Today’s question: What were your takeaways or impressions from the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg presented by RP Funding on Sunday, Feb. 27?
Curt Cavin: Let’s begin with the enormity of the crowd. Wow! Honestly, I had reservations about the early date given how popular the March weekends were with Midwestern spring break crowds. But this illustrates the excitement for the 2022 season, and the race weekend delivered with ultra-competitive action. Still today, I’m surprised by Scott McLaughlin’s performance. I obviously recognize his talent, but he was nowhere to be found in last year’s five street course races (average starting position was 18.8, average finishing position was 16.6). He not only won the NTT P1 Award; he bested the pole master, Will Power, in the final seconds and then didn’t put a wheel wrong in the race despite spending a good chunk of it in traffic. Other observations: Enjoyed watching this rookie class, with Callum Ilott running as high as second and Kyle Kirkwood mixing it up in the top 10. There’s a lot to like about Christian Lundgaard, too. David Malukas had a difficult weekend, but he will be fine in time. As for TV, a big shoutout goes to Hy-Vee, which debuted its first national spot featuring Jack Harvey. That was a pleasant surprise.
Zach Horrall: As Curt pointed out, it's hard not to be impressed with Scott McLaughlin. The guy absolutely crushed it this weekend and earned that win. Much like Alex Palou last season at Barber, it was hard to see coming. But that’s also the obvious answer, so I'm going to highlight three other drivers here that impressed me: First is Rinus VeeKay, who quietly qualified fourth and finished sixth. He ran in the top 10 the entire race, and it was his first top-10 finish since Belle Isle-1 last June, almost nine months ago. That cycling incident really did a number on him, and his best finish in the second half of last season was 16th at Mid-Ohio. Are we seeing the early 2021 version of VeeKay again? I sure hope so. The other two drivers I was impressed with was the AJ Foyt Racing duo of Kyle Kirkwood and Dalton Kellett. Both were victims of the three-stop strategy call that didn't pan out. Kirkwood ran as high as sixth, and I think if he were on a different strategy, he would have finished much higher than 18th. As for Kellett, even though he finished 25th, he had a career weekend in my book. He qualified a career-best 14th (better than the likes of Pato O'Ward, Helio Castroneves and Takuma Sato), and he even had a stint inside the top 10. The first problem for the No. 4 team was the three-stop strategy, but that put out a lot of drivers. Then Kellett had mechanical issues that ended his race early. I would have loved to see what he could have done if given a fair shot.
Paul Kelly: The ability of Chip Ganassi Racing to take lemons and make lemonade. After the opening practice Friday afternoon, it looked like the reigning NTT INDYCAR SERIES championship team never returned from lunch. Marcus Ericsson was the top Ganassi driver, in 15th on the speed chart. Reigning series champion Alex Palou was 17th, Scott Dixon 19th. But plenty of bloodshot eyes from engineers and drivers staring at data overnight resulted in marked improvement during NTT P1 Award qualifying, as Dixon qualified seventh, Ericsson eighth and Palou 10th. The salvage job was completed when it counted during the race Sunday, as Palou finished runner-up to race winner Scott McLaughlin, Dixon ended up eighth and Ericsson ninth. So, in a span of less than 48 hours, Ganassi went from seeing its top three cars 15th or lower to putting that same trio in the top nine at the checkered flag. That’s the kind of cool, composed competency that wins championships and why you never can count out The Chipster’s team at any race.