INDYCAR Pre Race Media: 5 burning questions for Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Pete (12 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network)

Dixon headlines a list of big names without St. Pete wins, Will Anyone Of Them Be Celebrating In Victory Lane On Sunday?

It’s hard to believe that Scott Dixon hasn’t won at St. Pete before. He’s made 16 starts now on the street circuit but has never celebrated in victory lane.

Dixon, does have three podiums in his last four tries including a third place run in 2017, a runner-up finish in 2019 and a third place run last year. He also has four runner-ups (2006, 2007, 2012, 2019) but that and a third place finish in 2017 and again last year are his only podiums. Also, the Chip Ganassi Racing driver has failed to lead a lap in 13 of those 16 starts and hasn’t led a lap since 2013. CGR hasn’t had much success in St. Pete anyways with just one victory in the history of this race (2011).

Ryan Hunter-Reay also hasn’t won either. He does have four top five finishes in his last five St. Pete tries but is 0-for-13.

His teammate Alexander Rossi has only made five starts and even finished third in 2018 and fifth in 2019, but was 12th and 11th the two seasons before and 21st last October. Andretti as a whole has just two trips to victory lane (2005, 2013).

Simon Pagenaud has nine starts and two runner-ups (2016, 2017) and two fifth place finishes (2014, 2015) but no wins including a 13th place finish, seventh place and sixth place runs in each of the last three years.

Would you take a repeat winner or these four to win on Sunday?

Can Newgarden 3 Peat?

Team Penske has won 9 of the 16 Firestone Grand Prix of St. Pete’s. Josef Newgarden has taken two of those wins, both occurring in the last two years at that. Can he make it three straight on Sunday?

No one has ever won three straight on this track. In fact, no one has more than three wins in total there. Helio Castroneves has the most trips to victory lane at St. Pete with three. Can Newgarden join him?

He was not only 0-for-7 in terms of victories to start his St. Pete career, he was also 0-for-7 in top fives at that. Now, he’s 2-for-2 since. Can he go 3-for-3?

He needs it on Sunday. Newgarden was involved in an opening lap crash last Sunday in Barber and scored his worst finish since he joined Team Penske in 2017. The 22nd place result was his first finish outside the top 20 since Aug. 2016. Now, he’s already 46 points out of the lead and he’s already spotted Will Power 34 more points and Scott Dixon 28 ahead of him through one race.

Can Power Turn A Top Starting Spot Into A Win?

Will Power has now won eight poles in St. Pete since 2010. Furthermore, Power has qualified on the front row in five straight years and nine of the last 10. His worst qualifying effort since then was a fourth in 2014, a race he coincidentally won.

What’s odd is, only once has Power won this race from the pole (2010). Does that change this weekend? What can he do to ensure that he takes a top starting spot and uses that to his advantage for a win on Sunday?

Power, is off to a great start to the season with a runner-up last Sunday. He even admitted during the preseason media day that he’s in a contract year with Team Penske. It’s no secret, neither Roger Penske nor Tim Cindric are big fans of having a four car team on a full time basis. With Josef Newgarden being a superstar and Scott McLaughlin coming over as a rookie this year, I don’t see these two going anywhere anytime soon.

Rumor is Simon Pagenaud is also a free agent at seasons end too. Is this a battle between Power and Pagenaud for that third seat in 2022 and eliminating the fourth one in the process?

Power knows that he needs to improve these finishes and the rest will take care of itself. That includes getting off to a better start to the season. He’s consistently ended the years strong, it’s just the beginning of them that have been his Achilles heel.

Well, Power got the finish that he needed. While it wasn’t a win, a runner-up was just what the doctor ordered. It was Power’s first podium at the Barber Motorsports Park since his win in 2012 as he had two wins in his first three Barber starts, but none in his last seven. To get a podium in the first race of the season is rare for him lately.

“Yeah, it’s just obviously satisfying to get a good start,” Power said. “Obviously it was a very calm day for me, and I’m calm about the season, to be honest. I’ve been around long enough to know how this ebbs and flows, and I think I’ve got a very good group of guys on my car this year.

“I’m very happy with it. I think our stops are going to be really good all year. I think we’ve got the right combination to win another championship.

“Yeah, just been calm, honestly, about the whole thing, and just trying to get the most out of every weekend and every situation we find ourselves in.”

It was just his second in the last six seasons. In fact, if you combine the first two races over the last six years (12 starts), he’s had just two top fives and three top 10’s.

To get a podium this early is saying something.

Power has finished in the top two in the first race four previous times. He came home in the top three in the championship all four times including a title (2014) and second place (2010, 2011).

If you go back to last year, Power now has six top seven results over his last seven races. He had just two in his previous eight.

How Much Changed Between Last October And Now?

Normally, we have a year between visits to St. Pete. This time, we have six months. The drivers were last here in late October for the 2020 season finale. Now, they’re back this weekend. How much does that help or hurt that they were here so recently and will Sunday’s race look a lot like October because of that?

Penske has been stout on the street course game lately. Heading into the 2019 season opener in St. Pete, Penske was searching to regain their street course magic though. It was their lone spot that they’ve had a weakness. Going into 2019, Penske had just one victory in their last 10 street course tries. In 2019, they won three of the five races on street courses including this very race. Last year, they won the only street course race on the schedule on this very track.

Can they keep it up despite only having one car on the podium last year or even in the top five at that?

Prior to 2016, Team Penske was the most dominant organization at St. Pete though. From 2006 through 2015, Penske had won eight races in an 11 year span. They’ve won five of the last seven overall with a race record nine trips to victory lane.

Andretti Autosport to me though looked the best last year. All of their drivers were fast and if not for some late race drama, they had a realistic shot of sweeping the podium.

With how good Andretti was last year and how strong Penske’s been on street courses lately too, are these the top two teams to beat? They were last October, so why would anything change now.

Can McLaughlin Capitalize From Last Year’s St. Pete Debut?

Last year, Scott Dixon called his debut in St. Pete one of the best days of his life. Now, he’s back for what oddly will be the second time he’s seen this track despite being labeled as a rookie. McLaughlin, knew that his INDYCAR debut last October would be difficult this weekend. If he got a top 10, he said 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 last spring.

“For me it’s one of the most competitive series if not the most competitive series in the world,” McLaughlin said during the St. Pete race weekend last year “You look at the closeness, how different the winners can be up and down the field. It’s an all-around package.

He said his debut 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. 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.

Now, he’s back. In a season to where he’s not going to have much experience in, he has it here. Does that play a role into his confidence on Sunday?

The New Zealand native looked good in practice last year 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 of qualifying last year. “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.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s