St. Pete scenic shot

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – The showdown between Scott Dixon and Josef Newgarden for the NTT INDYCAR SERIES championship will reach a thrilling climax at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on Sunday, Oct. 25.

It will be the 15th consecutive season in which the winner of the Astor Challenge Cup as season champion is decided at the final race of the year. Dixon leads Newgarden by 32 points and must finish ninth or better in the No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda to earn his sixth championship, just one behind the all-time INDYCAR record set by the immortal A.J. Foyt.

That storyline is deservedly consuming most of the attention leading into the 14th and final race of the 2020 season, which starts at 2:30 p.m. (ET), with live coverage on NBC and the Pennzoil INDYCAR Radio Network. But look a little deeper, and there are plenty of other intriguing storylines to digest and follow as the series heads to the 14-turn, 1.8-mile temporary circuit that incorporates the scenic city streets of St. Petersburg and part of a runway at the Albert Whitted Airport.

First, the main event.

Newgarden has produced a strong stretch run to trim Dixon’s lead from 117 to 32 points in the last five races, giving him a remote but mathematical chance to repeat as champion and earn his third title overall in the No. 1 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet.

While the 19,872 possible championship permutations between Dixon and Newgarden include some that would deliver a title to Newgarden without a win, Newgarden knows that victory will deliver him the best possible path to a title.

A victory by Newgarden isn’t out of the question, either, based on current form and history.

Newgarden’s victory Oct. 2 in the first race of a doubleheader at the INDYCAR Harvest GP presented by GMR on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course is one of four consecutive finishes of eighth or better heading into St. Pete. Meanwhile, Dixon’s best finish in the same span is eighth in the second Harvest GP race.

Plus, Tennessee native Newgarden is the defending champion of this event. He opened the 2019 season by leading 60 of 110 laps and beating runner-up Dixon to the finish by 2.8998 seconds. Dixon has never won at St. Pete.

Team Penske also has dominated this race, winning nine of the 16 editions, including four of the last six. St. Pete is ground zero for Penske perfect execution.

But New Zealand driver Dixon has finished 10th or lower this season in just three of 13 races this season. So, he has math and season-long speed and reliability on his side. Plus, Dixon is renowned for his cool within the white-hot crucible of pressure – his nickname is “The Iceman,” after all.

One exciting subplot that will involve every team and driver, not just Dixon and Newgarden, is that the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg is the first and only street-circuit race of the season.

Street circuits concoct an equal mix of excitement and tension because of their unforgiving, exacting nature. Drivers must be inch-perfect while snaking between concrete walls that offer no mercy and over varied road surfaces that offer sometimes-perplexing changes in grip.

Plus, there’s always the famous Turn 1 of the St. Petersburg circuit to add more drama. The front straightaway that includes the start-finish line is on a wide concrete runway of Albert Whitted Airport before funneling into a tight right-hander on asphalt. Countless dreams of victory have ended with bumping wheels or crunched carbon fiber in that Calamity Corner, and the stakes couldn’t be higher than this weekend.

While Dixon and Newgarden face a race-long fight for the title, another coveted prize of the 2020 season should be decided seconds after the green flag.

Rinus VeeKay only needs to start the race in the No. 20 SONAX Chevrolet fielded by Ed Carpenter Racing to clinch the series Rookie of the Year crown. VeeKay, 20, is 54 points ahead of fellow rookie Alex Palou of Dale Coyne Racing with Team Goh and would love to punctuate his strong, speedy rookie season with his first career NTT INDYCAR SERIES victory.

While VeeKay will grab deserved watts of the spotlight this weekend, another rookie also is drawing attention.

Scott McLaughlin will make his long-awaited NTT INDYCAR SERIES debut in the No. 3 Shell V-Power Nitro+ Chevrolet fielded by Team Penske. McLaughlin, 27, from New Zealand, just clinched his third consecutive Virgin Supercars Australia championship for DJR Team Penske. He was scheduled to debut in the GMR Grand Prix in early May at IMS for Team Penske after two very impressive showings in preseason testing, but that plan was altered when the COVID-19 pandemic forced a postponement of that race until July 4.

McLaughlin’s career path for 2021 hasn’t been announced, but he’s made no secret that he would love the chance to emulate his racing idol Dixon and move to the United States to race full time in INDYCAR.

The Kiwi won’t be the only driver auditioning for 2021 this weekend. There are some current full-time INDYCAR drivers who will want to fill team owners’ memories with a good performance heading into the offseason, increasing their chances of keeping or finding a seat.

While most eyeballs will be focused on the race for the drivers’ championship this weekend, the INDYCAR Manufacturers Championship also is on the line at St. Petersburg.

Honda leads Chevrolet by 54 points and must score at least 43 points to clinch its third consecutive manufacturers’ title. That deal will be sealed if a Honda-powered driver wins the race or the top two Honda-powered drivers finish in the top nine.

Practice takes place from 10:55 a.m.-12:25 p.m. (ET) Saturday, Oct. 24, with qualifying for the NTT P1 Award starting at 3:05 p.m. The race warm-up is set for 10:40 a.m. Sunday, with the 100-lap, 180-mile race starting at 2:30 p.m.

NBC will televise the race live, with a delayed qualifying telecast at 8 p.m. Saturday on NBCSN. Every on-track session except for the race is streamed live on INDYCAR Pass on NBC Sports Gold.