 16 at the checkered flag for Sunday’s season finale.
He cut his deficit in half though on Sunday as he was 32 points back and leaves 16 arrears at the end.
“No doubt, we didn’t need a full green race, so that played into our favor today,” Newgarden continued about their strategy. “We had the flow of the race we needed, but it wasn’t anything they gave us. We had a solid day. We needed to be fairly quick. I think we had a fairly quick car, and we just had to make some moves. That’s all we could do to try and get to the front. We outlasted everybody and did what we needed to do. We knew coming into this that fate wasn’t in our own hands. We weren’t going to be able to decide things. So, we just did what we could and hoped for the best.”
Pato O’Ward finished second in his No. 5 Chevrolet for his third runner up of the season.
Sebastien Bourdais was fourth while Ryan Hunter-Reay rounded out the top five.
Here are my main takeaways.
Pole curse strikes again
Will Power has won nine poles in his career at St. Pete. He’s now 0-for-9 in those races. Power, picked up his 62nd career NTT INDYCAR Series pole award on Saturday but struggled in Sunday’s race.
The Team Penske driver had a downshift problem early and lost the lead on Lap 5. He fell to fourth. After the first pit sequence, Power was down to eighth. Then, shortly after, he crashed in his No. 12 Chevrolet and would finish last.
“I just lost it,” a dejected Power said. “The rear bottomed, and I just had a moment.
“Earlier in the race, the Verizon Chevrolet didn’t downshift for some reason. It did it a couple of times. Then I started downshifting really early. I don’t know what happened or if that caused any of our issues. It just didn’t go down gears, and that is how (Alexander) Rossi got me, and then (Colton) Herta attacked for position. But I’m just frustrated with me making a mistake and hitting the wall. The car got loose, and it’s just so very, very frustrating. I shouldn’t be the one crashing. My bad for putting us out of the race.”
It was gutting for the Australian driver as he so desperately wanted to get to third in points. Power, started the year 15th in points after a bad handling car in Texas then an ill timed caution in the GMR Grand Prix in Indy which left him with 13th and 20th place finishes respectively. Two more bad luck races in Road America 2 and Iowa saw Power with four of his first five finishes being 11 or worse.
Furthermore, six of his first eight 2020 starts were finishes of 11th or worse. But, coming into this weekend, he had five consecutive top seven finishes including five of which in the top four.
That propelled him up to fourth in the standings. He trailed Colton Herta by just 13 points for third.
The crash ruined that.
The pole winner has only won this race once (2007).
Momentum ending day for Power, Rossi and Herta
Will Power started on the pole. Alexander Rossi rolled off second. These two each had some of the worst luck this season but finally was showing signs of what might have been this year if Luck went their way. Momentum was on their side.
Colton Herta also had momentum too.
These were 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.
Sunday’s race in St. Pete was theirs to lose. Unfortunately, Power and Rossi both found the Turn 4 wall on separate incidents and their momentum gained all now lost.
“I just lost it in Turn 3, man,” said Rossi. “It’s been tough all weekend. Just human error. Hugely unfortunate. I think the No. 27 AutoNation Andretti Honda guys were phenomenal. Andretti Autosport was phenomenal all weekend. It’s the first time it’s happened to me, to crash from the lead. I don’t know what to say other than sorry to the boys, and we’ll come back next year.”
Herta went off course twice after being a top three car all day.
“I’m fairly upset with my performance on track today, but I think throughout the year we did a really good job,” said Herta. “I’m really happy to finish P3 in the championship, and hopefully we can carry some of that momentum into next year. But for St. Pete, obviously pretty upset with how it went. I think we had a pretty good shot at a win, and I just messed it up. I’m sorry to guys about that, but overall happy with how the 88 team performed this year.”
Power lost the lead on Lap 5 to Rossi when his downshift paddle wasn’t working. Then, he crashed after his first pit stop on Lap 36.
Rossi, would lead 61 laps but crash on Lap 69 in the same corner when his No. 27 Honda stepped out on him.
Herta, went off course the final time while running third in the closing laps with 13 to go.
All that’s recent shift in luck gone up in one corner.
Rossi, had a dismal season but rebounded for a top 10 finish in the final standings still.
It all started with an ECU failure before the engines even fired in the season opener at Texas. He had another electrical gremlin in the next race on the IMS road course. Rossi, finished 15th and 25th respectively those days. He was 19th in Road America 1.
Then, throw in his pit penalty in the Indy 500 which put him in the back and forced him to push too much to get back up to the top three like he was prior and saw him crash trying (27th place finish) and you get a driver that couldn’t get luck to go his way.
But, when luck did go his way? Rossi was third in Road America 2, sixth and eighth in Iowa, third and second in Mid-Ohio and second and third in the second doubleheader weekend at IMS on the road course.
That’s five podiums in seven starts there with a worst finish of eighth. St. Louis wasn’t kind to him but he could afford a couple of mulligans. It’s just the bad luck in the other races that bogged him down.
Same for Power.
He didn’t have a car like his teammates had at Texas. He’d finish 13th. He started on the pole and had the race won before an ill timed caution in the middle of a pit sequence ruined his shot at winning in the GMR Grand Prix at Indy. He finished 20th. A wrong gearing ratio cost him a win in Road America 1. A tire not tightened cost him a top two in Iowa 1. He finished 21st. An ill timed caution in Gateway 1 placed him 17th.
Like Rossi, when luck went his way, he thrived. He was runner-up in Iowa 2, third in St. Louis 2, won Mid-Ohio 1 and Indy 3. The speed has been there all year. The luck just wasn’t.
2020 Type Of Day For Andretti Team In Late Race Wild Sequence
Sunday in St. Pete was a fitting day for the Andretti Autosport camp. After a tough start to the season, they started looking back to their old dominating days as of late.
It’s no secret, the first nine races of the 2020 season were dismal for Andretti Autosport overall. Combined, they had just six top five finishes and one podium between them. 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 was to St. Pete to where they were 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. They also went 1-2 in the lone practice session of the weekend too on Saturday as well.
The pole winner has won the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Pete just once (2007). That’s great news for Andretti Autosport because none of their five cars here this weekend earned the pole for Sunday’s race.
Will Power earned his ninth St. Pete pole. He’s 0-for-8 in his previous eight starts from the pole here. The next four starting spots though, belong to Andretti cars or their alliance team.
Power had a shifting issue on Lap 5 and gave way to Rossi for the lead. Herta came by to second and Hinchcliffe in third. Harvey ran top five early too.
Then, by the midway mark or thereafter, Marco Andretti entered the fray and was up to seventh.
That’s when it all collapsed from there.
Rossi crashed in Turn 4 on Lap 69. He had led 61 laps up to that point. Andretti crashed with a flat right rear tire from contact by Takuma Sato on the Lap 75 restart. Hinchcliffe, spun by himself under that caution in the final turn while running second. He got his car going and hit Harvey while turning back onto the racing surface.
“In 16 years of racing cars, I’ve never spun out under caution before,” Hinchcliffe said. “Just my fault. The pace car was going really, really slow, and it was super hard to keep heat in the tires. Going through the last corner there, I was making an adjustment on the wheel and just had one hand on the wheel. Even at 30 mph, you’re going slower than pit lane speed, and the thing spun.
“It’s my fault, but we were on the radio trying to get the pace car to go faster because the cars were almost harder to drive at pace car speed than they were at race speed.
“But that’s on me. The worst part is that coming back on track, I did it dangerously and not only hit someone but hit a (Andretti Technologies) teammate. That’s an even bigger black eye.
“To have a podium car – the guys did such a great job all weekend on the Gainbridge entry, and I was really hoping to give them a strong result to end the year. I’m gutted for the whole team; I’m gutted for Jack (Harvey) – can’t be sorrier than I am for him. Not the way we wanted to end the year, but still some positives to take out of it. We had good pace in qualifying and the race. We had a podium car and just didn’t pull it off today, and that’s on me. Sorry to the team.”
A few laps later, Herta went off course and lost out on a podium.
Crazy chain of events there.
McLaughlin’s day ends early
Scott McLaughlin knew that his INDYCAR debut would be difficult this weekend. If he got a top 10, he would voluntarily do cartwheels down the 1.8 mile St. Pete race track.
See, McLaughlin never raced in an INDYCAR before, only tested one in COTA. That occurred back in February.
“For me it’s one of the most competitive series if not the most competitive series in the world,” McLaughlin said on Thursday. “You look at the closeness, how different the winners can be up and down the field. It’s an all-around package.
He said this past week that this Sunday’s race was going to be a massive challenge for him. No one ever said that this was going to be easy. He knows that. He was expecting this.
“I’m not going to lie, it’s a big challenge. There’s a lot of different things I have to learn. Even on the simulator Monday, Tuesday, I had a couple bad habits and stuff, not trusting the aerodynamics of the race car, something you really can’t do in a Supercar.
“Even coming to St. Pete on a street circuit, the car will handle a lot different than what I’m used to over bumps and stuff. A Supercar, you do a Supercross jump, no drama, you wouldn’t even feel it. In regards to the INDYCAR, it’s the complete opposite.”
“I’m fully expecting a tough battle,” McLaughlin said this past week. “I might have a great, great experience running last. I don’t know. It’s not going to change how I feel or whatever. I’ve got a lot to learn. I’m fully expecting I could be last.
“At the end of the day, as long as I get a good feel for the category, a good feel for the cars, we’ll be all right.”
Unfortunately for him, that day was short lived. McLaughlin, tried to pass Marco Andretti on the Lap 47 restart into Turn 1, but the two instead made contact which sent McLaughlin’s No. 3 Chevrolet spinning. Rookie Rinus VeeKay had no where to go and ran into him, effectively ending their days early.
“What a day,” he said after his first INDYCAR race. “The best day of my life, except for my wedding. The Shell V-Power Nitro+ INDYCAR was going really well. Then I just made a move trying to block Marco (Andretti). Then I felt like I made a half of a rear lock, but I’m not exactly sure. Cold tires caught me out a little bit. But I had a lot of fun today. I just can’t thank my guys, Roger (Penske), Tim (Cindric), Shell V-Power and the entire organization for the weekend. It was so much fun. I wish the 2021 season was starting tomorrow. I can’t wait to get back behind the wheel of this car.”
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.”
He will be back though. He signed a contact to race full time here in 2021 with Penske.