Pato O'Ward

Today’s question: Who will win the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg presented by RP Funding this Sunday (noon ET, NBC, Peacock, Telemundo Deportes on Universo, INDYCAR Radio Network)?

Curt Cavin: I don’t know how anyone outside of Colton Herta and his friends can pick a driver not employed by Team Penske. Yes, Herta won from the pole there in 2021, but Roger Penske’s guys have won three of the past four St. Pete races and 11 of its past 17, with Will Power winning a record nine poles. Scott McLaughlin won from the pole last year, and Power and Josef Newgarden have two wins each in the event. So, I have to choose one of them to win this race? Give me Power, who I think while continuing to drive with a big-picture approach that won him last year’s NTT INDYCAR SERIES championship will attack this track in a bid to win more than one race this season. Power finished third in St. Pete last year after starting on the front row, and I see him dominating this one.

Joey Barnes: Throwing a wild card in the mix (because what’s fun in picking favorites?) and going with Kyle Kirkwood. I like what I saw from that group at The Thermal Club with the open test a few weeks ago. While little, if any, will translate to other circuits on the NTT INDYCAR SERIES calendar, being among the top three in three of four sessions, including P1 in the final bout, is not only encouraging to see how well he’s getting on with the offseason move to Andretti Autosport but is likely a confidence booster, as well. Kirkwood, a native of Jupiter, Florida, wreaked havoc on the Streets of St. Petersburg during his time in the developmental ranks, earning a win and a runner-up in his only weekend in INDY NXT by Firestone in 2021. He also collected wins in both USF2000 and USF Pro 2000 at the 1.8-mile, 14-turn temporary street circuit. Beyond that, Kirkwood showed a knack for street circuits in North America’s premier open-wheel championship during his rookie campaign last year, scoring a 10th-place finish at Long Beach with AJ Foyt Racing. I expect Kirkwood to be the most improved driver of 2023, and that starts at the drop of the green flag at his home track. Like Scott McLaughlin did last year, seeing another first-time winner to kick off the season would be a hell of a lot of fun.

Paul Kelly: Tough call. In a rare instance of a cliché also being true, the competition is so deep this season in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES, so that makes preseason predictions a crapshoot. I thought of looking at the Thermal open test results as tea leaves to read for this weekend, but that smooth, non-abrasive, all-asphalt surface in the California desert doesn’t translate much to the streets of St. Pete. So, this prediction is based on an educated hunch, with a lot more hunch than education: Pato O’Ward will win Sunday. Curt makes a compelling case for a Team Penske driver; it’s tough to ignore the stats. And Joey’s pick of Kyle Kirkwood is smart and solid. Kirkwood has so much to prove this season. But O’Ward was quick in testing in January at notoriously bumpy Sebring and its changing track surfaces, and that seems to be a much closer match to St. Petersburg than Thermal. Plus, I think this is the season we see Pato make a similar mental breakthrough for zen-like consistency, much like Will Power last season en route to winning the Astor Challenge Cup. Sure, O’Ward hasn’t produced great results the last two years at St. Pete, finishing 19th in 2021 and 12th last season. But he was runner-up to Josef Newgarden in 2020, so he can get results there.