Ericsson wins Sunday’s wild INDYCAR season opener in St. Pete, my thoughts with top 5 takeaways

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla — The record crowd for the 2023 NTT INDYCAR SERIES season opener on the streets of St. Pete was treated to a wild show which featured five cautions, two airborne cars, one driver sent to a local hospital and two late race lead changes which resulted in Marcus Ericsson scoring his fourth career victory on a sun filled afternoon near the waters of the Tampa Bay.

Ericsson was hunting Pato O’Ward down over the course of the final stint in which he went from 2.2539-seconds behind on Lap 81 to .6453-seconds on Lap 90. By Lap 93, it was down to .5529-seconds. Three laps later, O’Ward was maintaining at .5238-seconds ahead.

Then came a bit of bad luck on Lap 97 to which O’Ward says they gave it away off the final turn. An engine fire caused the engine to sputter which slowed his No. 5 Dallara-Chevrolet and allowed Ericsson by.

“Frazzled,” said O’Ward of his emotions.

The defending Indy 500 winner held on to give Chip Ganassi Racing their second career win on the 1.8-mile street course. Out of Ericsson’s four career wins, three of which came on street courses with wins at Belle Isle, Nashville and now St. Pete.

“I think today was one of those races where a lot of things happened,” boasted Ericsson. “It seems every time there’s a red flag, we win a race. Yeah, in the end, I did a bad restart, got out in the marbles, lost a couple seconds on Pato and had to hunt him down. But I knew our race pace was extremely good, so I could close that gap and put pressure on him. He had an issue, whatever happened there, but we were putting the pressure on, and then things can happen.

“I think we showed all weekend that we were fast, and it’s obviously a perfect way to start the season for us.”

Ericsson says that while some people will say he lucks into wins, he doesn’t care. A win is a win and he’ll continue to take them as they come. He feels like even with O’Ward’s late race issue, that he deserved to win this race too.

“It seems whatever I do, people are thinking maybe I don’t deserve it or stuff like that,” he says. “I don’t know, I won a lot of races, four races now in INDYCAR, and been at the top of the championship the last couple years, so I’m just going to keep to that.

“Obviously today I didn’t want Pato to have a problem, but from what I heard the problem was because we were putting pressure on and they did a mistake or he did a mistake. And that’s when these things can happen. I felt bad for Pato, but we were there to pick up on it. If I wasn’t putting pressure on him and hunt him down, he would have been fine and we would have been second. But we were there right on his gearbox, and we got past.

“I think we deserved to win. We did a great weekend. We were there when they had an issue, did a mistake or whatever that was to happen. Like I said, if he had that two-second gap that he got after the restart, he could have had that issue and he would have won anyway because he only lost half a second or something. But we were right on his gearbox and that’s why we could get by. That’s racing. Things happen. That’s why you need to be there until the end.

“Yeah, I feel a bit bad for him, but I still think we deserved that win.”

The only reason this tandem was in this position was due to the top two drivers on the day taking each other out on Lap 72. Scott McLaughlin exited pit lane in a drag race with Romain Grosjean for the top spot. Both were now done with pit road for the afternoon. Whomever came out on top after this lap, was likely going to be the victor.

So, each pushed the issue. Grosjean looked high, McLaughlin looked low. They both tried to get through the same piece of real estate in Turn 4 and never came out the other side unscathed.

McLaughlin had led 37 laps and first took over the lead on Lap 36. That’s because he went with the opposite strategy as Grosjean.

On a day that would see another two stop strategy win out, tire strategy was the name of the game. Grosjean and 6 of the top 7 starters elected to go with the alternate tires. 9 of the top 10 starters did the same last year. McLaughlin was the lone dog up front on the primaries.

The talk around the paddock this weekend was that the new green alternate tire would have more tire fall off than it’s predecessor, the red tire. However, that didn’t prove to be as much the case as first thought.

Grosjean went 31 laps on his set of tires. McLaughlin was one of seven drivers running at that point extending their first sting on the primaries. None of them pit until around Lap 35, some four laps later than Grosjean.

By doing so, McLaughlin exited pit lane for the first time with the lead. A caution would occur to close the opening pit sequence on Lap 36 for Conor Daly in Turn 9. That was the second of the day.

The first was a frightening opening lap crash that saw rookie Benjamin Pedersen slam into Devlin DeFrancesco’s car sitting still after he was collected in a crash with both Meyer Shank Racing teammates of Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud as well as Pedersen’s AJ Foyt Racing teammate of Santino Ferrucci. They each had to check up for a slowing Felix Rosenqvist who had contact with the wall and damaging his wheel in the early sequence of corners with Scott Dixon.

While the track was blocked, Pedersen came in from behind to sent DeFrancesco’s car flying. Luckily, everyone was checked and cleared after the opening race incident that took 6 cars out early.

Daly would continue on after his Lap 39 incident, and we’d go back green on Lap 40 with McLaughlin leading Grosjean. A quick caution would then ensue with another airborne car from Kyle Kirkwood running over Jack Harvey’s No. 30 Dallara-Honda. Harvey was collected with Rinus VeeKay in that crash on the restart.

Harvey was transported out of precaution to a local hospital for observation.

On the next restart, Will Power got into Colton Herta on Lap 50 and punted Herta into the Turn 4 tire barriers effectively ending his day too. Power was penalized for avoidable contact.

“What an ass,” Herta said of Power.

That set up a McLaughlin and Grosjean battle for the ages. McLaughlin on the alternates and Grosjean on the primaries. They’d run toe to toe, but due to three cautions while running his stint on the greens, McLaughlin’s fall off wasn’t as great as Grosjean’s was.

However, Grosjean pit on Lap 70 while McLaughlin ran one lap longer. By doing so, he was stuck behind Agustin Canapino who slowed McLaughlin’s pit in lap down more than it could have been. That pushed the battle to a tight one when McLaughlin exited pit road and set up the drama between the duo for the lead.

O’Ward inherited the lead but an issue cost him in the end which left him frustrated and Ericsson joyful.

“Yeah, I was very excited to come here because yes, it’s been an amazing off-season,” Ericsson admitted. “I got to experience so many cool things and celebrations with the Borg-Warner trophy. And winning the 500 is a win that keeps on giving.

“People were worried, kept telling me you need to focus and you need to not get carried away. For me, all those celebrations, all those things I got to experience just gave me more energy, gave me even more hunger to win more and win again in the speedway and also to win the championship. We were in the hunt until the final race last year. We dropped off the last couple of rounds, and I was really disappointed with that.

“I put in a lot of work this off-season together with the team to try and understand and analyze and improve, and I think that for me was — I was really excited to come here and show that and show all the hard work we’ve put in can make a difference, and I think we showed that today.”

Redemption For Ericsson

Marcus Ericsson had a podium finish coming in last year’s race but a pit penalty relegated him to 9th place instead. This time, the Swede drove flawlessly on a day to where plenty of carnage ensued. Ericsson started fourth and remained in the top five all afternoon and capitalized when leader and after and contender after contender took themselves out.

This was his fourth top 10 result in his last four St. Pete tries.

That’s part one of redemption, so is the second part – backing up his preseason thoughts that he can win this championship. Ericsson admitted last month at the Thermal Club that he was pissed off at how his 2022 season ended.

“I had a chance going into the final, but I also was leading the championship for a long-time last year. I’m still a bit pissed off about the ending of last year because I felt we were having a really strong year, then the last three races or so we just fell off a little bit. That was disappointing,” he said on Tuesday of INDYCAR content day.

“But it’s given me a lot of motivation to work hard in the off-season to try and be better this year. It’s definitely our goal to try and get that championship this year.

“We’ve been focusing on trying to improve our package for this year. We feel like we have some areas where we could improve from last year, so we’ve been focusing on that, trying to, yeah, become better as a team, as a driver. I’ve been focusing a lot on myself trying to improve my performance for this year.

“We were close to winning both the championship and the 500 last year. We need to keep pushing to try to do that this year.”

He’s off to a great start. While he didn’t get a front row starting spot on Saturday, coming from fourth was a hell of a lot better than his qualifying woes over the second half of last year.

His Achilles heel in 2022 was in that aspect. 9 times did he start 12th or worse including 5 times in the final 7 races. It’s why he went from 6 top 5’s in the first 10 races this season and was leading the points to 4th. He had no top 5 finishes over the final 7 race stretch. While he had 3 top 10’s, it was the lack of top 5’s that allowed everyone else to catch up.

Consistently coming from behind was the culprit.

“I think us as a team, it’s been one of our weaknesses the last couple years in that we’re not qualifying as high as we should,” he said. “Race day I’m not scared of anyone. I think on the 8 car we’re always going forward in the races; we’re always very strong in the races.

“It’s no secret that we need to improve on qualifying day. That is us in the 8 car but also Chip Ganassi Racing as a whole. I think if we can all improve, it’s going to help us. These days as well, INDYCAR is becoming more and more competitive. So many good drivers and teams. If you start mid pack, yeah, it might be long races, but to win a race from mid pack is getting harder and harder.

“It’s been one of the big focus areas in the off-season, to try to find things in the setup, in the way to understand the tires, stuff like that, to mainly improve our qualifying performance. It’s been a big focus for us. It’s going to be interesting this week to see if we have found some things that are going to work, then apply that throughout the season.”

The 32-year-olds career trajectory shows that he’ll be a championship front runner this season.

He may have had the same points finish and the same amount of Top-10 finishes (12) last season as he had a season prior (12), but the difference however is, the fact that last year while he had 2 wins in 2021 compared to 1 in 2022, 5 of his 11 top 10’s last season were found in the top 5. In 2021, he had just 3 top 5’s. He had 2 in 2020 and 1 in his rookie season in 2019.

He almost had as many top 5’s last season alone (5) than he had his 46 previous starts (7).

Which shows what?

He’s improving each year which is why he went from 17th in points in 2019 to 12th in 2020 to 6th the last two years. His consistency was why he was having a shot at last year’s title, not his Indy 500 win.

His race craft truly is as good as it gets. His peers took notice. That praise makes Ericsson feel good but he also says that it can only go so far. At some point, you have to focus back on yourself again.

“Of course it means a lot,” he says of the praise by his peers. “But at the same time, you sort of race for yourself in a way. I think INDYCAR is, if not one of the absolute toughest series in the world, it’s amazing drivers here in the series. I feel like the last couple years I’ve shown that I can be fighting up front, winning races, fighting for championships.

“But, yeah, of course it means a lot to get respected by your competitors.”

As far as when that race craft came about?

“Yeah, I think race craft is something I learned a lot in my Formula 1 years. Planning a race, driving, thinking longer ahead in stints, taking care of my tires, fuel, stuff like that,” he told me. “I think my race craft, I really started to master that in Formula 1. It was one of my big strengths in F1.

“I feel like I brought that to INDYCAR, and it’s been my strength really from year one. I felt like I was pretty good in the races.

“Of course, you always try to become better and better. I try and analyze a lot and work hard with my engineers to understand and be involved in a lot of things. I think that helps me on race day to be prepared.

“It’s the same thing, that’s what we’ve been working on hard now in the off-season to try and improve on the qualifying side, to sort of analyze and understand why we’re lacking a little bit more there comparing to the races.

“It all comes down to hard work, having good people around you, being open to try new things.”

In 3 of the last 4 years, the season opening winner went on to win the series championship that season.

Andretti vs. Penske Drama Sees Both Organizations Leave St. Pete With Rough Days

Team Penske had won 6 of the last 9 years here. Andretti Autosport swept the front row and had 3 of the top 5 starters in Sunday’s race. Since 2012, both organizations had combined to have won 9 of the last 11 years here. However, their struggles on Sunday was glaring. The final two cautions of the day were a result of Penske vs. Andretti on track crashes in Turn 4 for which Penske cars were the culprits to ending strong Andretti days.

Will Power was penalized for avoidable contact with Andretti driver Colton Herta on their Lap 50 incident. He’d rebound to finish 7th but Herta was left in 20th with a DNF. Another Penske driver in Scott McLaughlin crashed with Andretti driver Romain Grosjean while the duo were battling for the lead on Lap 72. McLaughlin was scored in 13rd in the end as he too was penalized for avoidable contact while Grosjean was 18th.

Josef Newgarden started 14th and got up to as far as fifth, but on the final restart, he followed Alex Palou wide coming to the green and lost three spots in the process. Then, with four laps remaining, smoke billowed out the back of his No. 2 Dallara-Chevrolet and had to retire prematurely. He’d finish 17th.

For Andretti, this was another race to where they’re leaving with a bad taste in their mouths.

Every year we seem to be asking if Andretti Autosport can turn their qualifying pace into a strong race day. Their practice and qualifying pace isn’t unusual. What has been is the lack of wins. In a series that’s rewarded so much track position, it’s baffling that the organization hasn’t had more wins than they’ve had lately.

Here we go again.

Strategy and carnage ruined a chance of a win this weekend. 3 of the 4 cars failed to see the finish.

“For me, I feel a lot more optimistic,” Michael Andretti said 24 hours ago. “I think we really studied ourselves and got real honest with ourselves where we needed to improve. I think we’ve done it.

“Obviously the race is going to be another thing. Hopefully we can have all four cars go through the race without making a mistake. If that happens, I think we have a great shot at winning.

“I mean we did have many races where we had very fast cars last year, but we tended to do something wrong, shoot ourselves in the foot one way or another. That’s another thing we’ve really studied and worked on. Hopefully our pit stops will be better and strategies will be better.

“We really worked on trying to be a lot more detail-oriented, things like that.

“I hope it pays off.”

It didn’t. It started at the very beginning when Devlin DeFrancesco was an innocent bystander in the opening lap crash for which Benjamin Pedersen smacked into him and got his No. 29 Dallara-Honda airborne.

In that crash, both alliance cars with Meyer Shank Racing were also badly damaged and ended their races before it truly ever got going too.

Kyle Kirkwood was the second Andretti car to get airborne when he ran over Jack Harvey’s car after a Lap 40 melee with Rinus VeeKay collected as well. Kirkwood would continue on but finish three laps down in 15th. The second-year driver crashed in the Fast Six qualifying session on Saturday.

Herta crashed on Lap 50 with Power while Grosjean crashed in the same turn 22 laps later with McLaughlin.

5 wrecked cars in a two-day span, two of which getting airborne and finishes of 15-18-20-25. Factor in MSR’s finishes of 23-26 and you get 5 of the bottom 10 finishers under the same umbrella.

That’s not the start that Andretti was hoping for. The problem is, strategy was already ruining Herta and Kirkwood before their incidents anyways. They likely weren’t going to be in the top five anymore.

Herta’s tires fell off quickly at the end of his first stint and faded from 2nd to 6th. Kirkwood was down to 14th before he pit for the first time.

Andretti has to go back to the drawing board.

Dixon Starts 2023 Off With A Podium

Scott Dixon may be 0-for-19 in his career on the streets of St. Pete, but it’s not like he’s been awful. Sunday was his eighth consecutive top-10 finish here including three podiums in the last five years at that. While he was third in his No. 9 Dallara-Honda, he finished right in the very spot that Will Power did last season. That spot was the one that produced the series championship.

3 of the last 4 years has seen the champion podium in St. Pete. Also, out of the last 18 years, the eventual season champion scored a top 10 finish in 17 of those 18 season openers. They’ve accumulated 8 wins and 14 top 5’s in the process including four consecutive podium finishes.

Dixon was third. It was his 132nd career podium finish which is now just 12 shy of tying Mario Andretti for most all-time. It was also his 193rd career top five result as which, which also ties Andretti for most ever.

His 49-runner-up finishes trail only Andretti’s 56 while his 53 wins trails just AJ Foyt’s 67.

That sets him up for a strong pursuit of his record tying seventh series championship.

“Yeah, I think all the cars were very strong kind of right out of the gate,” said Dixon. “I don’t think we maximized them, which is good. I think we’ve definitely got some potential to come. But so has probably the rest of the field.

“But yeah, much more comfortable this year. I think when you had a proper go at a lap, the time would come. I felt like last year we would do that and the time necessarily wouldn’t be there.

“I think some missed opportunities for us this weekend in some areas, which was good, because we can definitely work on that. But I think coming out of the gate, obviously with two cars on the podium is huge. It’s great points to start the season, and hopefully we can build on that.

“But I think as a group, all the cars were great. As I had mentioned earlier, Marcus Armstrong had done a fantastic job this weekend as well for his first street course, so looking forward to his progression through the year.”

Rossi’s Top 5 Should Set Him Up For Potential Rebounding Year

Sometimes a fresh start is all that’s needed for two sides. However, not all the time is the grass greener on the other side either. That’s why it took a while for Alexander Rossi to land as the decision that he made to not reup with Andretti Autosport and instead join Arrow McLaren’s forces for the upcoming 2023 NTT INDYCAR Series season.

So, what went wrong though? Rossi is as talented as they come and Andretti is as well run of an organization as there is.

“Life ebbs and flows,” Rossi said last year from Belle Isle. “I think it was time for a change. Ultimately, I don’t think this has met anyone’s expectations, myself, the team’s, Honda’s. I don’t think it’s necessarily a huge surprise for everyone.

“That being said, I think there have been scenarios that have been outside of our control. But that’s motorsports, life, just the way things go sometimes.”

Imagine me telling you after Rossi’s 2019 win in Long Beach that by 2022, he’d be reconsidering return to Andretti Autosport for the 2023 NTT INDYCAR Series season.

That day, Rossi led 80 of 85 laps en route to a victory of more than 20 seconds. It was his second straight win on the scenic Southern California beach side street circuit. He led 71 of 85 laps a year prior.

The Andretti Autosport driver seemed to be on a quick path to a championship once he won his second career NTT IndyCar Series race in Watkins Glen during that 2017 season. From the Toronto race that season through the one at Road America in 2019, Rossi had six wins, 16 podiums and 22 top five finishes in a span of 33 races. 

But, here we are.

Over the last 54 races, he has 1 win, has just 11 podiums and only 16 top fives.

“So, yeah, I mean, this decision was made for me kind of last summer,” said Rossi. “It was clear that I was going to look at different options and explore what was out there.

“I’ve driven for Andretti Autosport for a long time. Sometimes you need to change things, whether that’s on a personal side, a professional side or the both combined. I think it was time for a change.

“Like I said, there were a lot of things that we accomplished that were very special, that I’ll have memories of forever. They essentially gave me a base and established me in INDYCAR to have a future in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES. I owe a lot to the organization.

“Ultimately for me it was time to do something different. I don’t think there’s a better pairing out there for who I am as a person and a competitor than Arrow McLaren.”

What a perfect first race weekend. Rossi finished fourth in his No. 7 Dallara-Chevrolet for his first top 5 finish in the season opener since the 2019 season. He’d finish 3rd in points that year. The only other time he landed a top 5 finish in a season opener?

2018. He was 3rd in St. Pete and 2nd in the final standings. It took until the sixth race of the season last year at the Indy 500 to score a top five. It was the 10th race in for the 2021 season to get a top 5. In Race 1 with McLaren, he’s 1-for-1.

Strong Rebounds For RLL/Juncos Hollinger Racing

After the first two days of here in St. Pete, both Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan Racing and Juncos Hollinger Racing could be seen as reeling. They were each chasing their race cars.

RLL was only 17-25-26 in Friday’s practice and 12-14-23 on Saturday. JHR was 15-19 on Friday and 21-22 on Saturday. They’d qualify 11th (Christian Lundgaard), 19th (Jack Harvey), 20th (Graham Rahal), 21st (Agustin Canapino) and 22nd (Callum Ilott).

After a wild day of racing, 4 of those 5 cars finished in the top half of the field. Rahal rebounded from 20th to finish sixth in his No. 15 Dallara-Honda for his 136th career top 10 result. He benefitted from running his first stint long to Lap 35 which put him inside of the top 10. By going with the primary tires early, it was the way to go.

Then, all those cautions during the second stint, reduced the time and fall off from the alternate tires which as a result, kept Rahal in the top 10 for the rest of the way. With the late race drama, Rahal stayed clean and came away with a top 10.

Lundgaard was ninth in his No. 45 Dallara-Honda. Teammate Jack Harvey crashed with Rinus VeeKay and Kyle Kirkwood on Lap 40.

For JHR, Ilott was on the same strategy as Rahal and went from 22nd to 5th. That was his best career finish in just his 20th start. He pit on Lap 33 and again on Lap 67.

His rookie teammate, Agustin Canapino, had a great clean weekend and turned heads with a 12th place result.

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