Scott McLaughlin

The first race weekend of the new NTT INDYCAR SERIES season is upon us, and the list of storylines couldn’t be more rich and plentiful.

From faces in different places to new races, the 17-race pursuit of the Astor Challenge Cup award to the series champion will be fast and furious.

SEE: Spotter Guide | Weekend Schedule

It begins with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg presented by RP Funding (noon ET, NBC, Peacock, Universo, INDYCAR Radio Network).

A look at what’s ahead on the 14-turn, 1.8 street circuit:

27 Entries

The 27-driver field is again deep in quantity and quality.

Only 28 drivers in series history have won multiple season championships, and four of them will take the green flag in St. Pete. That’s Scott Dixon, the driver of the No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda who has won six titles, and Will Power (No. 12 Verizon Business Team Penske Chevrolet), Josef Newgarden (No. 2 PPG Team Penske Chevrolet) and Alex Palou (No. 10 DHL Chip Ganassi Racing Honda), who have won two championships each. Five drivers have won the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge, including the top two finishers in last year’s classic at Indianapolis Motor Speedway (Newgarden and Marcus Ericsson, who drives the No. 28 Delaware Life Honda).

Two of the three former Formula One drivers – Ericsson and Romain Grosjean (No. 77 Juncos Hollinger Racing Chevrolet) – have new teams for 2024. Heck, 44 percent of the seats are occupied by different drivers this year.

There is a Fittipaldi back in the lineup – Pietro Fittipaldi (No. 30 OAKBERRY PneuStore Honda) is a grandson of the legendary Emerson Fittipaldi and returns for the first time since Indy in 2021 -- and there are the past three champions of INDY NXT by Firestone (Kyle Kirkwood in the No. 27 AutoNation Honda, Linus Lundqvist in the No. 8 American Legion Chip Ganassi Racing Honda and Christian Rasmussen in the No. 20 Guy Care Chevrolet, respectively).

Dale Coyne Racing and Meyer Shank Racing have completely new driver lineups. Chip Ganassi Racing has expanded to five entries. Team Penske is the only change-free team on the grid.

And then there are the rookies, five to be exact.

Yeah, a lot is different for 2024.

The Changes

It’s difficult to remember a season with this many changes to the driver list.

Ericsson left Chip Ganassi’s organization after four seasons to join a strong group at Andretti Global that includes fellow race winners Kirkwood and Colton Herta (No. 26 Gainbridge Honda). Ganassi added Lundqvist and Kyffin Simpson, a 19-year-old making his series debut this weekend in the No. 4 Journie Rewards Chip Ganassi Racing Honda.

Felix Rosenqvist went from Arrow McLaren to Meyer Shank Racing to drive the No. 60 AutoNation/SiriusXM Honda, and David Malukas filled Rosenqvist’s former seat in the No. 6 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet. There’s a change within that change, too, as Malukas recently broke his wrist in a mountain bike accident and will be replaced by Callum Ilott this weekend.

Malukas had been at Dale Coyne Racing for two years, and his place in the No. 18 INVEST Honda was filled mostly by Jack Harvey. Sports car champion Colin Braun has joined DCR in the No. 51 Honda for the season’s first two races, driving in the spot where Sting Ray Robb was last year. Robb is now at AJ Foyt Racing in the No. 41 AJ FOYT RACING/PRAY.COM Chevrolet alongside Santino Ferrucci, who finished third in last year’s “500” in the No. 14 AJ FOYT RACING/SEXTON PROPERTIES Chevrolet.

Tom Blomqvist’s role at Meyer Shank Racing has expanded from three fill-in races last year to full time this year, and he’ll drive the No. 66 AutoNation/Arctic Wolf Honda. He and Braun were teammates in MSR’s IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship program, winning last year’s Rolex 24 At Daytona. Helio Castroneves, who was their teammate in sports cars, is a part-owner of this organization and will drive in the “500” this year.

Grosjean took Ilott’s seat at Juncos Hollinger Racing. Rasmussen, last year’s INDY NXT by Firestone champion, will drive the No. 20 Chevrolet of Ed Carpenter Racing on the road courses and street circuits. Carpenter will be in the car for the oval races, including the “500,” and Rasmussen will drive a third entry at Indy for the organization.

Which leaves Team Penske and its usual set of drivers: Newgarden, Power and Scott McLaughlin (No. 3 DEX Imaging Team Penske Chevrolet).

The Rookies

Given the way Lundqvist debuted last year in three races with Meyer Shank Racing – he reached the second round of qualifying in his first two opportunities – and the fact he now drives for the organization that finished 1-2 in the point standings last year, he must be considered the favorite to win the Rookie of the Year Award.

The other full-time newcomers are Blomqvist and Simpson.

Rasmussen (11 races), INDY NXT by Firestone driver Nolan Siegel (four) and Braun (two for now) likely can’t score enough points as partial-season competitors to challenge Lundqvist, although Marcus Armstrong earned the honor last year despite competing in only 12 of the 17 races. He returns to the No. 11 Ridgeline Lubricants Chip Ganassi Racing Honda.

The other rookie so far confirmed to participate this season is Kyle Larson (No. 17 Arrow McLaren Honda) at the “500.”

The Title Contenders

Fourteen drivers in the St. Pete field – that’s more than 50 percent – have won races in this series. That includes Dixon (56 wins), Power (41) and Newgarden (29). Seven more drivers have won at least four series races. Grosjean, Ferrucci and Harvey have been top-three finishers in races in this series.

Palou, who has won two of the past three series titles, opens as the driver to beat for this championship. He is coming off a season in which he became the first driver using this point system since Dan Wheldon in 2005 to secure the title ahead of the season’s final race.

The increase in oval races this season – from five last year to seven this year – offers a big boost to Newgarden’s odds of securing a third series championship. Newgarden has won eight of the past 11 oval races since the 2021 “500.” The new oval races on the schedule are at The Milwaukee Mile (a doubleheader on Aug. 31 and Sept. 1) and at Nashville Superspeedway (Sept. 15).

If Palou and Newgarden are to be beaten, maybe Dixon is the one to do it. A reminder: Dixon has won the past three races held at Nashville Superspeedway (2006-2008), and last year he won three of the season’s final four races. Surprisingly, Dixon has never won in St. Pete despite 19 starts, but he regularly does well in the event. He has four second-place finishes with three thirds, including last year.

A host of other veterans also has eyes on the crown. McLaughlin finished third last year and has gotten stronger with each NTT INDYCAR SERIES season. Power should be in for a bounce-back season. Pato O’Ward (No. 5 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet) and Alexander Rossi (No. 7 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet) are worthy contenders, too, as are all three of Andretti Global’s drivers (Ericsson, Kirkwood and Herta).

There are always surprises among the upper echelon of the point standings, too.