ST. PETERSBURG, Fla — Some heavy hitters missed out on making it out of the first round of knockout qualifying for Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Pete (12 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network) including two-time St. Pete winner Josef Newgarden. The Team Penske driver never got a clean lap on the alternate tire and qualified 14th.
Rinus VeeKay was in the top six of both practice sessions and looked like a Fast Six contender, but qualified only 24th. That’s because he felt like he was being slowed up by cars in front and felt that some should have been penalized for that. VeeKay had the pace but like Newgarden, not the clear track in front.
“That was a tough one. I am pretty annoyed and angry,” said VeeKay. “We had a fast car, good enough for Fast 6 definitely. I was on my fast lap and then there were a bunch of cars standing still in Turn 10. Got hindered there and that was that. We have a fast car.”
Having a fast car is very beneficial for the Dutch driver. He says that it honestly makes strategy calls easier now.
“We have some different options in front of us and we’ll give it our all,” he continued. “Last year, we had a tough race and still finished 6th. With the pace we have, I think we’re better than last year. We can definitely move up fast and finish well.”
VeeKay remains ECR’s longest-tenured full-time driver, now entering his fourth season behind the wheel the No. 21 BITNILE.COM Chevrolet. The 22-year-old has spent his entire NTT INDYCAR SERIES career with ECR and will make his 50th start early in the 2023 season at Barber Motorsports Park.
Of his three starts in the streets of St. Petersburg, the 2022 edition proved to be the most fruitful for VeeKay to date. He started 4th following his first career Firestone Fast 6 appearance. After leading 13 laps, he brought home a 6th-place finish.
Unfortunately however, 16 of the last 18 years has seen the winner came from a top 10 starting position.
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 was.