Streets of St. Petersburg

Note: This new series looks back at major moments and overlooked nuggets from each NTT INDYCAR SERIES event weekend.

Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden delivered a memorable performance in the opening race of the NTT INDYCAR SERIES season, but his commanding performance Sunday in the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg presented by RP Funding could leave a lasting impression.

A quick start to the season could spell trouble for the rest of the title hopefuls as Newgarden, a two-time series champion, has won eight of the past 11 oval races over the past three seasons. Nearly half of the remaining races this season – seven of the next 16 – are on such tracks.

But there were many memorable moments over the weekend, and notes five in this edition of Instant Recall.

Newgarden Storms Back in Qualifying

Ahead of qualifying, the driver of the No. 2 PPG Team Penske Chevrolet hadn’t shown he would be a contender for the NTT P1 Award. His fastest lap in Friday’s season-opening practice ranked 11th of the 27 car-and-driver combinations.

Saturday morning, Newgarden was second on the speed chart, and then he was fourth in Group 1 of qualifying. He was third in the second round, the only Team Penske driver to advance to the Firestone Fast Six that determined the pole sitter. But he flourished in that session.

Newgarden was eight-tenths of a second quicker in the Firestone Fast Six than he had been earlier in the day in practice, edging Meyer Shank Racing’s Felix Rosenqvist (No. 60 AutoNation/SiriusXM Honda) by .0058 of a second for the pole. That was the closest front row for an INDYCAR SERIES street race since June 2012 at Detroit, when Scott Dixon edged Will Power by .0044 of a second.

Newgarden scored the 18th pole of his career, extending his mark of consecutive seasons with at least one pole to eight. More importantly, he set himself up for a big day Sunday.

A Clean Start

Somehow it just feels right for the entire field to make it cleanly through the first corner of the season. Yes, there were scrambles, including Scott McLaughlin making it four-wide in the No. 3 DEX Imaging Team Penske Chevrolet, but it largely was a picture-perfect start.

McLaughlin did bump Rinus VeeKay’s No. 21 Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet at the apex of Turn 1, and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Christian Lundgaard (No. 45 Hy-Vee Honda) suffered a cut rear tire amid the congestion, but at least the lap stayed green.

Last year, Rosenqvist’s brush of the Turn 3 wall on the opening lap stacked up the trailing field, which led to a host of cars, including two each from MSR and AJ Foyt Racing, in a mess that necessitated a red flag.

Four of the past 10 seasons have seen a quick caution for trouble, so a clean start such as Sunday’s is something to celebrate.

Bon Jovi’s Big Ride

There aren’t many names bigger in modern rock and roll than Jon Bon Jovi, and his presence in the season-opening race was memorable on and off the track.

Bon Jovi emerged from the pre-race ride with Helio Castroneves in INDYCAR’s two-seater beaming, and his enthusiasm was evident in a television interview from pit road.

“It was awesome,” the Rock & Roll Hall of Famer said. “If you’re lucky enough to ever get the chance (to ride around the track), take it. I really wanted to stay in the car. That was a blast.”

Bon Jovi was a special guest of Meyer Shank Racing and SiriusXM. He arrived at the street circuit bursting with fans a few hours before the race and was enthralled by the experience.

“Unbelievable,” he called it. “It was crazy. Truly wish I could do it again, that’s how fun it was. This was a chance of a lifetime.”

Bon Jovi very well could get another chance. Bon Jovi Radio was featured on the sidepod of Rosenqvist’s car through a connection with MSR co-owner Jim Meyer, the former CEO of SiriusXM satellite radio. One could imagine Bon Jovi being invited to the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge, where some 320,000 people could be singing “Livin’ on a Prayer.”

Newgarden’s Race Dominance

Newgarden led 92 of the race’s 100 laps, and he effectively led more than that. If not for Lundgaard taking the lead for seven laps out of sequence due to pitting for a first-lap tire puncture, Newgarden might have led virtually wire to wire.

Newgarden came out of the first pit stop fourth in the order after getting squeezed slightly on pit exit. Newgarden had Pato O’Ward’s pitted No. 5 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet to his right and Colton Herta’s No. 26 Gainbridge Honda of Andretti Global w/Curb-Agajanian storming past to the left. Rosenqvist was the first to reach the blend line.

But Newgarden didn’t stay fourth long. On the restart lap, Newgarden overhauled Herta in Turn 4, then nearly took Rosenqvist in that same spot on the next lap. Newgarden backed out of that passing attempt to avoid potential contact but passed Rosenqvist a lap later. Lundgaard led seven laps before pitting. Herta led one lap during the second pit stop exchange. Otherwise, it was all Newgarden.

Newgarden has had several complete drives like this in his career. Of his 30 race wins, he has led at least 80 percent of the laps nine times. Three times he has led 90-plus percent of the laps. His most dominant performance was in 2018 at Road America when he led 53 of the 55 laps (96.4 percent).

Troublesome Turn 10

The race was mostly error-free, although most of the action was in Turn 10, a sharp left-hander with a run-off area that welcomed several drivers through the weekend.

Marcus Armstrong (No. 11 Ridgeline Lubricants Chip Ganassi Racing Honda) was the first to hit the tire barrier there, the damage to his car’s right side too much to continue for a 27th lap. On Lap 68, Ganassi teammate Linus Lundqvist slid backward into the tires after left-rear contact from Romain Grosjean (No. 77 Juncos Hollinger Racing Chevrolet). Grosjean was handed a drive-through penalty for avoidable contact.

Series newcomer Colin Braun (No. 51 Dale Coyne Racing Honda) aborted a potential issue in Turn 10 and escaped to the run-off area. Sting Ray Robb (No. 41 AJ FOYT RACING/PRAY.COM Chevrolet) pulled his car into the area with a mechanical issue.