ST. PETERSBURG, Fla — Qualifying increasingly has become more and more important in the NTT IndyCar Series these days. Trends say that anyone who starts in the top 5 Rows of any given Indy Car race on any given week has had the best shot at a victory with the percentages increasing as you move further and further up on the grid.
13 of the last 15 Indy Car races have been won by a top 10 starter including Alex Palou last Sunday at the Barber Motorsports Park. He qualified third in his No. 10 Honda and turned that into a victory. In fact, 4 of the top 5 starters last weekend crossed the finish line in the top five of the finishing order when it was all said and done.
In the 16 years that the series has been coming to the streets of St. Pete, 14 of them were won by a top 10 starter too.
This weekend marks the 17th straight year the series has been coming to St. Pete, but the first time since 2009 that the race has occurred in April. Last year, the race was moved from March to the season finale in October due to COVID and this year it was moved again from the season opener to late April in hopes of being able to host more fans by doing so.
11 of the last 15 races at St. Pete though have been won from a top five starter. Furthermore, 9 of the last 10 races overall on the series have been won from a top 3 starter too.
So, as you can see, with Friday being only one of two practice sessions before qualifying on Saturday (1:45 p.m. ET, NBC Peacock, INDYCAR Radio Network), finding the right amount of balance plus speed is where you need to be at right now.
With that said, it appears that the big teams will be the ones to beat. We know Penske, Andretti and Ganassi are the “Big 3” but questions have arose on if Arrow McLaren SP is there with them. Well, after 45 minutes of practice on Friday, the entire top nine went to these four teams.
Penske, after wining 5 of the last 7 years in St. Pete, took 3 of the top 5 spots with two-time defending St. Pete winner Josef Newgarden leading the way with a time of 1:00.8029-seconds. His teammate Will Power (1:00.8102-seconds) was P2 while Simon Pagenaud (1:00.8992-seconds) was P5. Scott McLaughlin was eighth at 1:01.0158-seconds to put all four Penske’s in the top eight.
With Power in second is noteworthy in the sense that he could potentially win his ninth St. Pete pole. Furthermore, Power has qualified on the front row in five straight years and nine of the last 10 too. 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). He is coming off of a runner-up result last Sunday.
Andretti had Colton Herta (1:00.8348-seconds) and Alexander Rossi (1:00.8653-seconds) in third and fourth respectively. Scott Dixon (1:00.9152-seconds) rounded out the Fast Six while the McLaren SP drivers of Felix Rosenqvist and Pato O’Ward was seventh and ninth respectively.
Newgarden and Herta taking 2 of the top 3 spots is noteworthy as they both finished outside the top 20 last weekend after an opening lap crash.
Also, the track record lap of 1:00.0476-seconds set in 2018 by Jordan King may be in jeopardy. Newgarden was only .8-seconds off and he did so without the luxury of the Firestone Reds. Last weekend, the track record was shattered in Barber, so it could fall for a second straight week on Saturday.
Speaking of qualifying, the top 3 starters last October was Power-Rossi-Herta. The went 2-3-4 in this session. Another worthwhile note is that from first to fifth was just .096-seconds differential and .1 from 1st to 7th. The top 20 cars were separated from less than a second as well.
Friday’s session started off a little rough. We took the green flag at 4:15 p.m. ET but five minutes later we went to a red flag for signal issues with the timing & scoring. Nine minutes later (4:29 p.m. ET) we went back to green.
The 24 drivers/teams will practice at 9:45-10:30 a.m. ET before qualifying at 1:45 p.m. ET. Both sessions will air on NBC Peacock.