ST. PETERSBURG, Fla — The NTT IndyCar Series races these days are about as good as they get. Road courses give you several mixes of strategy with pit calls for a 2 stop race or a 3 stop. Then, factor in how and when to play your tire strategy and the potential for a fluke caution in the middle of it and you get edge of your seat racing all the way through.
Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Pete (12 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network) should be no different. The race will be 10 laps shorter than the usual with it being 100 laps in distance instead of 110. That’s a recent change. In fact, the first eight years of this race was actually 100 laps in length. Then, from 2013 through 2019, they extended the race to 110 laps.
Last year it was moved back to 100 laps. They’ll do so again on Sunday. How much of this will play a role? Well most drivers think that this will make the event a 2 stop strategy race.
“With them shortening the race, whatnot, it looks like going to be a two-stopper,” said second place qualifier Jack Harvey.
With that said, it makes it more difficult for those mid pack on back to get to the front. 9 of the last 10 NTT IndyCar Series races have seen the race winner come from a top 3 starting spot. 14 of the 16 years the series has been coming to St. Pete, the race winner came from the top 5 Rows. Same for 12 of the 14 races last year and the only one race this season.
So, in order to get to the front, you may have to go off sequence. There’s some big named drivers that may be forced to do that including Alexander Rossi, James Hinchcliffe, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Will Power.
So, for those that do have the track position early, if they can get by on a 2 stop strategy and have cautions not play a role in flipping the field, they have to be in a great position for the win right?
“We hope just to stretch our legs, try and hit a good fuel number, undercut by a lap, overcut by a lap,” Harvey continued. “The further you get up to the front, it’s harder to make those moves, especially when it’s your teammate because you know what strategy they’re going to be on as well.
“It never hurts to be starting at the front, mate. We’ll have to wait and see what happens to the tires. Restarts last year were typically difficult. I think the first one was fine. When they were consecutive like they were for that stint, it made it pretty tricky.
“I think we just want to have a smart, sensible race, get the season carrying on in this good way that we’ve found.”
Pole sitter Colton Herta agreed.
“I think it’s probably really important to have track position,” he said. “We’ve seen it in the past. But it’s not to say that it’s hard to pass — it’s impossible to pass, rather.
“I think the biggest thing is going to be who can make the best fuel number and who can go a lap longer or shorter depending on how quickly you get the tires up to temp. I think that’s going to be the name of the game for tomorrow.
“We don’t know. We thought the tires were fine last year until we got to the restarts. There was a huge amount of marbles, very low grip. That could happen again. We saw how many yellows that caused. It seems like the tires might be a little bit different this year, but you can’t be too sure until you’re in the race.”
As far as tire strategy, Herta says that his mindset on which was the preferred tire this weekend has now changed.
“Yeah, I mean, I went into this session thinking that it was going to be a black race, like it was last year. Now I’m kind of scratching my head because I know a lot of guys might not be able to make it work, but it seems like we might be one of the guys that might be able to make it work on red tires, used reds,” he said. “We’ll have to wait and see. Have a lot of data to go through tonight.
“For me, the grip level was very similar to the new reds after they had a heat cycle on them, which is very strange. Haven’t really seen that in my INDYCAR career yet. That’s something to look at, something to think about. It will definitely make the race more interesting if guys are choosing to run those used reds over new blacks.”
Herta has five career poles and three career wins. 3 of those 5 poles resulted in a race victory. That’s scary for the field. But, he will have the two-time defending race winner in Josef Newgarden lined up behind him at the start and a hungry driver wanting to earn his first career win alongside.
“As hard as we can without crashing really,” Harvey said on how hard he’d race Herta into Turn 1 on the start. “The thing is, we all want to get through the first lap safely. We all want to get through it P1 obviously. If we settle into P2, try to stretch away from the others. That would be a great result. It’s the third time now the No. 60 started on the front row, always starting P2 to a really great driver.
“If the opportunity is there to win, we’ll go for it. I think one of the best things about starting on the front, if we get through turn one well, we just see how the race is unfolding.
“I think at this stage of the year for anybody, if you can win, that would be epic. If we came out with a podium, hopefully no less than where we’re starting, that would also be a really great result for everybody. It just keeps the season going in a positive direction.
“I think last year we did really have some great qualifying performances. I think some of the bad luck was self-inflicted with some strategy calls and whatnot. Some of them were maybe being bad luck.
“Like I said to the guys, I think it will ring true now, the more times we put ourselves in a good position to have a good race, it’s going to come your way. I’m happy that coming into this weekend we put ourselves again in a good position to have a great race.
“After that, we just have to try and execute what we think is the best tomorrow. If it’s good, then we’ll pat ourselves on the back. If it’s not good, we’ll try to learn from it, go again next weekend.”