Kyle Kirkwood

Note: This is a new feature series in which Eric Smith of takes a fun look before each NTT INDYCAR SERIES race at drivers who enter the weekend with an inside line to victory lane and drivers who could surprise with a strong result.

Sunday’s NTT INDYCAR SERIES season opener, the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg presented by RP Funding (noon ET, NBC, Peacock, Universo, INDYCAR Radio Network) is upon us. This primer sets the scene with five drivers to watch as favorites and five more drivers to watch as sleepers who could sneak their way to victory lane on the 1.8-mile circuit through the city streets.


Josef Newgarden (No. 2 PPG Team Penske Chevrolet)

Newgarden began his Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg presented by RP Funding career 0-for-7. That’s not just in terms of victories, but also top five finishes. He’s since done a 180. In the last five races, Newgarden has two wins and a runner-up finish. The Team Penske driver has four street course victories overall in the last five seasons, with eight top-10 finishes over his last 10 street course starts.

Scott McLaughlin (No. 3 DEX Imaging Team Penske Chevrolet)

If not for a crash with Romain Grosjean while battling for the lead on Lap 71 of last year’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg by RP Funding, McLaughlin could very well be the two-time defending winner of this event. He led 49 of 100 laps from the pole to win in 2022. McLaughlin enters the 2024 season opener on the heels of 11 consecutive top-10 finishes to close out 2023, including seven front-row qualifying efforts over the final eight events.

Colton Herta (No. 26 Gainbridge Honda)

Herta led 97 of the 100 laps from the pole in his 2021 victory here. He was fourth in 2022, and while he qualified on the front row a year ago, his run-in with Will Power on Lap 50 relegated him to a 20th-place result. Herta still had four top-eight finishes in five street course starts in 2022, and his best two finishes of the 2023 season were a fourth-place result on the streets of Long Beach and a third place at the Honda Indy Toronto street circuit.

Alex Palou (No. 10 DHL Chip Ganassi Racing Honda)

Street courses have become some of Palou’s better circuits. His worst finish among his last 10 street course tries is eighth. That came in last year’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg presented by RP Funding. Still, he has six podium finishes and nine top-six results on these tracks during that span, including a runner-up in the 2022 race around the 1.8-mile Florida street course. Palou enters this weekend with 18 consecutive top-eight finishes, including six wins, 11 podiums and 14 top fives.

Scott Dixon (No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda)

Dixon may be 0-for-19 in the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg by RP Funding, but the six-time NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion does have four podium finishes in his last seven starts on the track. He’s also finished eighth or better every year since 2016. Over his last 10 street course starts overall, Dixon has two wins (Toronto, Nashville) and eight top-six results, including four of his five finishes last season being fifth or better. Also, Dixon had 16 top-seven finishes in 17 starts a season ago and finished the season with three wins over the final four races. His average finishing spot on the season from St. Pete to the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge was ninth. Over the final 11 races, it was 3.36.


Kyle Kirkwood (No. 27 AutoNation Honda)

Kirkwood has the potential to shine in Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg by RP Funding. While he finished just 18th and 15th, respectively, in his two St. Petersburg starts, he’s shown more speed than that. In the development series on the streets of St. Petersburg, Kirkwood finished first and second, respectively, in Indy NXT by Firestone in 2021, 14th and second in Indy Pro 2000 and first and fifth in USF2000. Last year, he scored his first two NTT INDYCAR SERIES wins on street courses, at Long Beach and Nashville. He finished the 2023 season with five finishes of 11th or better over the final seven events.

Marcus Ericsson (No. 28 Delaware Life Honda)

The reigning Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg presented by RP Funding race winner is a “sleeper” because while he’s a three-time winner on street circuits in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES, he’s also scored just two top-five finishes in his last 10 street course starts overall. The car he’s driving won the pole last season at the hands of Romain Grosjean. Ericsson was quickest in the preseason test last week at Sebring International Raceway, the final prep for St. Pete.

Christian Lundgaard (No. 45 Hy-Vee Honda)

The Dane finished ninth in last year’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg by RP Funding. But he earned his first career win on the streets of Toronto in a dominant performance after capturing the NTT P1 Award.

Romain Grosjean (No. 77 Juncos Hollinger Racing Chevrolet)

Last season, this car started fifth at St. Petersburg with Callum Ilott behind the wheel. Grosjean has moved to that car this season, and both he and JHR have been strong starters in the early portion of the NTT INDYCAR SERIES calendar. Seven of Grosjean’s 16 top-10 finishes and four of his five runner-up results in 47 career NTT INDYCAR SERIES starts have come before June. He was runner-up in the GMR Grand Prix in May 2021 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Children’s of Alabama Indy Grand Prix in April 2023 at Barber Motorsports Park and each of the last two years in the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach in April. JHR has five career INDYCAR SERIES top-10 finishes, three occurring before June.

Felix Rosenqvist (No. 60 AutoNation/SiriusXM Honda)

Watch out for the Swede this weekend. Rosenqvist had three top-10 finishes in the final four street course events last year, including a third place in June’s Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix. In 2022, he had three top-10 finishes in five street races, too. As a rookie in 2019 during the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg presented by RP Funding, Rosenqvist qualified third, led 31 laps and finished fourth. Meyer Shank Racing also has good cars at St. Pete. Jack Harvey finished fourth after qualifying on the front row in 2021.

Sunday’s 100-lap race comes on the air at noon ET on NBC, Peacock and the INDYCAR Radio Network, with audio available on SiriusXM Channel 218 and the INDYCAR App powered by NTT DATA. A Spanish-language version of the broadcast will be available on Universo.