Preview and Predictions: Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg

By: Spencer Neff
October 23, 2020

More than seven months after its original scheduled date, the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg will be run as the 2020 finale for the NTT IndyCar Series.

This will also be the lone street race of the year, as the previously scheduled events at Long Beach, Detroit and Toronto were canceled due to restrictions in the wake of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

In addition, this will be the championship-deciding race. For the 15th consecutive season, the series champion will be crowned at the season finale.

Through 13 races, Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon holds a 32-point lead over Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden. For more on the championship scenarios, check out this infographic below (courtesy of Arni Sribhen/INDYCAR).

To earn his sixth career title, Dixon has to finish no worse than ninth, assuming Newgarden wins the pole position, leads the most laps and wins the race-earning the maximum 54 points.

In his 15 prior starts at the track, Dixon has yet to win a pole position or a race on the Streets of St. Petersburg and led just three races (the last being 2012). However, the five-time champion has earned 10 Top 10 finishes and 12 Top 10 starts. Last year, Dixon finished second to Newgarden at St. Petersburg.

Although Dixon lamented his recent struggles, the points leader was quick to credit his team and Honda’s support.

“I’m just really proud of this PNC Bank team and everyone who works so hard to win,” he remarked earlier this week.

Dixon earned his fifth and most recent title at Sonoma Raceway in the 2018 finale (Chris Owens/INDYCAR)

“Honda has been pushing hard, and we’re always proud to be powered by them along with HPD. For whatever reason, we were just struggling to get comfortable with the balance of the car the last few races and that’s one of the key things we’ll be working on for St. Petersburg.”

As for Newgarden, he won the first race of the Harvest Grand Prix doubleheader to help cut into his points deficit. The next day, he earned a fourth-place finish to Dixon’s eighth-place and closed the gap further.

In eight previous St. Petersburg races, Newgarden has the 2019 victory to his name, in which he led 60 of 110 laps (the first of his career on the temporary circuit). In that race, he started second, his best effort in the event.

By earning a second victory and clinching his second title, Newgarden would bookend consecutive titles with St. Petersburg wins. He would also be the first driver with consecutive titles and three in four seasons since Dario Franchitti (2007,2009-2011).

“It really all comes down to this weekend. It’s been a year where the No. 1 Hitachi Chevrolet and our team have been through a lot, from success to dealing with mistakes to just the victim of bad timing. But none of that matters headed into this weekend.” Newgarden reflected on his season.

Newgarden earned his first win at St. Petersburg last year, kicking off his second championship run (Chris Owens/INDYCAR)

“We either win the championship or we don’t. My Hitachi Chevy team has put everything they have into this season, and they plan to keep working hard through the race weekend. It’s going to certainly be a tough battle with Scott Dixon this weekend because he has been so strong and consistent all year. We can’t afford to make mistakes, so strategy and execution will be critical.”

Drivers to Watch

Spotter Guide

The primary focus of this weekend is without question the championship battle, as previously mentioned. Additionally, there are some drivers worth keeping an eye on this weekend.

By starting this weekend’s race, Ed Carpenter Racing’s Rinus VeeKay will earn Rookie of the Year honors. Three weeks ago, he earned his first career pole and podium finish at Race 1 of the Harvest Grand Prix. At St. Petersburg, VeeKay will cap off a rookie season in which he also qualified fourth at the Indianapolis 500, best of any rookie.

“It will be so nice to come back to St. Petersburg. We are finally returning after being there earlier this year, but we were not able to race,” he noted.

“Hopefully, I can secure my Rookie of the Year title; it will be a very nice achievement. I am really looking forward to the race. First street course race of the season as the last race, that’s very cool. I’ve always had good races in St. Pete in the Road to Indy, and I cannot wait to hustle around there with an Indy car.”

VeeKay at Race 1 of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course’s Harvest Grand Prix (Joe Skibinski/INDYCAR)

On Tuesday, one of VeeKay’s rookie peers received some good news. After missing the Harvest GP while recovering from lingering concussion-like symptoms, 2019 Indy Lights Champion Oliver Askew will return to the No. 7 entry at Arrow McLaren SP for the finale.

“I appreciate all the support Arrow McLaren SP has given me through this difficult time,” Askew noted.

“I would like to thank Dr. Billows and the IndyCar medical team, as well as Dr. Collins and the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program, for advice and care, which allowed me to take the time I needed to fully recover and prepare for the NTT IndyCar Series finale. I’m looking forward to a strong finish to the season.”

Last Monday, the team announced Askew would not return to the team in 2021. A day later, Patricio (Pato) O’Ward was confirmed to return to the No. 5 for next year.

Although not in contention for Rookie of the Year in 2020, Team Penske’s Scott McLaughlin will make his long-awaited debut this weekend. Previously, the three-time Supercars Champion was scheduled to debut back on May 9 at the IndyCar Grand Prix bout was unable to make the rescheduled July 4 date.

Last month, the team announced McLaughlin would debut at St. Petersburg, with many expecting he could run full-time in 2021.

McLaughlin tested at Circuit of The Americas in February. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

“I’m super pumped to finally get a crack at my first INDYCAR race,” McLaughlin exclaimed.

“Feels like it’s been years since I was part of spring training, but due to COVID-19, we had to hold off. But hey, sometimes the best things are definitely worth the wait. It’s a dream come true to be running an INDYCAR race for Team Penske and Roger (Penske), especially coming off of such a successful Supercars season.”

Last weekend, he finished second at the Bathurst 1000 at Mount Panorama in New South Wales before flying to America in preparation for his debut.

“It was a quick turnaround from Bathurst since I flew to Charlotte immediately after, so I’ve definitely been moving at a fast but really exciting pace just to get to this weekend,” he reflected.

“The Shell V-Power Nitro+ Chevy team is such a talented group, so I feel like I’m going to be a quick study and learn a lot really fast.”

Fast Facts

Race weekend: Saturday, Oct. 24 – Sunday, Oct. 25

Track: Streets of St. Petersburg, 1.8-mile, 14-turn temporary street circuit (clockwise) through downtown St. Petersburg, Florida, including a section of runway of Albert Whitted Airport

 Entry List (PDF)

Race distance: 100 laps / 180 miles

Push-to-pass parameters: 150 seconds of total time with a maximum single duration of 15 seconds. The push-to-pass is not available on the initial start or any restart unless it occurs in the final two laps or three minutes of a timed race.

Firestone tire allotment: Seven sets primary, four sets alternate. One extra set is available to the rookie drivers entered.

Twitter: @GPSTPETE, @INDYCAR, #FirestoneGP, #INDYCAR

Event website: www.gpstpete.com

INDYCAR website: www.indycar.com

2019 race winner: Josef Newgarden, 2:04:18.2588, 95.572 mph (110 laps/198 miles)

2019 NTT P1 Award winner: Will Power, 1:00.4594, 107.179 mph

Qualifying lap record: Jordan King, 1:00.0476; 107.914 mph, March 10, 2018 (set in Round 1 of qualifying)

NBC Sports telecasts: Qualifying, 8 p.m. ET Saturday, NBCSN (tape-delayed); Race, 2:30 p.m. ET Sunday, NBC (live). Leigh Diffey is the play-by-play announcer for NBC’s coverage of the NTT INDYCAR SERIES, alongside analysts Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy.

NBC Sports Gold live streaming: All NTT INDYCAR SERIES practice sessions and qualifying will stream live on INDYCAR Pass on NBC Sports Gold, NBC Sports’ direct-to-consumer livestreaming product.

Pennzoil INDYCAR Radio Network broadcasts: Mark Jaynes is the chief announcer alongside analysts Davey Hamilton and Nick Yeoman. Jake Query and Rob Howden are the pit reporters. The Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg race (2 p.m. ET on Oct. 25) airs live on network affiliates, Sirius 211, XM 205, indycar.comindycarradio.com and the INDYCAR Mobile app powered by NTT DATA. All NTT INDYCAR SERIES practices and qualifying are available on indycar.comindycarradio.com and the INDYCAR Mobile app, with qualifying also airing on XM 205.

At-track schedule (All Times Local/Eastern Time):

Saturday, Oct. 24

10:55 a.m.-12:55 p.m.: NTT INDYCAR SERIES practice #1, NBC Sports Gold

3-4:20 p.m.: Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg qualifying (Three rounds of knockout qualifications), NBC Sports Gold (live); NBCSN (Tape delayed at 8 p.m.)

4:25 p.m.: NTT P1 Award Presentation (pit lane)

Sunday, Oct. 25

10:40-11:10 a.m.: NTT INDYCAR SERIES warm-up, NBC Sports Gold

2:27 p.m.: “Drivers, start your engines”

2:30 p.m.: NBC on air

2:32 p.m.: Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg (100 laps/180 miles), NBC (live)

Fast Facts provided by IndyCar

Predictions

In the championship battle, look for Dixon to continue the steady performance that has netted him four victories to earn him a sixth title, putting him one behind A.J. Foyt for most all-time.

As for the race, Felix Rosenqvist impressed in his IndyCar debut at the 2019 race, starting third and finishing fourth, leading 31 laps. With reports swirling that last year’s Rookie of the Year is moving on to Arrow McLaren SP, a victory to close out the season would set him up nicely for 2021.

Header Image By Chris Owens/INDYCAR

Published by Spencer Neff

I am a lifelong auto racing fan. Through IndyCar1909, I look forward to sharing my passion for the series and its illustrious history with you.

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