Kyffin Simpson

Today’s question: Who or what surprised you the most at the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg presented by RP Funding last Sunday?

Curt Cavin: First-race surprises are the norm in the competitive NTT INDYCAR SERIES. There were at least a half-dozen things I didn’t expect in this opener, although Josef Newgarden’s dominance wasn’t necessarily one of them. He took Team Penske to victory lane in St. Petersburg for the 12th time in 20 years, and six different drivers, including Newgarden on three occasions since 2019, have won for The Captain. (That team has dominated St. Pete like no other!) Of all the surprises, I’ll take Meyer Shank Racing earning a front-row starting position – Felix Rosenqvist was second to Newgarden by the slimmest of margins – and netting a seventh-place finish in the race. Yes, both of MSR’s cars were collected in last year’s first-lap mess in Turn 3, but they had an average starting position of 20.0 with two of the sport’s biggest stars, Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud. Rosenqvist not only qualified well last weekend, he valiantly dogged Newgarden through the first third of the race when no one else could. One also could see a stronger program for Santino Ferrucci at AJ Foyt Racing. Ferrucci finished 11th and might be even more of a factor throughout 2024.

Eric Smith: With all due respect to NTT INDYCAR SERIES rookie Kyffin Simpson, he was my biggest surprise of the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg presented by RP Funding race weekend. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver was winless in 27 career INDY NXT by Firestone starts and finished ninth and 10th, respectively, in the final points standings those two years. But in his NTT INDYCAR SERIES debut, Simpson was the top-finishing rookie among the five first-year drivers in Sunday’s 100-lap race, coming home 14th. The 19-year-old not only gained nine spots on track during the race from his 23rd starting position but turned the second-quickest lap (1:00.8779) of the entire race, just behind race winner Josef Newgarden’s top lap of 1:00.6795. Simpson never turned a wheel wrong all weekend and impressed me, proving he is ready for the rigors of a competitive INDYCAR SERIES.

Paul Kelly: Rinus VeeKay and Ed Carpenter Racing. It sure seems like a long time ago that VeeKay was considered the hot rising young star in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES after he won the May race on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course in 2021. That seemingly was the first of many more wins to come, but it remains the Dutchman’s sole victory in the series. Both VeeKay and ECR struggled for results in 2023. VeeKay produced just two top-10 finishes in 17 starts and no top-fives. It wasn’t much better for ECR, with just four top-10 finishes and no top fives in 39 combined starts for the team’s four drivers last season. But St. Petersburg could signal a new dawn for the team and its lead driver. VeeKay was solid and consistent all weekend in the No. 21 Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet. He was fifth in the opening practice and sixth in the second practice and qualified seventh for the race, just missing the Firestone Fast Six by .0119 of a second. Then in the race, VeeKay and ECR put few tire tracks wrong as he drove to a 10th-place finish. That performance is too steady across three days to be considered a fluke. And it’s probably a sign of ECR’s improvement that both VeeKay and the team may have been a smidge disappointed in finishing 10th after starting seventh. Rinus is one of the more colorful, interesting characters in the sport; the series always is better when he’s a more visible face up the running order. It’s also good for the series for smaller teams like ECR to be more competitive and torment the titans. I’m hopeful this resurgence for VeeKay and ECR is the norm, not an opening-weekend exception.