Alex Palou

Note: This new series will identify trends and provide statistics and other information fans need to know between the end of NTT P1 Award qualifying and Race Day for every NTT INDYCAR SERIES event.

Finally, the 2024 NTT INDYCAR SERIES season is squarely at hand.

SEE: Starting Lineup

On Sunday, 27 eager car-and-driver combinations line up for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg presented by RP Funding, the first race of the year. There is much at stake, with nearly half of the drivers aiming for their first career series win.

Five drivers have won this event in the past, including NTT P1 Award winner Josef Newgarden (No. 2 PPG Team Penske Chevrolet) and No. 8 starter Will Power (No. 12 Verizon Business Team Penske Chevrolet), who have done so twice each. Marcus Ericsson went to victory lane last year, although that was as a Chip Ganassi Racing driver. Today, he suits up with Andretti Global in the No. 28 Delaware Life Honda. He will start sixth.

Twelve cars in the field are occupied by different full-time drivers. Five of those drivers are rookies. Three will be taking the green flag for the first time in this series.

There can be only one winner.

Many other storylines are in play. Consider this a “What to Watch For” primer for the 100-lap race (noon ET, NBC, Peacock, Universo, INDYCAR Radio Network).

The Weather: It will be cloudier than in some years, but expect moderate temperatures – perhaps 72 degrees as the race begins. However, the Florida humidity will test the drivers, as it usually does. Newgarden was dripping in sweat Saturday after winning the pole. He said drivers aren’t yet race fit as they will be later in the season. “You can do all the training you want in the offseason, but the best training is being in the car,” he said. “The race is always about survival, but you’ve got to grit up.” Power called being in the cockpit “like a bloody sauna.”

The Strategy: These races are too competitive to play nice in the back of the pack. A driver with thoughts of winning (or even finishing in the top five) needs to get up front as soon as possible or get a timely caution to circulate toward it. Either way, it’s anyone’s guess on the best route forward. From a tire and fuel standpoint, the straightforward play is two stops, but the number of cautions and the timeliness of them often alters that. Power said the primary Firestone Firehawk tires “are harder this year and have longer life,” so there could be some unique strategies in play. Said Andretti Global’s Kyle Kirkwood (No. 27 AutoNation Honda): “Two stops, three stops … it’s always a question here.”

The Track’s Trouble Spots: History suggests there are several on the 14-turn, 1.8-mile temporary street circuit, but watch three. Last year, Turn 3 on the opening lap is where seven cars were gobbled up and two got airborne. New asphalt there removed a historically pesky bump. Just down from that corner is the inviting, right-handed Turn 4, where several incidents have occurred over the years. Two race leaders pounded the tire barrier together last year. Then there’s Turn 10, a hard left-hander where the run-off area often finds cars. Bottom line: It’s a tight course, with trouble always lurking.

The Grid: Newgarden has the pole, but there are surprises throughout the field. Felix Rosenqvist’s first race in the No. 60 AutoNation/SiriusXM Honda has Meyer Shank Racing stoked after he qualified second. Last year’s pole winner, Romain Grosjean (No. 77 Juncos Hollinger Racing Chevrolet), has his new team primed for a good result after he qualified fifth. Five teams comprised the Firestone Fast Six qualifying session, and there were no Chip Ganassi Racing drivers included. There was only one from Team Penske. Rinus VeeKay (No. 21 Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet) starts seventh. Clearly, it’s a new season, and there will be other challengers. The past 10 St. Pete winners had an average starting position of 6.2, with Sebastien Bourdais winning from the 14th and 21st position. It can be done from the mid-pack or back.

The Former Race Winners: The field includes 14 drivers who have won a combined 173 races and 10 championships in this series. Power has 41 of those race wins. His next win ties him with Michael Andretti for fourth place on the sport’s all-time list. Newgarden’s next win gives him 30. Only 12 drivers in history have as many series wins. Discount second-row starters Pato O’Ward (No. 5 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet) and Colton Herta (No. 26 Gainbridge Honda) at your risk. Herta won this event in 2021.

The Non-Winners: Grosjean heads the list given that he’s finished second in five races in this series. He desperately wanted to win last year’s race, but his bid ended against the Turn 4 tire barrier amid a torrid fight for the lead with Scott McLaughlin (No. 3 DEX Imaging Team Penske Chevrolet). Marcus Armstrong (No. 11 Ridgeline Lubricants Chip Ganassi Racing Honda) and rookie Linus Lundqvist (No. 8 American Legion Chip Ganassi Racing Honda) are others who could score their first series victories this weekend. And don’t rule out Callum Ilott, who is subbing for the injured David Malukas in the No. 6 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet.

INDY NXT by Firestone: Nolan Siegel of HMD Motorsports will lead the field of 21 entries to the green flag for the 45-lap INDY NXT by Firestone of St. Petersburg shortly after 10 a.m. today. Only three drivers in the field have won races in this series, and none of them have won this event. The action will air on Peacock, INDYCAR LIVE and the INDYCAR Radio Network.