5 burning questions for Sunday’s 2023 Firestone Grand Prix of St. Pete (12 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network)

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 18 starts now on the street circuit but has never celebrated in victory lane.

Dixon, does have three podiums in his last six 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 18 starts and outside of a strategy call last year to lead laps (26 of them), he 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 seven starts and even finished third in 2018 and fifth in 2019, but was 12th and 11th the two seasons before and 21st, 21st and 20th respectively the last three years.

Simon Pagenaud has 11 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 3 of the last 5 years.

Ryan Hunter-Reay also never won either. He did have four top five finishes in his last six St. Pete tries but finished 0-for-14.

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

Will Race Winner Win The Championship?

An odd trend has started in the sense that this will be the first time since 2019 that we’ve had the season opener in the same spot. The 2019 season opened on the streets of St. Pete. The 2020 COVID year we started off in Texas. 2021 was at Barber. Josef Newgarden, Scott Dixon and Alex Palou won each won those season openers and each won the title in those respective seasons. Last year, Scott McLaughlin turned his St. Pete win to a third place finish in the final standings while third place finisher in St. Pete, Will Power, took home the Astor Cup. 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.

In order to position yourself for a win, you have to get out of the first round of qualifying. 16 of the 18 years has the winner came from a top 10 starting position. Even more, you really need to get to the Fast 6.

12 of the last 16 race winners at St. Pete started in the top five.

Where this is even more important is, out of the last 18 years, the eventual season champion scored a top 10 finish in 17 of those 18 seasons. They’ve accumulated 8 wins and 14 top 5’s in the process including four consecutive podium finishes.

In regard to St. Pete, the eventual champion has 15 top 10’s in the last 18 years there including 12 top 5’s. 3 of the last 4 years has seen the champion podium in St. Pete.

So, in order to get on the St. Pete podium, not just win, you have to qualify well still.

Over the last four years, there’s been 12 combined podium opportunities. 11 of those 12 came from top 10 starters. 8 of the 12 came from the top 2 rows with 5 of those 8 from the front row at that.

Just 4 times since 2011 did someone finish on the podium and not have a top 12 starting spot. Which essentially means, if you’re eliminated in the opening round of qualifying on Saturday, not only are your podium chances slim, your race winning chances are even longer and so are your championship aspirations.

That’s how crucial Saturday is.

Should Race Get Lengthened?

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, 2021 showed that the Firestone alternate tire was just as good as the primary compound which threw everyone for a loop.

Does the shorter race and the alternate tire being the top choice make this race too easy now?

The 2021 race was a two-stop strategy event. Last year’s winning strategy was another two stopper as the top seven cars went with that strategy. In fact, the 10 drivers who elected to go with a two stopper all finished in the top 11. The lone exception?

Scott Dixon.

See, with this being a 100 lap race, as long as cautions stay out of the way, this is pretty much a straight forward two stopper. The last two years, yellows were a non factor. We had 1 for 8 laps last year and it came after the commitments were already made for a 2 vs. 3 stopper. No one had to adjust their strategy due to David Malukas’ crash coming on Lap 24.

The winning move in 2021 was Colton Herta doing Firestone reds at the start, scuffed blacks and then fresh blacks for his two stops.

So, the ones in the top couple of rows could go with the winning strategy and everyone else behind having to try something different to leap frog them.

Pole sitter Scott McLaughlin went similar as Herta with reds, then stopping under caution for blacks on Lap 27 and doing the same under green flag conditions on Lap 64. Second place finisher Palou, started 10th but went reds until Lap 27, blacks until Lap 65 and blacks gain to the checkered.

Second place starter and third place finisher, Will Power, did the opposite at the beginning with the blacks until Lap 27, the reds until Lap 66 and blacks again until the end.

Dixon’s three stop strategy saw him pit on Lap 11 from his seventh place starting spot. He went from reds to blacks. He’d pit again on Lap 48 for blacks. But, he had to stop one more time on Lap 79 for blacks to the finish and would come home seventh after leading 26 times.

Newgarden, started ninth, pit on Lap 9, Lap 31 and Lap 68. He’d finish 16th.

O’Ward started 16th on reds and charged up to eighth before pitting on Lap 12. He’d pit again on Lap 47 then Lap 73 but could only mange being 12th as a result of strategy.

“We had a great start, going from 16th to ninth on the first lap,” he said. “From there, I was like ‘Oh yes, let’s get a great race in,’ but we didn’t really nail the strategy. We weren’t on the right strategy with the three-stop and got stuck back in 12th. We will give it hell in Texas.”

His AMSP teammate of Felix Rosenqvist was in the same boat. He started 21st and came home 17th.

“We ended 17th and really couldn’t move up in the field,” said the Swedish driver. “The way our strategy turned out is pretty much where we started the race. That’s what happens when you start in the back, you don’t really go anywhere unless you luck out with the strategy; which we didn’t have today. I thought the pace was pretty good, the best it was all weekend; but we couldn’t take advantage of it. Now, we will reload for Texas.”

Meyer Shank Racing once again had the wrong strategy too. Simon Pagenaud started sixth and had the same pattern as Dixon. He pit on Lap 11, Lap 42 and Lap 68. Unfortunately, by pitting early with Dixon and doing so six laps sooner than Dixon on the second stint cost him a top 10. He’d fall to 15th, or fifth on the three stop strategy.

Helio Castroneves stopped three times too but did so differently. He started 17th and pit on Lap 8, Lap 27 and Lap 66. He came home 14th.

It’s clear, the reds at the start and going two stops is the winning move.

Which leads to the original question, should the race get lengthened a bit to open up strategy plays?

Can Ganassi Challenge The Penske’s?

Team Penske won three street course races last season. Chip Ganassi Racing won the other two. However, Ganassi’s wins came in the final two events for them. Do they enter with a leg up on the Penske’s here?

Penske has won 3 of the last 4 with Ganassi only having 1 win in total on the streets of St. Pete, but look how much the Ganassi camp improved over the course of the weekend a year ago.

During Friday’s opening practice session last season here, they only went 15-17-19-24. On Saturday morning, they’d surely be back to their rightful spot on top of the speed charts right?

Alex Palou crashed but he was seventh. Jimmie Johnson had several problems and was 25th out of 26 cars. Marcus Ericsson was 15th and 13th. Scott Dixon was 19th and now 20th.

By no surprise, none of their four cars made the Fast Six in qualifying. However, they still showed improvement. Johnson, started last (26th) but the other three at least made it out of the first round.

Dixon and Ericsson shared Row 4. Palou rolled off 10th.

In the race, they had 3 of the 4 finishing in the top 10 with Palou and Dixon on opposite strategies and Ericsson overcoming a penalty for an unsafe release on his 1st stop to come away ninth.

Dixon is still 0-for-18 in St. Pete but does have four runner-up finishes including three podiums in the last six years. He won the final two street course races last year.

Ericsson was seventh in each of the last two years prior and now ninth last year. To make up that much ground without a caution is eye opening especially for a driver who won twice on street courses in 2021. Palou, was only 13th and 17th in his last two years but now got a podium.

To go from Friday to what they did on Sunday was a large improvement.

Palou is likely my favorite among this grouping though. He’s improved drastically on street courses.

His first three street course finishes in INDYCAR were 13th, 17th and 15th respectively. Since?

3rd, 7th, 4th, 2nd, 3rd, 6th, 6th and 3rd respectively. That’s 9 straight top seven results including three podiums in five tries just last season.

Practice Fireworks?

One problem that’s creeping up lately in the NTT INDYCAR Series are that cars purposely slow on track in search for a clean lap. I get it. I truly do too. There’s no real gain by trying to do a qualifying practice and having cars in traffic. It gives us false data.

However, on a track of just 1.8-miles and 27 cars looking for real estate this weekend, what you saw last year between Romain Grosjean and Takuma Sato is more common than you think. The only real reason for this incident was a traffic jam in Turn 10. Several cars were slow in that corner, all looking to let the car ahead of them get a clear gap.

But, when other cars at wanting to go at speed, you get contact.

“Well, there was just no flags on the track, and I think we should have flags when these cars are that slow to corner,” Grosjean said last year. “Yeah, that’s all. I just think if I had known there were like four cars — because you cannot see. I know there was one on the left, one on the right. That’s all I knew. I didn’t know there were some in front.

“If there’s only one, the guy should accelerate. Obviously there were more, but I think just a white flag to tell us that, and I just think you shouldn’t be driving that slow on the racing line, that’s all.”

What can INDYCAR do? Do you cut the session in half between two groups? Do you make everyone go all out any time they’re on track?

“Sorry, but I think that the alternate start-finish line, I probably don’t agree with it,” Scott McLaughlin said. “I think it should just be the start-finish line. I said that before; it happened at Portland a couple times, and I caught Grosjean — Romain in a peculiar spot. I feel like coming around a blind corner, everyone is trying to get a lap started. That’s the only point we can really start our lap to get a good run. It does choke up there and it’s just — you don’t see. Unless we get a flag, you don’t see.

“I’m probably a big fan of probably moving the line depending on what track we go to. That’s just my personal opinion.”

Will Power says though that there’s not much more that needs to be done. It’s up to the drivers and teams to get this sorted out.

“I mean, we’re splitting the field, so everyone should be able to get a clean lap,” he said. “It’s up to the guys to sort it out. You know when you’re leaving the pits in a line of cars that you’re going to have to give the guy a gap. I just think it’s ridiculous when some of these guys go out and try to pass the line of cars that are all trying to get their gap to start the lap.

“Practice you’ve got the whole field, so you’ve got to try to sort it out. Sometimes it’s a bit rough, but that’s just the way it is. We don’t run on the longest tracks here. We have some short street courses, and yeah, it’s a game. Not much you can do about it. The only way you can fix that stuff is have less cars. But I don’t think anyone wants to split practice up.”

Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com 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