Quick Thoughts (After a Deep Breath)-Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg

Photo: Joe Skibinski, Indycar

The Race

If Indycar wants to make St. Pete the season finale, I’m fine with that.The venue produced the finale drama that is missing from long road courses. Mistakes on a street course are costly.

I hope this race shows Indycar that double points are unnecessary for the finale.

What a great drive by Josef Newgarden, capped by an amazing pass for the lead. His win was a normal ending to a race which typified how the year 2020 has gone overall.

Photo by Chris Owens, Indycar

It was great fun watching Newgarden and Scott Dixon both doing exactly what they needed to do to have a shot at winning the title. I hope we can see this championship rivalry for a few more years.

This race had everything- leaders crashing, yellows playing with strategy, some rain, the pace car running out of fuel, the title intrigue, and the Andretti Autosport drama on both ends of the grid.

 I have never seen a team that had a complete vise-grip on a weekend destruct as quickly as Andretti Autosport did today. The team had seemed to have figured out what was ailing them early in the season the last few races and were in line for a podium sweep at one point.

With Marco Andretti not qualifying for the Leaders’ Circle, you have to wonder if we see the 98 next year.

I hope Alexander Rossi uses all of this year’s frustrations to have a monster season in 2021. Today had to be particularly heartbreaking to be on the verge of salvaging something from this year and have it go away so fast.

I think James Hinchcliffe did enough this weekend to be the prime candidate for the 26 car next year.

A couple more laps of yellow and Alex Palou might have been able to get to the end of the race. I hope he will be back next year. I really like the way he drives.

Sebastien Bourdais appears to already be helping A. J. Foyt Racing. He was in the top 10 all weekend. After getting shuffled back on pit stops and with the aid of the cautions, he worked his way up to fourth at the end. Foyt placed both cars in the top 10 with Charlie Kimball finishing eighth.

Pato O’Ward didn’t win a race this year, but I will be shocked if he doesn’t win one in 2021. Arrow McLaren SP had a competitive season. Another nice drive today for his second runner-up finish of the year.

Congratulations to Rinus VeeKay, Indycar rookie of the Year. I’m glad that he will get another year at ECR to continue to grow as a driver.

I appreciate NBC going overtime with thier coverage to allow for an interview with Dixon.

The Title

Josef Newgarden (R) congratulates Scott Dixon on winning the Indycar series title. phot from NBC on Twitter

Scott Dixon has firmly placed himself on the same plane as Foyt and Mario Andretti. He now has six championships to go along with 50 career victories. I expect him to tie Foyt with seven titles and to end up with close to 60 race wins before he is done. I have been privileged to see both Foyt and Dixon race. While they drove in different eras, each had superior talent to their peers. I may not have appreciated Foyt at the time he drove for all his accomplishments, but his career has given me the perspective and context to appreciate Dixon while he is still active.

The last four series titles-

2017- Newgarden

2018-  Dixon

2019- Newgarden

2020- Dixon

We should have maybe three more years of this rivalry.

Dixon and Newgarden completed every lap this season. It is extremely rare that one driver accomplishes this feat in a season. It is obvious why they were the title contenders and that there was only a 16 point difference at the end.

I will be back on Tuesday with my season review, which may be divided into two parts. Thanks for follow along this weekend and all season. I appreciate you so much.

Herta Leads Warm Up

Colton herta led an incident free morning warmup session for this afternoons’ Firestone Grand Prix of St. petersburg, the final NTT Indycar Series race of the season. Points leader Scott Dixon was second, and runner up Josef Newgarden finished ninth.

Pole winner Will Power was focused on fuel runs and was 16th in the session.

The race may be a fuel saving two stop race. The Pit Windows are expected to be between laps 30-35 and 60-65. I anticipate many teams to start on reds, hope for a yellow to be done with them for the day, and rub the rest of the race on the primary tires.

Race coverage begins at 2:30 Eastern on NBC, with the green flag at 2:32.

The top six:

Race Day at St. Pete- The Title and Money on the Line

Good morning. Today’s schedule: (All Times Eastern)

10:40-11:10 Warm up NBC Gold

2:32 Green Flag NBC 2:30-4:30 100 laps

A reminder – cars will be on the pace lap when the television broadcast begins.

Scott Dixon just needs to maintain his starting position to win his sixth championship. The window of possibilities for Josef Newgarden shrunk a bit when he didn’t win the pole yesterday. His eighth startoing spot will make it hard for Newgarden to get the 53 maximum points today. Both drivers need to get through turn 1 of lap 1 cleanly.

The leaders’ Circle final spot is still up for grabs. Marco Andretti will start 23. The 98 is seven points out of the Circle at the moment and will need to move up to have a chance. Sebastien Bourdais’ seventh starting spot should help the 14 car keep the final spot. Conor Daly starts 14th. The 20 car is six points ahead of the 14 in 20th.

Simon Pagenaud was headed for his best qualifying effort of the year until his late spin cost him his two best laps. Still he starts 12th, which is an improvement. Pagenaud has not let where he starts affect his racing. he could be a factor today.

Rookie of the Year

When the green flag flies, Rinus VeeKay will earn Rookie of the Year honors. VeeKay, dribving for Ed Carpenter Racing, got off to an awful start this season at Texas. He crashed in qualifying and crashed early in the race, also taking out rookie Alex Palou. The rest of the season VeeKay showed tremendous improvement, capturing a pole and a podium spot at the Harvest Grand Prix.

Notes from the Ground

I received several messages yesterday from friends at the track. My friend Ed Murray said there wer fewer vendors, which was to be expected.. he said people were complying with mask wearing.

I later saw a photo from the stands where several fans were not wearing masks. I later heard from others that track staff was reminding people about the policy.

The track claims that nearly all tickets have sold.

I wonder how much of the grandstands will remain standing for the March race.

I applaud the efforts of Indycar, Green Savoree, and the city of St. Petersburg to put this race together for a second time this year.

I’ll be back with a quick warm up recap and then my race quick toughts this afternoon.

St. Pete Qualifying- After Chaos, Normalcy Returns

Some thoughts about today’s qualifying for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, which can be viewed at 8 pm Eastern on NBCSN:

It was nice to have the drama of the Fast Six again. This is only the second time this season the Fast Six has been the qualifying procedure.

It seems the black tires may be faster than the red alternate tires here. Alexander Rossi advanced from round 1 without going to the reds.

Colton Herta’s tire strategy looked good in the Fast Six but hurt him at the end.

Group two results and penalties caused a delay, partly due to an issue with timing and scoring. The delay created a lot of confusion as to who would advance. Indycar got it right in the end, though.

What a very nice run for Sebastien Bourdais in the A. J. Foyt Racing number 14. The team is definitely looking forward to beginning the season here in March.

While Scott McLaughlin starts near the back, he showed some flashes of speed in practice. He has a lot to learn about qualifying, but I think he will have a great year in 2021.

Andretti Autosport looked strong today with three cars and their technical partner Meyer Shank in the Fast Six.

Ironic that Oliver Askew got into Round 2 because Felix Rosenqvist was penalized. An angry Rosenqvist driving from the rear of the field will make for some excitement tomorrow.

I can’t remember a qualifying session where six penalties were assessed.

The Will Power/Colton Herta qualifying rivalry continues. I look for more clashes between them next year, with Herta winning a few more times.

Power’s fifth pole of the year puts him within five of Mario Andretti’s 67 career poles. Power has won 9 poles at St. Pete. Today’s was his 6th pole here in 7 years. He has won this race from the pole just once, however.

Indycar photo by Chris Jones

Strange that both title contenders , Scott Dixon and Josef Newgarden failed to make the Fast Six. Dixon starts 11th and Newgarden starts 8th. Not winning the pole cost Newgarden a valuable point in his chase to overtake Dixon. Dixon still needs to finish ninth or better tomorrow, but depending on what Newgarden does, Dixon may be able to win the title with a lower finish.

James Hinchcliffe had a solid day which should help his chances to secure a seat for next year. He was strong in practice, led group 1 in qualifying, and made the Fast Six.

Tomorrow morning look for my race day preview. I’ll include some things my on site reporters have shared about the the venue.

Qualifying results:

Herta Leads Practice; McLaughlin Shows Speed

Colton Herta was fastest in the lone practice session for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. James Hinccliffe was second, followed by Alex Palou. Scott McLaughlin, in his first Indycar session, finished 10th, although he was in second place for a while.

Championship contenders josef newgarden and Scott Dixon had so-so results. Newgarden ended in 8th and Dixon 15th. Dixon hit the wall mid session and may have damaged a toe link on the right rear. he led the session for a short time.

Alexander Rossi also hit the wall at the exit of turn 2 and damaged a toe link. He returned to finish 6th.

Sebastien Bourdais was 5th in his third drive of the year for A. j. Foyt Racing.

The practice period was clean until Felix Rosenqvist spun in turn 12 with just over five minutes left. There was no damage and the session restarted with 2 minutes, 10 seconds remaining. Before anyone could get a hot lap in, Oliver Askew and Scott McLaughlin went off track with about 30 seconds left, ending the practice time.

The top 12:

Indycar Works in Qualifying Amid Big News Days

Good morning from the northern annex of the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg media center. I hope that those of you at the track are following COVIS protocols and are staying safe.

Today’s schedule, all times Eastern:

Practice- 10:55-12:25 NBC Gold

Qualifying 3:05-4:20 NBC Gold

8:00-9:00 (tape delay) NBCSN

I will have a spoiler alert report after qualifying. The pole winner will not be in the headline.

There were several bits of news yesterday, and I understand some more news is coming around 2 pm today.

Firestone has extended its sponsorship agreement for this race through 2023. Should St. Pete remain as the opening race of the season, this venue will be our first look at the new 2.4 liter engine with a hybrid system. the news is also encouraging in that a company in these uncertain times is willing to make a commitment for that length of time.

Last night Team Penske made it official that three time VA Supercars champion Scott McLaughlin will drivea fourth entry for the team in the NTT Indycar Series in 2021. McLaughlin makes his Indycar debut this weekend. A link to the announcement can be found here:

https://thepitwindow.blog/2020/10/23/team-penske-adds-mclaughlin-to-indycar-for-2021/

Scott McLaughlin addresses the media in Austin in February

Per Adam Stern, Chip Ganassi Racing has secured sponsorship for Jimmie Johnson to the road and street courses in 2021. An announcement is expected soon. This may be the 2 pm announcement,scheduled for today.

Last, best wishes for a speedy recovery to my friend Jake Query, who is recovering from a heart attack, and resting comfortably in Indianapolis.

Back after practice

St.Pete Preview- The End of a Long and Winding Road

I really didn’t think this race would happen this year. Rescheduling a street race is a monumental task, and few cities would want to go through the inconvenience a second time in the same year. If the 2021 schedule holds, the NTT Indycar Series will return to St. Pete in a little more than four months. Kudos to everyone who made this event happen, but a special hat tip to the city of St. Petersburg, who had to bear the brunt of this uncertainty.

Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg will be the 15th edition of an Indycar race on the streets of the central Florida city. The first race was won by Paul Tracy in 2003. After a year’s absence, racing returned in 2005 and has continued uninterrupted since then.

This year’s race is scheduled for 100 laps, down from the 110 laps of the past few years, on the 1.8 mile, 14 turn course. 2020 is the first year St. Pete has hosted the finale. it is usually the season opener. In the span about four months, it will be the finale of one season and the opening race of the next year.

Although the title hunt is a two man race, and Scott Dixon is in a very good position to win his sixth title, there are several other things to look for this weekend. There is still a battle for the final Leaders’ Circle spot. Some drivers are hoping for a good showing to help secure a seat for 2021. Scott McLaughlin is making his Indycar debut, while a couple other drivers may not return to the series next season.

Championship on the Line

Scott Dixon heads into the weekend with a 32 point lead over Josef Newgarden. Dixon’s lead, which at one point had swelled to 117 points, has had what for him is a slump with four finishes in the bottom half of the top ten. Newgarden, meanwhile has steadily sliced the lead with two wins in the last four races.

Dixon needs to finish ninth or better to clinch the Astor Cup regardless of how Newgarden fares. Newgarden will need some help from Dixon to have a chance of winning his third title. I don’t see Dixon losing the crown.

Debuts and Auditions

Australian Supercars champ[ion Scott McLaughlin makes his long anticipated Indycar debut for Team Penske in car number 3. McLaughlin’s firast Indycar race had been set for the GMR Grand Prix in May. He participated in the Spring Training test in Austin and was third fastest. Mclaughlin will be a full time driver for Penske in 2021. It will be strange seeing someone besides Helio Castroneves in the number 3.

James Hinchcliffe, who is finishing the season for Andretti Autosport in car 26, which was vacated by Zach Veach, still has nothing set for next season. Coming off of 13th and 14th place finishes in the Harvest Grand Prixs, Hinchcliffe could use a good showing to insure he has a place on the grid next year.

Oliver Askew has been cleared to drive after undergoing concussion protocols. This is Askew’s last drive for Arrow McLaren SP. Askew will look to have a good weekend as he seeks a new ride for 2021. Felix rosenqvist will take Askew’s  seat at AMSP  next season.

Charlie Kimball is not confirmed for another year for A. J. Foyt’s number4 seat. He needs a strong showing to stay in contention for the ride.

The Battle for 22nd

Four cars will be jockeying to finish the season entrant points stand ing in 22nd, the final leader’s Circle spot. Entering St. Pete, Foyt’s number 14 car is in the final slot with 173 points. The 98 is 23rd with 166. The addition of Sebastien Bourdais to the 14 should help Foyt stay within the Circle. The 20 car of Ed Carpenter Racing is 21st with 179 points. One of these three cars will end up on the outside looking in for the $1 million plus payout from Indycar.

The race broadcast is on NBC beginning at 2:30 Eastern time Sunday. The green flag is at 2:32. Cars will be rolling when the broadcast begins and there will be no pre race show. The television window goes to 4:30, which may mean a very brief post race interview with the race winner and series champion.

My picks- Will Power to win the pole and the race. Scott Dixon will take his sixth  series championship.

Look for session reports tomorrow and a race wrap up Sunday evening.