By Curt Cavin
A thrilling NTT INDYCAR SERIES season is about to begin, and questions abound.
Can Will Power repeat as series champion, giving Team Penske yet another team title?
Can Scott Dixon tie A.J. Foyt’s record of seven series championships?
How will Alexander Rossi transition to a team partnered with a different engine manufacturer?
Will the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge see another first-time winner?
Can a rookie win a race?
Will the battle for the season championship be decided at the final race for the 18th consecutive season?
These are but a few of the questions. The answers begin to take shape this weekend when 27 car-and-driver combinations roll onto the streets of St. Petersburg for the annual Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg presented by RP Funding (Sunday, noon ET).
The weekend schedule includes a pair of pre-qualifying practices (3 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m. Saturday) with knockout qualifying at 2:15 p.m. Saturday. Sunday’s pre-race warmup is at 9 a.m.
INDY NXT by Firestone also kicks off its season this weekend, with practices at 1:55 p.m. Friday and 9 a.m. Saturday ahead of qualifying at 1:35 p.m. Saturday. The race is set for 9:50 a.m. Sunday.
See below on how to watch and listen to practice, qualifying and races of both series.
First, An Event Refresher
This will be the 20th time the city’s downtown has hosted events of this sport, the 12th time as the first race of the season. Paul Tracy was the first driver to win an INDYCAR SERIES event in the city, in 2003, and the late Dan Wheldon led a 1-2-3-4 finish for what is now Andretti Autosport in 2005, the first year current promoters Kim Green and Kevin Savoree organized this race.
This year’s 27 competitors mark the largest field in the event’s history, one more than participated in 2008, 2012 and 2022. There are five former series champions (Dixon, Power, Simon Pagenaud, Josef Newgarden and Alex Palou) entered with six drivers who have won NTT INDYCAR SERIES races on the 14-turn, 1.8-mile circuit (Helio Castroneves three, Power and Newgarden two each, Graham Rahal, Colton Herta and Scott McLaughlin).
Again, the NTT INDYCAR SERIES field is stacked with accomplished drivers. This weekend, 14 of the 27 are former race winners in the series, with another four drivers joining later in the season on oval tracks.
Among those who have not won a race in this series, Conor Daly of Ed Carpenter Racing (No. 20 BITNILE.COM Chevrolet) recently became the 62nd driver in history to have competed in the Indianapolis 500 and the Daytona 500, Callum Ilott of Juncos Hollinger Racing (No. 77 Juncos Hollinger Racing Chevrolet) qualified on the front row for the series’ most-recent race, the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey last Sept. 11, and Christian Lundgaard of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (No. 45 Hy-Vee Honda) and David Malukas of Dale Coyne Racing with HMD (No. 18 HMD Honda) each had second-place finishes in last year’s competitive Rookie-of-the-Year battle, which Lundgaard won. Kyle Kirkwood of Andretti Autosport (No. 27 AutoNation Honda) is the only driver in history to have won all three levels of the sport’s ladder system.
Eyes on Team Penske, Again
It always seems to be this way, doesn’t it? The season begins anew, and Team Penske walks away with an impressive first-race result.
Last year it was Scott McLaughlin (No. 3 DEX Imaging Chevrolet) leading 49 of the race’s 100 laps from the pole for his first career series victory, with Power finishing third in the No. 12 Verizon 5G Chevrolet. But the trend runs deep.
There have been 17 races in St. Petersburg since 2006, and Team Penske drivers have won 11 of them. In that span, the combination of Power, Newgarden, McLaughlin, Castroneves, Pagenaud, Juan Pablo Montoya and Ryan Briscoe have taken 23 of the 51 podium positions (45 percent).
You want to talk poles? Yeah, Team Penske wins those in bunches here, too. Power has won a record nine, all in the past 13 years. Poles for Castroneves (2007) and McLaughlin (2022) push the team’s total to a staggering 11.
Newgarden (No. 2 Hitachi Chevrolet) and McLaughlin have helped Team Penske win three of the past four of these events, and there is no reason to believe they, along with Power, won’t be at or near the top of the charts for each session this weekend. One could celebrate in victory lane Sunday. It’s what often happens in St. Pete.
New Places for Familiar Faces
Rossi’s move to Arrow McLaren Racing to drive the No. 7 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet is the marquee driver change for the new season, but there are many others that likely will impact the finishing positions of the 17 races.
But first, Rossi. After seven seasons and eight race wins with Andretti Autosport, the 2016 Indianapolis 500 winner decided it was time for a life and career change. Rossi ended his time with Michael Andretti’s organization by snapping a three-year, 49-race winless drought when he drove to victory in the Gallagher Grand Prix, the second of two NTT INDYCAR SERIES races of the season on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course. Rossi’s best finish in St. Petersburg was third in 2018.
In Rossi’s seat in the No. 27 AutoNation Honda is Kirkwood, who spent last season with AJ Foyt Racing. Admittedly, Kirkwood pushed the limits too far a year ago, and returning to the Andretti organization that helped him win the 2021 INDY NXT by Firestone title should be a benefit. He reached the second round of qualifying last year at St. Pete, starting 12th, before finishing 18th.
Santino Ferrucci returns to full-time status in the ride Kirkwood had in 2022. Now in A.J. Foyt’s famous No. 14 Sexton Properties Chevrolet, Ferrucci will compete in this event for the first time since 2020, when he ran all season with Dale Coyne Racing w/Vasser-Sullivan.
Lundgaard has a new contract with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. His change involves his car number – No. 45 rather than No. 30 – and sponsorship from Hy-Vee that supported Jack Harvey’s program a year ago. Lundgaard finished 11th in last year’s St. Pete race. Harvey will drive the team’s No. 30 car.
Takuma Sato is the other semi-regular changing employers this season, but he will not compete this weekend as his contract with Chip Ganassi Racing for the No. 11 Honda is only for the oval races.
The Rookie Class
There is much to settle as the rookies get their first taste of the NTT INDYCAR SERIES. Unlike past seasons, none of the four drivers have started a race in the series.
Sting Ray Robb, a 21-year-old Idaho native who spent two seasons in INDY NXT, has arguably the most relevant experience, particularly as it relates to this event. Through the junior formulas, he has made 11 starts on this circuit, winning the second of the two USF Pro 2000 races in 2020 – he won the series championship that year. Robb finished fourth in last year’s INDY NXT race. He will drive the No. 51 Honda for Dale Coyne Racing with Rick Ware Racing this weekend.
Denmark’s Benjamin Pedersen, 23, will drive the No. 55 Sexton Properties Chevrolet of AJ Foyt Racing. He has made two INDY NXT starts in St. Pete, finishing second in last year’s race.
Marcus Armstrong (No. 11 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda) and Agustin Canapino (No. 78 Juncos Hollinger Racing Chevrolet) will make their first starts in U.S. races this weekend. Armstrong, 22, won four Formula 2 races over a three-year span while Canapino, 33, is a veteran and champion of Argentina’s touring car series.
The Rookie of the Year battle should be interesting. While Armstrong is working for the strongest team with a driver in this group, he will only compete in 12 of the 17 races. Robb is driving for the same team that David Malukas used to finish second last year among rookies, with a second-place finish in the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 presented by Axalta and Valvoline at World Wide Technology Raceway.
Others To Watch
Start with Chip Ganassi Racing drivers Dixon (No. 9 PNC Bank Honda) and Palou (No. 10 The American Legion Honda). Dixon, who has never won in St. Petersburg despite six podium finishes, is still seeking his record-tying seventh series championship. He won most recently here in 2020. With 53 career race wins, Dixon is also on the march toward A.J. Foyt’s career record of 67.
Palou was at odds with Chip Ganassi and his staff last year over his plans to join McLaren Racing. Palou and CGR resolved the issue late in the year, with Palou heading to McLaren in 2024, which apparently helped Palou in the season finale when he drove away from the field in winning the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca. 2021 NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion Palou finished second to McLaughlin in last year’s St. Petersburg race.
With Rossi moving to Arrow McLaren Racing, Herta (No. 26 Gainbridge Honda) is Andretti Autosport’s unofficial leader. Herta, entering his fifth NTT INDYCAR SERIES season, has seven career series wins, highlighted by the 2021 victory from the pole in St. Petersburg. He finished fourth in last year’s race.
Ed Carpenter Racing’s Rinus VeeKay (No. 21 BITNILE.COM Chevrolet), Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Graham Rahal (No. 15 United Rentals Honda), Chip Ganassi Racing’s Marcus Ericsson (No. 8 Huski Chocolate Honda), Arrow McLaren Racing’s Felix Rosenqvist (No. 6 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet) and Meyer Shank Racing’s Castroneves (No. 06 AutoNation/SiriusXM Honda) and Pagenaud (No. 60 AutoNation/SiriusXM Honda) are the other former series race winners in this weekend’s field.
How To Watch and Listen
- NTT INDYCAR SERIES practice and qualifying sessions: Peacock, INDYCAR Radio Network, SiriusXM Channel 160
- NTT INDYCAR SERIES races: NBC, Peacock, Telemundo Deportes on Universo, INDYCAR Live, INDYCAR Radio Network, SiriusXM Channel 160
- INDY NXT by Firestone practice and qualifying sessions: INDYCAR Live, INDYCAR Radio Network, SiriusXM Channel 160
- INDY NXT by Firestone races: Peacock, INDYCAR Live, INDYCAR Radio Network, SiriusXM Channel 160