With a week to process all that took place at St. Petersburg and just over a week until we reconvene at Texas Motor Speedway for the second NTT IndyCar Series race of the season, here are a few takeaways and forward-looking items of note.
Leaving St. Pete, we already have a number of heavy hitters looking to dig out of deficits at Texas on March 20. Against all predictions coming into Round 1, we left with Arrow McLaren SP’s Pato O’Ward holding 12th in the championship, Meyer Shank Racing’s Simon Pagenaud in 15th, Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden 16th, and Andretti Autosport’s Alexander Rossi in 20th. What in the world is going on?
Myriad issues, starting with AMSP simply missing the mark from the moment its two-car team hit the track. Along with O’Ward, teammate Felix Rosenqvist never factored in the event, although O’Ward did pull off a memorable opening lap of the race where he passed seven cars — from 16th to ninth — in half a lap.
Like many drivers, the AMSP duo were on a three-stop pit strategy on a day where the two-stop option was the one to have; O’Ward deserves credit for limiting the damage by coming home in 12th, second best among the three-stop brigade. Only Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon, who worked miracles in the 100-lap contest to come home eighth, did better than O’Ward with the three-stop strategy. Rosenqvist wasn’t as fortunate, trailing home in 17th. Although P17 is not what he wanted, it represents the best start to a new season for the Swede since his IndyCar debut in 2019.
MSR’s Pagenaud and teammate Helio Castroneves were felled by the same three-stop decision, and Penske’s Newgarden also lost out due to the three-stop strategy on a day where his teammates relied on two stops that produced a win with McLaughlin and third with Will Power.
If there’s a bright side for Newgarden, who is learning to work with a race engineer who is new to the role in IndyCar, the P16 start is certainly better than the 23rd he endured last year after that lap 1 crash at Barber Motorsports Park.
Rossi was the only competitive driver on a two-stop plan to miss the big windfall. He was running eighth directly behind Graham Rahal at the time of the race’s lone caution period on lap 25. With the Andretti team’s intentional call to leave Rossi out under the yellow he inherited first, but the gamble did not pay off with a subsequent caution and he was forced to make his first stop under green on lap 37.
For a driver who needs to turn his fortunes around, the high-risk approach to Rossi’s race strategy was decidedly odd. He didn’t have the pace to win, but if you consider where he was at the time of the caution and that Rahal finished in seventh, surrendering 12 positions and losing out on a ‘go big or go home’ play made at the first race just doesn’t reconcile.
The good news is all of the expected title contenders who had poor starts to the season have strong records on the 1.5-mile TMS oval. O’Ward won his first IndyCar race there last year, Pagenaud had a pair of top 10s at the doubleheader, Newgarden was on the podium at one of the races and Rossi had an eighth in one round before getting tangled in the big crash that opened the second race.
The question for each driver is whether to treat the upcoming Xpel 375 at Texas — an event known for daring passes and sizable accidents — as the race to be aggressive and dig all the way out of their holes, or if a calmer approach would be best. A win could change everything just as ending up in the wall could make for a season-long recovery effort. These four will be worth watching when the green flag waves at 12:45 ET on Sunday the 20th.
Alex Palou worked a few miracles to turn his P10 starting spot into a podium. Takuma Sato and the Dale Coyne Racing with Rick Ware Racing entry were the biggest movers in the race from 22nd to 10th, but at the sharper end where on-track improvements are exceptionally hard, it was the defending series champion who prospered with a cagey performance.
Up to sixth when David Malukas stiffed his Dale Coyne Racing with HMD Motorsports car into the Turn 3 wall, Palou made his first of two stops under the long caution where repairs to the wall were made, returned to action in 14th and made steady headway with a combination of passes and three-stoppers peeling off into the pits to move his car forward.
Sitting in second when he made his last stop on lap 65, Palou’s work in the middle segment of the race paid big dividends as he returned in fourth, took third when O’Ward pitted, second when teammate Scott Dixon pitted on lap 79, and chased McLaughlin home to take P2, 0.5095s behind the Penske driver.
It’s still early to make giant proclamations about Palou, but we’ve already seen him turn in a couple of big come-from-behind performances in his young career. From 16 races last season, Palou went forward and finished by improving from his starting position 11 times on race day, and that’s not including his win from pole at Portland and the blown motor while having a good day at the second IMS road course event. Palou’s title defense could have been sidetracked at St. Pete, but yet again, he delivered when it mattered.
WELCOME BACK RVK
Ed Carpenter Racing’s Rinus VeeKay let it be known that he’s ready to resume his upward trajectory in IndyCar. Ninth to open the weekend in FP1, he improved to sixth in FP2, improved again with fourth in qualifying, and had a strong performance in the race where he came home sixth. Outside of the great results, the biggest positive might have been in how easy it looked for VeeKay and ECR. They were firmly seated on the struggle bus for the second half of 2021 where nothing came easily, and if St. Pete’s an indicator of what’s to come, the championship’s going to be a lot of fun to follow with the young Dutchman on the charge.
As of Friday, the Green Savoree Race Promotions group weren’t ready to put an attendance number on the three-day event, but they did tell me it looked like one of the biggest crowds in the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg’s history. The most encouraging part was how the tickets were purchased. According to GSRP, the event has always had a strong walk-up crowd with a significant number of tickets purchased at the gates, but in a shift away from this trend, pre-event sales had a massive spike, which suggests dedicated IndyCar fans were the main segment responsible for the change in buying habits.