Today’s question: What driver with legitimate eyes on winning the 2023 NTT INDYCAR SERIES championship most did themselves a solid in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg presented by RP Funding?
Curt Cavin: Any of the podium finishers deserve a nod, but I’m leaning more to Will Power, who hopes to become the first repeat series champion since Dario Franchitti in 2011. Power was flagged for mid-race avoidable contact with Colton Herta in Turn 8 and restarted at the back of the field on Lap 54 (of 100). Power stood 15th at the time, and he spent the rest of the race clawing his way back through the field. In fact, he was still 11th on the restart at Lap 79, which is where he overhauled rookie Agustin Canapino and Christian Lundgaard to get to ninth place. On Lap 82 he passed Josef Newgarden for eighth and on Lap 99 picked up another position at Alex Palou’s expense. Finishing seventh might not seem like a big deal, especially when Power had only four lower finishes last year, but he likely would have scored only nine points had he gone into the tire barrier with Herta. Instead, he left St. Pete with 26, and those figure to be worth remembering come September.
Joey Barnes: There were several drivers that helped – and hurt – their respective chances to capture the Astor Challenge Cup after just one race weekend into the 2023 season. While it is hard to argue the likes of race winner Marcus Ericsson making the most of the occasion, I’ll go with a less obvious choice and point out Alexander Rossi’s under-the-radar fourth-place effort in his debut with Arrow McLaren. My reasoning for it is based more on historical value than anything else (because, after all, over-analyzing is what we do). The outing by Rossi is reminiscent of two other notable drivers that recently went along the same path in switching teams but finding success: Josef Newgarden and Alex Palou. In 2017, Newgarden made the move to Team Penske from Ed Carpenter Racing and finished eighth on the 1.8-mile, 14-turn street circuit, which would ultimately kick-start the march toward the first of his two INDYCAR SERIES titles. In similar fashion, Palou relocated from Dale Coyne Racing to Chip Ganassi Racing in 2021 and, exactly like Newgarden, finished eighth at St. Petersburg en route to his maiden – and only – INDYCAR championship. So, considering Rossi did even better with a top-five result, his third in eight starts at St. Petersburg, I think history teases there could be something special to this tandem this year.
Paul Kelly: Scott Dixon, who did “Scott Dixon Things™” once again to finish third in St. Pete. Dixon led the opening practice but then fell through the order in subsequent sessions, ending up 13th in the second practice and ninth in qualifying, before rallying to third in the morning warm-up in the No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda. Still, Dixon’s race could have been over a few turns after it started when he made contact with Felix Rosenqvist on the first lap. But he kept on trucking and avoided the ensuing carnage that engulfed many other drivers at various points during the race, ending up third. It was the 193rd top-five finish of his Hall of Fame career, tying fellow legend Mario Andretti for the INDYCAR SERIES record. Dixon also climbed six spots from the starting grid to score 36 points, and those extra chips could prove pivotal in September. I’ve long stopped asking myself the question, “How the hell does Scott Dixon do it?” when it comes to having this invisible force field around him as he drives through and around calamity and misfortune seemingly multiple times every season. Bottom line: He did it again, and that will fortify his bid for a record-tying seventh Astor Challenge Cup. Dixon’s “nine lives” combination of incredible talent, accrued wisdom and good fortune has helped him finish in the top three of the INDYCAR SERIES standings an astonishing 14 times in his 22 seasons in the series. Is anyone betting against that number climbing to 15 this season? You’re a fool if you do.