By Curt Cavin
Seldom has an NTT INDYCAR SERIES season been filled with this much intrigue.
How will seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson fare when he competes for the first time on oval tracks in an open-wheel car? (The first of those races is the XPEL 375 at Texas Motor Speedway on March 20.)
Can the pairing of two winners of the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge – Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud – prove to be a winning combination for Meyer Shank Racing?
Are the sport’s youngest stars – Pato O’Ward or Colton Herta – ready to take the championship fight to another still-young driver, reigning series champion Alex Palou?
How quickly can Kyle Kirkwood, who won consecutive championships in USF2000, Indy Pro 2000 and Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires, find success at the highest level of the sport?
Is Tatiana Calderon ready to be the next successful woman driver in the INDYCAR SERIES?
And those are just a few of the questions as the season begins with Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg presented by RP Funding, the first of the season’s 17 races, 14 of which air on NBC. Live coverage starts at noon (ET) Sunday on NBC, Telemundo Deportes on Universo and the INDYCAR Radio Network.
Changes Aplenty Among Expanded Field
INDYCAR’s season features an expanded field – 26 car-and-driver combinations, which is two more than competed in St. Petersburg last year and the series’ largest season-opening field since 2012. Fifteen of the cars are powered by Honda, 11 by Chevrolet. All ride on Firestone Firehawk tires.
In all, half of the entries feature something different.
Those Changing Teams:
- Romain Grosjean (No. 28 DHL Honda of Andretti Autosport)
- Jack Harvey (No. 45 Hy-Vee Honda of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing)
- Takuma Sato (No. 51 Nurtec ODT Honda of Dale Coyne Racing with RWR)
- Simon Pagenaud (No. 60 AutoNation/SiriusXM Honda of Meyer Shank Racing)
Veterans Moving from Part-Time to Full-Time:
- Helio Castroneves (No. 06 AutoNation/SiriusXM Honda of Meyer Shank Racing)
- Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Carvana Honda of Chip Ganassi Racing)
- Conor Daly (No. 20 BitNile Chevrolet of Ed Carpenter Racing)
The Rookie of the Year Candidates:
- Tatiana Calderon (No. 11 ROKiT/AJ Foyt Chevrolet of AJ Foyt Racing)
- Kyle Kirkwood (No. 14 ROKiT/AJ Foyt Chevrolet of AJ Foyt Racing)
- David Malukas (No. 18 HMD Honda of Dale Coyne Racing with HMD Motorsports)
- Devlin DeFrancesco (No. 29 PowerTap Honda of Andretti Steinbrenner Autosport)
- Christian Lundgaard (No. 30 Shield Cleaners Honda of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing)
- Callum Ilott (No. 77 Juncos Hollinger Racing Chevrolet of Juncos Hollinger Racing)
Start with the Reigning Champions
Chip Ganassi Racing had one of its most successful seasons last year, winning six of the 16 races and placing three drivers in the top six of the standings, led by the first series championship of Alex Palou (No. 10 NTT DATA Chip Ganassi Racing Honda).
Palou tied for the series lead with three race wins while Marcus Ericsson (No. 8 Huski Chocolate Chip Ganassi Racing Honda) won two races and Scott Dixon (No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda) one. Palou also nearly won the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge as Helio Castroneves passed him for the lead with two laps to go. Palou is trying to become INDYCAR’s first repeat season champion since Dario Franchitti (2009-2011).
Dixon is always one to watch. He is taking his second shot at tying Foyt for the most INDYCAR championships in his career – Dixon has six – and he entered the season needing just one race win to tie Mario Andretti for second place with 52. Foyt won 67.
Dixon also has won a race in a record 19 seasons, 17 in succession. Remarkably, Dixon has never won in St. Petersburg, although he has finished on the podium seven times, with four second-place finishes.
Herta Dominant on Street Circuits in 2021
Colton Herta (No. 26 Gainbridge Honda of Andretti Autosport w/Curb-Agajanian) carries a two-race winning streak into this year’s season-opening race, having won the final two races of 2021. The second of those wins came in the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach, held on the Southern California street course in which he led 43 of 85 laps.
Last year in St. Petersburg, Herta was the class of the field, leading 97 of the 100 laps from the pole. He also won the pole for the inaugural Big Machine Music City Grand Prix in Nashville.
Herta will try to become the fourth consecutive driver to win consecutive St. Petersburg races. The others were Juan Pablo Montoya (2015, 2016), Sebastien Bourdais (2017, 2018) and Josef Newgarden (2019, 2020). Newgarden (No. 2 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet) is a two-time series champion and finished second in St. Petersburg last year.
Other previous St. Petersburg race winners in this field include Helio Castroneves (2006, 2007, 2012), Will Power (2010, 2014) and Graham Rahal (2008).
Power: The NTT P1 Award Master
Any preview of a St. Petersburg event must include Team Penske’s Will Power (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet). In addition to winning a pair of races, Power has won nine NTT P1 Awards as the fastest qualifier. He has won all but three poles at the circuit since 2010.
Power enters the season with 63 career poles, four shy of Mario Andretti’s all-time record. Also this season, 2014 series champion and 2018 Indianapolis 500 winner Power will try to win a race for the 16th consecutive year. This will be his 13th full-time season as a Team Penske driver.
In addition to Power and Newgarden, Roger Penske’s organization also is fielding a car for last year’s Rookie of the Year, Scott McLaughlin (No. 3 DEX Imaging Team Penske Chevrolet).
The Indy Lights Gang
The 14-car field for the Indy Lights presented by Gainbridge race (Sunday, 9:30 a.m., live on Peacock) is led by Linus Lundqvist, the HMD Motorsports with Dale Coyne Racing driver who won three series races last year. Matthew Brabham, a series race winner in 2014, returns to Andretti Autosport. He and Force Indy’s Ernie Francis Jr., a seven-time Trans Am champion making his series debut, are other drivers to watch.
Indy Lights has launched the careers of several current INDYCAR drivers, including Newgarden, Herta and Pato O’Ward (No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet). Last year in Indy Lights, Kyle Kirkwood and David Malukas combined to win 17 of 20 races and were separated by just 13 points at year’s end.
All races for the NTT INDYCAR SERIES and Indy Lights will air live on Peacock, NBC Sports’ streaming service, and the INDYCAR Radio Network.
Sunday’s INDYCAR race includes a Spanish-speaking broadcast from Telemundo Deportes on Universo, which also will broadcast the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge on May 29 and the season-ending Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca on Sept. 11.