The 2022 NTT INDYCAR SERIES season started with authority at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg presented by RP Funding on Feb. 27, as sunny skies provided close racing yet again on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida.
It was the first time since 2019 that the NTT INDYCAR SERIES season opened on the 14-turn, 1.8-mile temporary street circuit, and it appears many were eager to see the event return to its normal place on the schedule.
An estimated crowd of over 200,000 race fans flocked to the event over the weekend. That’s a 49 percent crowd increase over 2019, the last year the race was held under normal circumstances before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Whether it was Scott McLaughlin scoring his first career win in thrilling fashion by holding off defending NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion Alex Palou, or even two-time NTT INDYCAR SERIES race starer Matthew Brabham scoring a dramatic Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires victory, race fans were rewarded with competitive open-wheel racing action.
Allow us to shift our minds into fifth gear and unpack the 100-lap race in St. Petersburg.
Is McLaughlin the Championship Favorite?
Certainly, that’s a bold prediction to make of McLaughlin with 16 races remaining on the NTT INDYCAR SERIES schedule. But recent trends suggest it’s not as crazy as one might think.
For the last three seasons, the winner of the season-opening race has gone on to win the Astor Challenge Cup. Josef Newgarden did it in 2019, Scott Dixon in 2020 and Palou in 2021.
Several factors play in as to how and why that happens. Above all though, consistency might be the most vital part.
In Newgarden’s title run three years ago, he had just one finish outside the top 10 after the sixth race of the year, a 15th place on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course. As did Dixon in 2020, who finished 12th at Road America-2. Same story goes for Palou last year: he finished 17th at St. Petersburg, the second race of the year.
McLaughlin needs to continue to perform strong like he did Sunday in the No. 3 DEX Imaging Team Penske Chevrolet, but he also needs to minimize risks and take what he can get. This, he knows.
“What won the championship last year was a 7.1 average race result,” he said. “For me it’s just that I want to finish top 10, top eight every race, and if I can do that, I know I’m going to be there. When we’ve got a fourth-place car, we take a fourth place. When we’ve got a 10th place car, we take 10th. When we can win a race, we capitalize. That’s the plan this year.”
Luckily for McLaughlin, the next race on the NTT INDYCAR SERIES calendar couldn’t be better in helping to build his consistency: the XPEL 375 on Sunday, March 20 at Texas Motor Speedway. Last year, he finished second at TMS in his first oval race, then finished eighth the following day on the 1.5-mile track in a doubleheader weekend.
It’s too early to say for certain McLaughlin is the championship favorite, and we should have a clearer image of his chances after the sixth race this season, the 106th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge on Sunday, May 29.
But stay on your toes. After all, it was just last season that a driver opened his second full-time season with his first career win and parlayed it into a championship.
Grosjean Starts Strong with Andretti
One of the key storylines to watch this season is going to be how Romain Grosjean performs with Andretti Autosport and if being paired with a powerhouse organization will turn him into a championship contender.
So far, so good for the driver of the No. 28 DHL Honda, who showed marked improvement on street courses in his first attempt on them with Andretti Autosport, starting and finishing fifth in St. Petersburg.
It was one of Grosjean’s most consistent race weekends to date. He paced the opening practice session of the weekend, made the Firestone Fast Six in qualifying and ran in the top 10 all day.
He rose from seventh to fifth over the final three laps to score his fifth career top-five finish. More importantly, he improved upon his previous best finish on a street course with ease. Before last weekend, his best finish on a street course was 13th at St. Petersburg last year.
In 2021, his average finish on road courses was 7.2, while his average finish on street courses was 20th. If Grosjean wanted to become an NTT INDYCAR SERIES title contender, it was obvious this was one area that needed fixing.
Consider it fixed. The Frenchman must feel confident about street courses because he already has his sights set on the next one April 10, the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach.
But first comes Texas Motor Speedway’s fast, 1.5-mile oval on March 20, an entirely different beast for the ex-Formula One driver and another hurdle he must overcome if he wants to win the Astor Cup.
“We lacked a bit of something today, but we are going to work hard to come back the next race,” he said. “The next street course is Long Beach, so we should be good there. I am looking forward to going testing in Texas now.”
Key Title Contenders Leave St. Petersburg Wanting More
One of the most exciting and interesting aspects of this past weekend’s race was the pit strategy that played out during the 100-lap race.
Generally, teams will elect to go with a two-stop strategy or a three-stop strategy. On Sunday, it was the two-stop strategy that reigned supreme, while a three-stopper left many others out to dry.
One of those who was left behind was two-time NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion Newgarden, who finished second in the points last season. His No. 2 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet team elected to pit three times instead of the race winning two-stop strategy.
Newgarden played catch-up all afternoon on a tight and narrow street course that places a premium on passing. After starting ninth, Newgarden was forced to settle for a 16th-place finish.
And then there’s Andretti Autosport’s Herta, who started third and finished fourth in a solid day. But knowing what could have been makes the top-five finish frustrating.
Herta, like nine of the top 10 finishing drivers, was on a two-stop pit strategy. Knowing the speed he had this weekend and how he dominated this race last season by leading 97 of 100 laps en route to victory, two stops seemed like a recipe for success. But fueling issues prevented the No. 26 Gainbridge Honda team from filling the car’s tank on Herta’s first pit stop.
That forced Herta to pit lane earlier than the rest of the drivers on the two-stop strategy and forced him to conserve fuel late in the race, eventually finishing 15 seconds back of race winner McLaughlin.
While it’s the ones that got away that hurt the most, this is exactly the performance Herta needed if he wants to contend for a championship. Last season, he was feast or famine: He either contended for a win, or he often finished outside the top 10. This time around, Herta found himself with a consistent finish.
It might hurt now, but it will pay dividends down the road.
As for Newgarden, rising from that far back in the championship won’t be easy, but he proved last season it’s possible. He finished 23rd in last year’s season-opener at Barber Motorsports Park. Still, Newgarden found himself racing for his third NTT INDYCAR SERIES championship in the final race of the season at Long Beach.
Sato Rebounds for Strong Start with New Team
Had you told Takuma Sato on Saturday night that he’d walk away from St. Petersburg with a top-10 finish, he might not have believed you.
Saturday was a hectic day that started with a crash in practice. He was at the end of a line of cars that had slowed on track entering Turn 10. Romain Grosjean didn’t slow fast enough and rammed into the back of Sato’s No. 51 NURTEC ODT Honda.
The incident sent Sato’s new team, Dale Coyne Racing with Rick Ware Racing, thrashing to repair the car in time for qualifying. They fixed the rear of the car, but Sato placed 11th of 13 cars in Round 1 Group 2 of qualifying, placing him 22nd on the grid.
The irony is that Sato drives the car Grosjean drove last year in his rookie NTT INDYCAR SERIES season. And like Grosjean proved at times throughout 2021, Sato found speed in the car on Race Day.
Sato charged hard through the field in his 200th career NTT INDYCAR SERIES race. He gained four positions on Lap 1, and with the help of pit stops, he entered the top 10 for the first time on Lap 13. From there, he ran around or just inside the top 10 for most of the race before finishing 10th.
The performance made him the biggest mover of the race, rising 12 spots from start to finish in a race slowed by just one caution period.
“We had a fun start and made a couple of places up and had a solid performance in every stint,” Sato said. “Normally, a lot of things happen in St. Petersburg, but it didn’t this year. It was a great effort from the team. This weekend went really well, and I’m settling in well with the team.”
Up Next: Texas
The NTT INDYCAR SERIES has two weekends off before it returns to action at Texas Motor Speedway for the first oval race of the season, the XPEL 375 on Sunday, March 20.
After decades of hosting a summer race, this track has moved closer to the springtime and transitioned from a summer classic to a spring spectacular that will have serious championship implications.
Texas is a fast, ferocious 1.5-mile oval where even the slightest misstep can ruin a driver’s race. Now with its spot as the second race of the season, its chances of ruining a championship run, which are built around early-season success, are even higher.
It can also make a championship run. Since 2018, the winner of the NTT INDYCAR SERIES race at Texas has either won the championship or been in contention at the end of the year. Dixon won at Texas during his championship runs in 2018 and 2020, as did Newgarden in 2019. Last year, Pato O’Ward won at Texas and was in the title fight right down to the end with Palou and Newgarden.
Live coverage beings at 12:30 p.m. (ET), live on NBC and INDYCAR Radio Network.