Ryan Hunter-Reay

The anticipation is building for the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season, but perhaps no one is more eager to get it underway than Ryan Hunter-Reay.

That’s due to a strong return to form last season, which saw the pilot of the No. 28 DHL Honda for Andretti Autosport rise to become a championship contender again. Of any driver in the paddock, he also carries the most momentum into this season as the most recent race winner at last year’s season finale at Sonoma Raceway. And it’s something Hunter-Reay likes to share with anyone who dares poke fun at his age of 38.

Statistically, the numbers from 2018 are scary good.

Hunter-Reay collected two victories, one pole, six podiums, 11 top-10 finishes and 132 laps led over 17 races. Additionally, he set a career-high with 10 top-five results, shattering his previous mark of seven. Collectively, it enabled him to reach fourth place in the final standings, his best championship finish since winning the NTT IndyCar Series title in 2012.

“We had a really strong year last year, just had a bit too many lows – DNFs here and there,” Hunter-Reay said, referencing his four finishes of 18th place or worse.

“(We) just need to lop off those lows and we’ll no doubt be there fighting for the championship at the end if that's the case. Halfway through last year, we were P2 in the championship, really close with Scott (Dixon) and Alex (Rossi) the whole time. We just had a few shortcomings later in the season that prevented us from really staying in there in the championship hunt at Sonoma.”

While the gratification of breaking a 42-race winless streak (in Race 2 of the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix at Belle Isle, where he took a dip in the Scott Fountain to celebrate) and returning to a title contender “was huge,” Hunter-Reay is motivated for more success this season.

“I think as a whole, Andretti Autosport has a very evened-out program,” he said, referring to teammates Rossi, Marco Andretti and Zach Veach. “We're all really strong and working together well. The teammates, we're pushing each other and that's what you want from a four-car team. So far, so good. I think we're all optimistic for 2019.”

The Floridian is looking to come out of the gate swinging when the green flag drops on the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg this weekend. Of his 18 career Indy car victories, none have come at his home race, though he’s finished on the podium four times.

“I'd like to hit the ground running,” Hunter-Reay said. “I know it's an important race, not only for points but to get the momentum going, the energy in the team (and) get the whole season off on the right foot.

“I enjoy the racetrack, finished second and third there a few times now. I've been on that podium four times and haven't won it, so definitely looking forward winning it. It's one of my favorite races just because of the proximity, the location, setting, the whole thing, and the racetrack is awesome.

“It's good fun.”

The Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg is the first of 17 races on the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series schedule. Ticket information is available at gpstpete.com.

A pair of Friday practices (10:45 a.m. and 2:20 p.m. ET) and a Saturday morning practice (10:25 a.m.) from the Florida temporary street course will stream live on INDYCAR Pass, the direct-to-consumer product from NBC Sports Gold. Sign up for INDYCAR Pass at the discounted yearlong price of $49.00 by March 10.

NTT P1 Award qualifying, consisting of three knockout rounds concluding with the Firestone Fast Six, begins at 2:30 p.m. Saturday and airs live on NBCSN and INDYCAR Pass. The 110-lap Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg airs live Sunday on NBCSN (12:30 p.m.) and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network (1 p.m.).