5 things I’m watching going into this weekend’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Pete (12 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network

Practice/Qualifying Changes

Last year, the NTT INDYCAR Series extended the opening practice session of the weekend from 45 minutes to 75 minutes. Also, teams were allowed to use an extra set of Firestone alternate tires in that session as well. This year, that extended opening practice session returns. However, some adapting has been done to decrease the amount of lulls early on in those sessions.

See, even with extending the amount of on track time, the teams elected to still not use all of it. That’s because the extra set had to be returned after the opening session and with the alternate tires not being allowed for use in the Saturday morning practice, teams elected to still have to save a set for qualifying.

Starting this weekend, teams will get a second set of Firestone alternate tires for use and also, have opened the door for them to use the alternates in any session that they want to.

Skip running them on Friday but want to backload them for Saturday?

Go for it.

Do the opposite by using them on Friday and going to the primary tires on Saturday?

Go for it.

The only caveat to all of this is that INDYCAR has required all teams to also return a set of primary tires and one set of alternates before qualifying too.

So, I’m curious if this grants us more cars on track for longer periods for practice this weekend. Also, how does this affect cars slowing down on track to get a clean lap?

One problem that’s been creeping up lately in the NTT INDYCAR Series is that cars are 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.”

Which Tire (Primary or Alternate) Is Better?

Normally, with a street race, grip levels are few and far between. That makes the Firestone primary tire the best option. However, the last two years though, the reds (alternate tire) actually were the best, as the always faster tire, didn’t have the drop off like it typically does, making the faster tire the preferred one.

Firestone always tries to adapt and make ways better. This weekend, we’ll see the guayule tire (green side wall) instead of the red.

Guayule is part of Bridgestone’s plan to achieve carbon neutrality and make tires from 100% sustainable materials by 2050. The company is targeting commercial production of guayule-derived natural rubber by the end of the decade.

Do the green “guayule” tire react the same way as its predecessor, the red tire, did?

Strategy Plays

As a result of the tire differential the last two years favoring the alternates, which is the preferred tire this time around and how does that affect strategy?

With the race being shortened to 100 laps a few years ago, this race has been an easy 2 stopper.

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.

The past was clear, the reds at the start and going two stops is the winning move. Does that change now?


Do we see another track record fall on Saturday or are these drivers/cars maxed out? The 2021 pole speed was 1:00.3210-seconds. The record was 1:00.0476-seconds set back in 2018. Without much change between the cars, plus the Aeroscreen still having that added additional weight, no one really expected the record to be seriously threatened last year.

But, it was.

In order to get out of the first round of qualifying, you had to eclipse the 1-minute barrier meaning all 12 cars had to best the four year old record.

Colton Herta broke it first going 59.4662-seconds in the first group of the first round. Will Power broke it next at 59.3929-seconds in the second group. Power, then broke it again in Q2 at 59.3466-seconds. That lap held off even during the Firestone Fast Six.

“No, I was surprised actually,” Power said of the record pace last year. “I didn’t even know what they did last year, and when they said that was the lap record, I was like, oh, okay. Yeah, I didn’t know that. That shows how far these cars and engines have come. They’re pretty fast.”

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.

Can Anyone Top Team Penske?

Team Penske comes into the 2023 season on the heels of placing all three drivers in the top four of the final standings a year ago. Now, they come to St. Pete which has been Penske’s playground on the shores of the Tampa Bay.

Penske has won 6 of the last 9 years here including 3 of the last 4, 2 of those 3 from Josef Newgarden at that. Newgarden was also runner-up in 2021. Scott McLaughlin scored his first career win here a year ago. Will Power had a podium a year ago and coming off of a title. Are these the ones to beat on Sunday?

If you go back to the start of the 2019 season, we’ve had 16 races on these types tracks with 9 different winners. Josef Newgarden (4 wins), Scott Dixon (3 wins), Marcus Ericsson (2 wins) and Colton Herta (2 wins) are the only multi-time winners with 2 of Newgarden’s 4 wins coming here in St. Pete.

The big teams are strong on them with Penske winning 7 of those last 16 races, Ganassi with 4 and Andretti with 3. Arrow McLaren SP is the only other team to have won.

Penske won 3 of the 5 last year with Ganassi and Scott Dixon taking the other two. Can anyone top them this year?

Ganassi has to be their main rivals to do so. However, they started out the gates slow here last year. Can they avoid that this time around and instead of chasing setups, have the right ones from the drop of Friday’s green flag for opening practice?

A year ago during Friday’s opening practice session, the Ganassi foursome 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 out of this grouping though. He’s drastically improved 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.

CGR hasn’t had much success in St. Pete anyways though with just one victory in the history of this race (2011). Andretti also has recently struggled but they looked vastly improved during preseason testing at Thermal Club and Sebring. Will that translate over to more success at St. Pete?

Colton Herta just won here in 2021. Romain Grosjean had a pair of top five finishes on these tracks in 2022. Kyle Kirkwood looks like a championship contender in preseason testing and has a pair of Road to Indy wins on this very track.

But, with Herta having more starts (65) than the other three teammates combined (64), do they have enough experience to beat Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing? Andretti has just three total wins in St. Pete (2005, 2013, 2021).

Maybe that opens the door up for someone like Meyer Shank Racing.

Both drivers were at their best on street courses last season. Simon Pagenaud has seven top seven finishes in his last 10 St. Pete starts. This car qualified on the front row and finished fourth last in 2021, one spot behind Pagenaud who was with Penske at the time.

Helio Castroneves is a three-time winner at this track to go along with six top six finishes here in his last 7 tries including 10 in his last 12 in general.

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