Streets of St. Petersburg

Today marks the start of the 2023 NTT INDYCAR SERIES season, which means it’s time to find out who will set the early pace toward winning the Astor Challenge Cup after a 17-race grind.

For now, all eyes for the start of the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg presented by RP Funding are on Andretti Autosport, which has had success in recent years on temporary street circuits and road courses with similar characteristics.

Andretti Autosport teammates Romain Grosjean and Colton Herta will start on the front row together, with the newbie on Michael Andretti’s organization, Kyle Kirkwood, only a couple of rows back after damaging his car in Saturday’s Firestone Fast Six round. Kirkwood, the driver of the No. 27 AutoNation Honda, hit the wall hard with the left side after locking up his car’s brakes. He will start fifth.

Grosjean won the NTT P1 Award as the fastest qualifier Saturday for the second time in his series career. He also started in the enviable top position for the 2021 GMR Grand Prix on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, a race in which he finished second to Rinus VeeKay of Ed Carpenter Racing. After four career top-three finishes, he’s eager – and due – to see the checkers in the lead.

Team Penske has been the gold standard of St. Petersburg racing, winning 11 of the 17 races and 11 poles since 2006, but its drivers have some work to do. Last year’s race winner Scott McLaughlin, who won from the pole, will start sixth after an incident in the Firestone Fast Six. His car didn’t suffer as much damage as Kirkwood’s, but both cars will be ready for the 100-lap race at noon ET on NBC, Peacock, Telemundo Deportes on Universo and the INDYCAR Radio Network, including SiriusXM Channel 160.

Watch the Weather

The weather could be a factor as light precipitation is possible up until the start of race time.

Florida has a history of heavy downpours, but the radar doesn’t suggest one of those kinds of days. Still, even the slightest amount of moisture on the 14-turn, 1.8-mile temporary street circuit could make for interesting action. Officials are expecting a big crowd on hand by the time the green flag waves.

Also keep an eye on the temperatures. While today might be slightly cooler than each of the past two on-track days, drivers competing for the first time since September must navigate this course 100 times, most in heated competition. It could get toasty – including the tempers of these competitive drivers.

The Field is Tight

Nothing new here, but it’s worth noting that 14 of the 27 drivers have won races in this series. But two that haven’t won a series race are Grosjean and Kirkwood, and both have had fast cars all weekend.

Grosjean has three second-place finishes and another podium finish in his 30 races over the past two seasons. But he has led very few races – six to be exact – for a total of 56 laps. Grosjean figures to grab the lead early and try to keep a hold on it in the No. 28 DHL Honda.

Meanwhile, Herta said Saturday that he would be in a good position if he ducks his No. 26 Gainbridge Honda in behind Grosjean at the start and lets the race play out from there. Whether that’s the seven-time race winner just saying all the right things ahead of what figures to be an aggressive start by the front half of the field remains to seen, but it will be interesting.

Pato O’Ward (No. 5 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet) rolls off third and looks to get this bounce-back season off to a good start. His 12th-place finish in last year’s season opener made it a battle the rest of the year, and he finished seventh.

Previous St. Pete Winners

As mentioned, this race has been Team Penske’s playground, with all three current drivers contributing to the success. But there’s work to be done to continue the trend.

Will Power, a two-time winner and the fastest qualifier a staggering nine times, must try to come from the 10th starting spot in the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet if he is to win his first race here since 2014. Josef Newgarden, also a two-time winner, will start 14th in the No. 2 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet, and he was none too happy about failing to transfer to the second round of qualifying.

Helio Castroneves has won this event three times – all with Team Penske – but this will be his second attempt to reach victory lane in the No. 06 AutoNation/SiriusXM Honda of Meyer Shank Racing. He will be 15th on the grid with teammate Simon Pagenaud on the last row due to the No. 60 AutoNation/SiriusXM Honda ending up in the tire barrier in Turn 4 in the first round of qualifying. Pagenaud is one of the few Team Penske drivers over the years not to have won here (Ryan Briscoe and Juan Pablo Montoya twice won here).

Graham Rahal won this event in 2008 and starts deeper in the field – 20th – than is preferred, but he was much happier with his No. 15 United Rentals Honda of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing on Saturday. So, he’s one to watch, especially if his crew can land the right pit strategy.

Other Items of Note

Watch for two stops and for teams to use Firestone’s primary set of tires as much as possible. One hundred laps await with barriers lining either side.

It’s also Debut Day for INDY NXT by Firestone, with series rookie Louis Foster starting the 19-car field from the pole at 9:50 a.m. (Peacock, INDYCAR Radio Network). Foster became the third Andretti Autosport driver in four years to win the pole for a race in this series.

Drivers, start your engines.