INDYCAR Pre-Race Media: 5 burning questions for Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Pete (12:30 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network)

Is This Herta/Newgarden’s Race To Lose?

Last year, Colton Herta and Josef Newgarden went 1-2 at St. Pete. They’d go 1-2 in the season finale on another street course race in Long Beach. Do they do so again on Sunday?

Herta, won two of the five street course races in 2021. Newgarden, has seven top two finishes in his last 11 street course races in general including three straight on the Florida street course. Herta, was the first one to beat Newgarden here since 2018.

With them combining to win each of the last three races here, do they go four straight on Sunday?

Newgarden, started his St. Pete career 0-for-7 not just in terms of victories, but top fives too. He’s since won two of the last three years and runner-up in the other.

With how Herta ended 2021 and how Newgarden knows he needs to start this year off with, I think the winner just very well may come from these two.

Can Dixon, Rossi Or Pagenaud Pick Up 1st Career St. Pete Wins?

It’s hard to believe that Scott Dixon hasn’t won at St. Pete before. He’s made 17 starts now on the street circuit but has never celebrated in victory lane.

Dixon, does have three podiums in his last five tries here including a third place run in 2017, a runner-up finish in 2019 and a third place run again in 2020. He also has four runner-ups (2006, 2007, 2012, 2019) but that and a third place finish in 2017 and again in the 2020 season finale are his only podiums. Also, the Chip Ganassi Racing driver has failed to lead a lap in 14 of those 17 starts and hasn’t led a lap since 2012. CGR hasn’t had much success in St. Pete anyways with just one victory in the history of this race (2011).

Alexander Rossi has only made six starts and even finished third in 2018 and fifth in 2019, but was 12th and 11th the two seasons before and 21st the last two years. Andretti as a whole has just three trips to victory lane (2005, 2013, 2021).

Simon Pagenaud has 10 starts and two runner-ups (2016, 2017) and two fifth place finishes (2014, 2015) but no wins including a 13th place finish, seventh place, sixth place and third place runs in each of the last four years.

Ryan Hunter-Reay also hasn’t won either. He does have four top five finishes in his last six St. Pete tries but is 0-for-14.

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

Will Race Winner Win The Championship?

An odd trend has started in the sense that this will be the fourth straight year we’ve had the season opener on a different venue. The 2019 season opened on the streets of St. Pete. The 2020 COVID year we started off in Texas. Last year was at Barber. Josef Newgarden, Scott Dixon and Alex Palou won each of the last three season openers respectively. They also turned those wins into a championship at the seasons end. Can Sunday’s winner at St. Pete follow that trend?

The drivers have all discussed this offseason on how important that it is to come out of the gates to start the season off with hot. You can’t afford to give up points early because they catch up to you in the end.

What’s The Right Strategy?

Normally, this race is an easy three-stopper with the Firestone primary tire being the best one of choice. But, since the race was shortened a few years ago from 110 laps down to 100, it’s made this race a two stopper.

Also, last year showed that the Firestone alternate tire was just as good as the primary compound which threw everyone for a loop.

Colton Herta said following his pole a year ago that they’d have some homework to do on which tire compound would be the preferred on for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Pete.

“Yeah, I mean, I went into this session thinking that it was going to be a black race, like it was last year,” he said at that time. “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. 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.”

Well, he went back to his initial thoughts for the race. Herta and fellow front row starter Jack Harvey started the 100 lap race off on the alternate tires. They got them out of the way in efforts to go with the Firestone primary tires the rest of the way.

The Row 2 starters in Penske teammates Josef Newgarden and Simon Pagenaud each went with the Firestone Reds on their Chevrolet’s. The varying strategies among the four is why the ending played out the way that it did last April here.

Herta, pulled away early on and could keep his Red tires fresher than Harvey who had to hold off the Penske guys behind. That allowed Herta to use scuffed blacks on the second stop and a fresh set of primaries for the final sprint to the checkered.

“I mean, yeah, obviously you’re pretty hyperfocused all the time in the car, but when you’re in the lead you just have that little bit more drive to find that last few hundredths each lap,” Herta said.

“We were actually saving fuel quite big and kind of once we got 25 to go we didn’t have to hit a number at all because we saved enough fuel, and obviously yellows helped, but I don’t want to say we were cruising but we just got that momentum going to where I knew I was lifting every lap to save fuel and I know exactly how hard to hit the brake pedal. So it wasn’t really coming easy, but obviously it’s easier when you have that good of a car and when it’s able to save fuel and go that fast it’s amazing.

“I can’t say enough about the whole team effort, everyone at Gainbridge, Group 1001 and all of my guys that did a fantastic job on all the stops. I know that first stop might have been a little nerve-racking for them, but we got it done.

“That’s the difficult thing about saving fuel on the red tires. Obviously you’re lifting so you’re braking later, you’re braking a little bit harder, which you’re more susceptible to rear locking, which absolutely destroys the tires, plus you’re trying to carry that speed through the corners more to make up for lifting early on. So obviously you’re using a lot more of the tire.

“Yeah, I think we just had the perfect balance of in normal places you would want a little bit of oversteer. That’s the best way to save fuel and go fast. But for here I thought it was going to be understeer, especially for that first stint on the new reds to get them to the end. It ended up being the right decision with the way that we went because I was just able to thrash on the front tires and not even worry about the rear tires. It made it a lot easier for me.”

Harvey, was passed by Newgarden on Lap 30 and had to pit with Pagenaud on his bumper on Lap 34. He went with scuffed blacks with Pagenaud doing the same two laps later. By doing so, Pagenaud leap frogged Harvey for third.

Newgarden, remained on reds for his second stint, but couldn’t ever catch Herta. But he did put some distance between he and Pagenaud in the battle for second which is why he remained there after the final stops.

Herta had fresh blacks while Newgarden and Pagenaud went with reds. That’s why even with two late race cautions, Herta could pull away from them. The blacks had more life left in them at the end of the race in comparison to the reds.

Despite that, Herta did say he was a little nervous on the restart on if Newgarden saved enough from his reds. He was wondering if he could make the reds work like Ihecouldn’t really on the restart earlier.

“He seemed to — so-so, kind of we were similar,” said Herta. “And then once we kind of got up to 10, he seemed to be crawling all over me, but then eventually I saw the dropoff point in the tires peaked and started to go down in performance whereas the blacks stayed the same, and eventually we got to that crossover point where the blacks were better at the end.

“On the restarts, I found something early on that I thought the red tires might have been a little bit worse for restarts, but I think they were more equal than we have seen in the past because on the first restart I was on reds, he was on blacks, he was able to stay really close, and on the restarts when I was on blacks, I felt the tires come up really quick with the blacks rather than the reds,” Herta said on the change in the mindset and how it played out.

“Obviously we saw Josef was really fast on the red tires early on, and then we kind of saw that crossover point where I was able to start pulling out some good laps and his tires were starting to fall off.

“But I think never really doubted myself or the team today. We had such good cars all across the board. It seemed like the weekend at one point or another, one of the Andretti guys was always in the top two or three.

“You know, what an amazing weekend for me, and obviously for the whole team, bringing this package of dampers and obviously just having the race cars how they’ve been is spectacular.”

Which is going to be the right strategy this time around?

Is February The Right Spot For This Race?

For the first time since 2003, this race will run in February, not the spring or even the Fall for that matter in 2020. In fact, that 2003 race was sanctioned by Champ Car as the last time an open wheel race was run prior to March. But, is this the right call?

The March date was always coexistent with spring breaks around this country. It allowed families to make the trek to the Florida Gulf Coast and make the INDYCAR race part of their spring plans. Now that it’s in February, does that hamper this in any way?

Plus, Daytona is a week prior. How many Floridians can afford to do both in two straight weekends?

While I love the fact that the season is getting started earlier, I’m also fearful it may create a lull early on with the fact that the next race isn’t until March 20 at Texas. In fact, there’s only three races in a 62 day span to start the year off with.

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