The NTT INDYCAR SERIES is back, and for the first time since 2019, the season will open on the Streets of St. Petersburg, Florida, with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg presented by RP Funding.
Today’s race is just the fifth INDYCAR SERIES race to be held in February since 1926. The previous four races were a doubleheader in Rafaela, Argentina, in 1971, St. Petersburg in 2003 and Homestead-Miami in 2004.
The jubilant crowd and the NTT INDYCAR SEIRES athletes that hit the road this afternoon are in for a great day of racing. The weather forecast for St. Peterburg predicts sunshine with a high temperature of 78. With winds hovering around 6 mph and just a 3 percent chance of rain, the day should be as picturesque as the course.
Firestone is supplying more than 1,400 tires for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg presented by RP Funding. Firestone will allocate six sets of primary (black) tires, four sets of alternate (red) tires and five sets of rain (gray) tires. Firestone has brought the same primary tire construction and compound as last year, while the alternate tire is the same construction but a new compound that is softer and provides increased grip.
Speeds have been up significantly this weekend, as Scott McLaughlin posted the first-ever lap below one minute on this course in practice Saturday morning. Then, in qualifying, Colton Herta and Will Power set the track record on three different occasions, with Power now holding the mark at 59.3466 seconds.
You can catch the action starting at 8:45 a.m. (ET) with the final warm-up live on Peacock Premium, followed by the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires Grand Prix of St. Petersburg at 9:30 a.m., also live on Peacock Premium and INDYCAR Radio Network.
Then, tune in to the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg presented by RP Funding at noon (ET) live on NBC, Telemundo Deportes on Universo and the INDYCAR Radio Network. You can catch radio broadcasts live on network affiliates, SiriusXM 160, INDYCAR.com, indycarradio.com and the INDYCAR App powered by NTT DATA.
Here’s what you need to know to get ready for today’s action.
Will This Weekend Decide Championship Favorite?
For the last three NTT INDYCAR SERIES seasons, the winner of the season-opening race has gone on to win the Astor Challenge Cup.
Josef Newgarden parlayed his 2019 season-opening win at St. Petersburg into a championship, Scott Dixon did the same in 2020 when he opened the season with a win at Texas Motor Speedway, and Alex Palou started his championship campaign last year by winning the first race of the year at Barber Motorsports Park.
So, does that mean today’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg presented by RP Funding winner will also take home the Astor Challenge Cup in September? There’s no guarantee with this ultra-competitive NTT INDYCAR SERIES field, but history suggests there’s a good chance.
Five times has the St. Petersburg winner gone on to win the INDYCAR SERIES championship in the same season: Paul Tracy (2003), Dan Wheldon (2005), Dario Franchitti (2011), Power (2014) and Newgarden (2019).
History suggests an even stronger tie to opening the season strong and defending the points lead throughout the season. Since 1995, 13 drivers have won the season-opening race and gone on to win the INDYCAR SERIES title on 17 different occasions:
Jacques Villeneuve (1995 Miami), Jimmy Vasser (1996 Homestead), Buzz Calkins (1996 Walt Disney World), Sam Hornish Jr. (2001 Phoenix, 2002 Homestead), Cristiano da Matta (2002 Monterrey), Dixon (2003 Homestead, 2008 Homestead, 2020 Texas), Tracy (2003 Long Beach), Sebastien Bourdais (2005 Long Beach, 2006 Long Beach), Wheldon (2005 Homestead), Franchitti (2011 St. Petersburg), Power (2014 St. Petersburg), Newgarden (2019 St. Petersburg), and Palou (2021 Barber).
“You're way more focused because you're leading the championship, and you're focused on not making a mistake instead of focused on trying to win,” Power said. “I think some of the psychology behind it is that you're not trying to claw back. You set a pretty good base, and boom, you've got big points and you adjust, nicely maintaining those points instead of desperately trying to claw back to get back in the game.”
Qualifying Matters in St. Petersburg
Starting near the front is helpful in any situation, but on a tight street course like St. Petersburg, it’s almost required by drivers if they want to end the day in Victory Circle.
Only twice in the 18-race history of the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg presented by RP Funding has the winner started outside the top 10: Bourdais started 21st in 2017 and 14th in 2018.
Statistics show that somewhere in the top five is the ideal place to start as 13 of the 18 races have been won by a driver who started between first and fifth. And only three times has the winner started between sixth and 10th: Wheldon and Rahal started ninth when they won in 2005 and 2008, respectively, while Newgarden won from eighth in 2020.
Unfortunately for polesitter Scott McLaughlin, starting P1 hasn’t been the best spot for success. Only three polesitters have won this race: Helio Castroneves in 2007, Power in 2010 and Herta in 2021. Row Two has a strong success rate, as five winners have started either third or fourth. Juan Pablo Montoya was the last to do so, starting third in 2016.
With that in mind, third-place starter Herta and fourth-place starter Rinus VeeKay are two strong options to keep in mind as you set your INDYCAR Fantasy Challenge Driven by Firestone team.
Herta Proves Race-Ready by Topping Warmup Charts
Colton Herta continued to show speed on the Streets of St. Petersburg by pacing the field in the final warmup Sunday morning ahead of this afternoon’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg presented by RP Funding.
Herta, who dominated this event last year by leading 97 of 100 laps, posted a best lap time of 1 minute, .3282 of a second in the final minutes of the session driving the No. 26 Gainbridge Honda. He topped Josef Newgarden in the No. 2 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet, who led most of the session with a best lap of 1:00.5971.
SEE: Warmup Results
Defending NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion Alex Palou, who rebounded from a practice crash Saturday, was third with a best lap time of 1:00.8311 in the No. 10 NTT DATA Chip Ganassi Racing Honda. Callum Ilott was the leading rookie in fourth in the No. 77 Juncos Hollinger Racing Chevrolet with a best lap of 1:01.0936. Six-time champion Scott Dixon rounded out the top five with a best lap of 1:01.1879.
The 30-minute session was stopped twice for single-car incidents. The first came with about 10 minutes remaining when Jimmie Johnson locked the brakes of the No. 48 Carvana Chip Ganassi Racing Honda entering Turn 10 and spun in the blind corner, stalling the car.
Then, with two minutes to go in the session, four-time Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge winner Helio Castroneves went for a spin in Turn 4, making slight contact with the tire barriers with the rear wing of the No. 06 AutoNation/SiriusXM Honda. He was able to drive away.