PRUETT: St Petersburg reflections

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PRUETT: St Petersburg reflections

Insights & Analysis

PRUETT: St Petersburg reflections

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Timing and scoring went down in qualifying. A 30-minute delay ensued. Drivers were disqualified from advancing to the Fast 12 for various reasons. Their teams offered evidence pointing towards innocence. Drivers were un-disqualified and placed back in the Fast 12. Drivers who were promoted to the Fast 12 due to the DQs were later told to exit their cars as the guilty received clemency. The pace car ran out of fuel. A driver spun under yellow, then pulled onto the circuit and speared a teammate while ruining his own day, which seemed destined for a podium. An entire team, barring one of its five cars, went from a potential 1-2-3 to diving from the roof into an empty pool. The polesitter crashed on his own, and then threw away a $1000 HANS device for good measure. The race’s dominant driver crashed on his own in the same spot. He didn’t throw his HANS.

Another driver, who wasn’t on pole or dominant, also crashed at the same location. Under caution. One rookie spun and collected the Rookie of the Year. The Rookie of the Year, while strapped into his damaged car, was lifted skyward by a tow truck before being dangled and dropped on top of a curb to be restarted. Sizable debris, captured by a camera operator, was left on the circuit during a late caution. A guy who was having his best race of the year was hit from behind, received a flat tire, and had his ready-to-resume race car deposited among the wrecked cars and lost all hope of earning a big pay day. The guy who needed to win, won, but it wasn’t enough. The guy who didn’t need to win, didn’t, and it was. WWE superstar Titus O’Neil, best known for running down the ramp for a match, tripping, crashing head-first and disappearing beneath the wrestling ring, was the grand marshal. And because it warrants a second mention, the pace car ran out of fuel.

While I greatly appreciate the event’s sponsor and the formal title for what took place at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, it might be best remembered as the Facepalm Grand Prix, for all the silliness that ruled the race. It’s hard to imagine we’ll experience anything like it again in our lifetimes.

• Not sure I’ve seen Josef Newgarden drive better than he has to close the 2020 season. His feel and car control that moved the No. 1 Chevy from third to first exiting Turn 1 during a late restart rates among the most impressive things I’ve seen in a long while. And how many times did Newgarden, facing a steep points deficit, go out and race his way to the front to keep his championship hopes alive? In an interesting juxtaposition, the Team Penske driver had to become Scott Dixon, the guy who earned most of his titles by mounting a late charge to overcome championship leader, and it nearly worked. We hadn’t seen that battle-tested part of Newgarden’s game, and we now know what to expect when the party resumes in 2021.

Newgarden left nothing on the table in his efforts to secure a third title. Phillip Abbott/Motorsport Images

• Prior to his crash, I made a note of how strange it was to watch Alexander Rossi lead Andretti teammate Colton Herta with apparent ease. It’s what I expected to witness for most of the year — the two locked in a back-and-forth battle for internecine supremacy — but Herta has been largely in charge in that regard throughout 2020. It’s not as if there were any doubts Rossi would get back to leading a race, but thanks to Herta’s stellar results, the scales were tipped in his favor more often than not. Freed from a crappy season, 2021 will hopefully deliver the Rossi vs Herta duel that never materialized.

• In his sophomore IndyCar season, Colton Herta finished third in the championship. Other than a forgettable visit to Iowa, and the errors at St. Pete, the 20-year-old finished every race inside the top 10 and performed like a veteran by grabbing handfuls of points at every opportunity. Knowing how Andretti Autosport got off to a painfully slow start that lasted far longer than anyone expected, one can only wonder where Herta could have finished in the standings.

• News that arrived during St. Pete: E.C. Mueller, manager of Portland International Raceway, will take his second attempt at retirement on November 1. After taking the post in 2014 on what was anticipated to be a three-year stint, the ex-Electramotive IMSA GTP man stayed for six, helping to reestablish open-wheel racing in the Pacific Northwest. Among the friendliest leaders across all the tracks visited by IndyCar, Mueller will be missed.

• A simple appreciation for the enormity of Pato O’Ward’s achievement at St. Pete and, in a wider sense, for all of 2020. After two attempted reboots from the team owned by Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson, the rebirth as Arrow McLaren SP was a pre-season curiosity with few expectations for significant results. On the back of four podiums, he took fourth in the championship and closed the year with a second at St. Pete, chasing down Newgarden and holding off Dixon. And he looked completely at home in that Newgarden-O’Ward-Dixon finishing order. Lost among the title celebrations and sorrow for those he shared the podium with, a preview of 2021 was delivered by the high-energy Indy Lights champion.

• Well, Takuma Sato had his own private throwback weekend. A throwback, unfortunately, to a time when he was better known for mishaps and mistakes. Sato’s hits included Oliver Askew and Marco Andretti, and at the riskiest non-oval on 2020’s calendar, where discipline was at a premium to avoid taking yourself and others out of the race, it was an unfortunate look for the genial Indy 500 winner who struggled over the final five races of the season. Nonetheless, he held on to finish seventh in the standings, one spot ahead of Simon Pagenaud.

• Returning to AMSP, Askew’s farewell to the team wasn’t as trouble-free as he’d hoped, but he knocked off some rust, ran inside the top 10 on pace, showed the promise that marked earlier portions of his season, and demonstrated his readiness to continue in the series. It wasn’t a podium, but for those who were monitoring his progress, a lot of positives were on display.

Much as he did at last year’s Laguna Seca finale, Hunter-Reay put on an overtaking clinic. Phillip Abbott/Motorsport Images

• Props to the big passers at St. Pete. Ryan Hunter-Reay started 19th and claimed a remarkable fifth. Charlie Kimball went from 20th to eighth, which deserves a lot of praise. And starting last in 24th, Max Chilton drove a smart race to 12th. It’s not uncommon to have one or two drivers in this category per race, but it feels like RHR going +14, Charlie Murphy going +12, and MAX at +12 as well in the same contest was noteworthy.

• Cool thing the newest championship-winning race engineer did right after the race: Michael Cannon wandered down to his former team, Dale Coyne Racing, to check in on Santino Ferrucci, who suffered a hard crash. As a rookie in 2019 with Cannon on the timing stand, Ferrucci also experienced a hard hit at St. Pete, where he finished 24th. On Sunday he was 23rd, and with memories of last year’s outcome, his old engineer wanted to make sure he was OK while celebrations were starting for Dixon and the rest of the Ganassi team.

• Now that the season is over, look for a steady stream of confirmations, which was kicked off today with Marcus Ericsson’s return to CGR. Felix Rosenqvist at Arrow McLaren SP might be next, and we’re on the clock for Ryan Hunter-Reay at Andretti Autosport, Alex Palou at Dale Coyne Racing with Team Goh or a much bigger team, and quite a few others.

• Scott McLaughlin’s debut with Team Penske went just about as I expected: Flashes of impressive speed, struggles to get the most out of Firestone’s alternate tires, and a race that was more educational than electric. And none of those observations are criticisms. With his body clock off by half a world and a tough Bathurst 1000 completed days before St. Pete, plus more than seventh months of open-wheel inactivity, he was playing from behind the entire time. Can’t wait to see what he generates at the same event in March with a proper build-up to the season.

• No, and no matter how many times it gets written as a plea on social media, Marco Andretti isn’t going to retire. And that’s not how you go out, right? There are zero sports movies made where a team, or player reaches rock bottom… and quits. Fade to black… roll the credits. Just isn’t how the story goes. If and when Andretti decides to hang up his helmet, it should come after a year where black clouds and an endless supply of cartoon anvils went unused. (The other item that gets missed in the calls for his replacement is that he’s a co-owner of the car he drives, so unless he wants to fire himself, it isn’t happening.)

• Based on the feedback of many who participated at St. Pete, if race control’s end-of-year bonus is based on executing a smooth event to close the season, those envelopes might be light.

• Not sure where ‘Fill the pace car with gas’ sits on the pre-race checklist, but I’d assume a Word document was opened towards the close of the Firestone Grand Prix and it was moved towards the top of the page, redone in ALL CAPS, underlined, and set to bold.

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