Marcus Ericsson

Today’s question: Who wins the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg presented by RP Funding this Sunday, and who will be the top-finishing rookie?

Curt Cavin: Last week, Nathan Brown of the Indianapolis Star had one of the best tweets I’ve seen about the upcoming NTT INDYCAR SERIES season. “Read this list,” he wrote. “Herta, Newgarden, O’Ward, Rahal, Rossi, Dixon, Palou, Ericsson, Power, Grosjean, Pagenaud, McLaughlin, Daly, VeeKay, Rosenqvist, Harvey, Lundgaard, Helio, Sato, Malukas, Kirkwood. (At least) one of those drivers is going to finish outside the top 20.” Nathan was referring to the season standings, but it spoke to the difficulty in predicting anything in this series. Herta is my pick to win St. Petersburg given that he led 97 of the 100 laps in last year’s race, and this event had three consecutive repeat winners. But don’t sleep on Josef Newgarden, a two-time St. Petersburg winner, as I suspect he will come roaring out of the gate after last year’s slow start. As for a rookie excelling this weekend, I’ll go with Kyle Kirkwood. He’s shown exceptionally well in preseason testing and was one of Indy Lights’ two St. Petersburg race winners last year (David Malukas was the other). Kirkwood finished second in the back half of the 2021 doubleheader.

Zach Horrall: Marcus Ericsson. Yeah, you read that right. Ericsson was one of two drivers to win multiple street course races last year, with the other being Colton Herta. In the last two St. Petersburg races, he’s finished seventh. In testing last week at Sebring, he clocked in third, just one-tenth behind Simon Pagenaud, who was fastest. Even when the Swede was a fringe title contender last season, we were underestimating him. I think he’s going to come out of the gate strong this season to prove his worth. Meanwhile, I think our top rookie is going to be David Malukas. He’s driving the Dale Coyne Racing car that won the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg in 2017 and 2018 with Sebastien Bourdais. He’s competed in four Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires races here, and his worst finish is fourth. I’ll put him on my INDYCAR Fantasy Challenge Driven by Firestone team, because I think he snags a top 10.

Paul Kelly: There are two obvious suspects for victory, Colton Herta and Josef Newgarden. Herta steamrolled the field last year at St. Petersburg for Andretti Autosport with Curb-Agajanian, leading 97 of 100 laps from the pole for one of the most dominant victories of the season. Newgarden won this race in 2019 and 2020. But both have dents in their St. Pete armor that are tough to ignore. Herta was inconsistent last year. His No. 26 Gainbridge Honda often was a rocket ship off the truck all weekend, or he often struggled if it wasn’t. Newgarden will be teamed for his first race with new engineer Eric Leichtle after working for the last few seasons – including his title run in 2019 – with Gavin Ward, who has moved to Arrow McLaren SP. It may take time for that new pairing to click. So, I’m looking around the entry list to a guy who has many reasons to be more motivated than ever to start the year with a win – six-time NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion Scott Dixon. “The Iceman” won only one race last year and never has been victorious at St. Petersburg, as odd as that is to read. He’ll want to start his attack on tying A.J. Foyt’s record of seven season championships with a victory, just like he did in 2020 when he won title No. 6. Plus, Dixon would love to put down a marker within the Chip Ganassi Racing team he ruled without question from 2012 until last year, when Alex Palou was the top driver on the team en route to winning the Astor Cup. As for the top rookie finisher, flip a coin between Kyle Kirkwood of A.J. Foyt Racing and David Malukas of Dale Coyne Racing with HMD. I’ll go with Malukas because the Coyne team won this race in 2017 and 2018 with Sebastien Bourdais.