The 2020 NTT INDYCAR SERIES season opens this weekend with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden won last year’s race on the 14-turn, 1.8-mile temporary street circuit, but he will have a host of strong competition for this year’s honors among the 26-car field. This marks the 10th consecutive year that the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg will serve as the NTT INDYCAR SERIES season opener, dating to 2011 in a race won by Dario Franchitti.
Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg will be the first of 17 races this season, with five held on temporary street circuits, seven on permanent road courses and five on oval tracks, the latter including the 104th Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge. The season concludes Sept. 20 with the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey at the historic WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca in Monterey, Calif.
The 100-lap Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg will be broadcast live on the NBC Sports Network on Sunday. The pre-race show begins at 2:30 p.m. ET with the green flag scheduled for 3:30 p.m. The Pennzoil INDYCAR Radio Network also will have live coverage on its more than 300 network affiliates, Sirius 211, XM 205, indycar.com, indycarradio.com and the INDYCAR Mobile App powered by NTT DATA.
Friday practices are set for 10:45 a.m. and 3 p.m., with coverage on NBC Sports Gold. NTT P1 Award qualifying begins at 2:40 p.m. Saturday on NBC Sports Gold. (tape delay on NBCSN, 10 p.m.)
Here are "5 Things To Look For" heading into the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg:
"Department Of Defense"
Team Penske driver Josef Newgarden (No. 1 Hitachi Chevrolet) returns to defend not only his victory in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, but also the NTT INDYCAR SERIES championship, his second in three years.
Last year, Newgarden became the first driver since 2014 to use a victory in St. Petersburg as a springboard to the season title. He is looking to become the first series champion to repeat since Dario Franchitti won three in a row from 2009-11.
To wear both crowns again, the 29-year-old Nashville, Tenn., driver must fend off strong challenges from as many as five former series champions, led by Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon (No. 9 PNC Bank Honda), a five-time series champion. Other past champions include four-time champion Sebastien Bourdais (No. 14 AJ Foyt Chevrolet), 2012 champion Ryan Hunter-Reay (No. 28 DHL Honda) of Andretti Autosport, 2014 champion Will Power (No. 12 Verizon Chevrolet) and 2016 champion Simon Pagenaud (No. 22 Menards Chevrolet).
“We have the same goals,” Newgarden said. “We need to try to win the Indianapolis 500 as a team, same thing with the driver’s championship. It will go in that order."
Also, 12 drivers entered this weekend have won NTT INDYCAR SERIES races, six of whom have more than 10 career victories. Last year, seven drivers representing five teams won races, with 18 drivers posting a top-five finish in a given race.
The NTT INDYCAR SERIES had quite the battle last year among its rookies, with Felix Rosenqvist (No. 10 NTT DATA Honda) and Colton Herta (No. 88 Capstone Honda), finishing sixth and seventh in the championship standings, respectively.
Herta won a pair of races (Circuit of The Americas, WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca) and Rosenqvist posted a pair of runner-up finishes (Mid-Ohio, Portland International Raceway) en route to earning Rookie of the Year. They also combined to win four poles.
Santino Ferrucci (No. 18 SealMaster Honda) also was impressive in his first NTT INDYCAR SERIES season, nearly completing every lap during the 17-race season while finishing seventh in the Indianapolis 500 to earn Rookie of the Year and finishing fourth in three other oval-track races. Will this rookie class be just as successful? It very well could be among those running full-season schedules with Oliver Askew (No. 7 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet) (shown here) and Rinus VeeKay (No. 21 Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet) having finished 1-2, respectively, last season in Indy Lights.
Also, keep an eye on Alex Palou (No. 55 Dale Coyne Racing with Team Goh Honda). Last year’s Super Formula Rookie of the Year is the driver Newgarden tabbed as the most likely to win the Rookie of the Year award. “He’s probably got the most experience of everybody,” Newgarden said.
"New Leader In The Clubhouse"
With Tony Kanaan (No. 14 AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet) set to run a five-race oval schedule in his final season as a primary driver, his all-time INDYCAR record for consecutive starts will officially end at 317 with no start in Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
The streak began at Portland in 2001 and concludes with the 45-year-old Brazilian’s start in last season’s season’s season finale at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca.
The new active leader for consecutive starts would become Scott Dixon (shown here), who has made 258 in a row heading into Sunday’s race. That current streak by the five-time NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion also ranks as the second longest in the sport’s history behind Kanaan. Marco Andretti (No. 98 U.S. Concrete/Curb Honda) has made 234 consecutive starts, which ranks third all time and will become the second-longest active streak behind Dixon.
“Man I haven’t really thought about that. I thought TK was real old, but what does that really say about me now?,” the 39-year-old Dixon said. “Seriously though, I think we all still love seeing TK compete and know what he’s meant to the sport over his long and successful career. It will be weird not having him on the grid this weekend. I’m not sure I’ll ever reach the mark he set … that’s a ways away for sure. TK has been a great ambassador and champion for INDYCAR over the years and I hope to carry on the streak for years to come and maybe that will be with the PNC Bank car in victory lane Sunday.”
"Getting A Handle On It"
One of the first orders of business this weekend will be to decode the different handling characteristics associated with the installation of INDYCAR's revolutionary Aeroscreen. While the Aeroscreen will improve cockpit protection, it alters the aerodynamics of the cars with about 70 additional pounds in road course configuration.
With that comes the feeling of the weight moved forward and a higher center of gravity.
“It’s definitely different,” Alexander Rossi (No. 27 Auto Nation/NAPA AUTO PARTS Honda) said. “But the extent of that won’t become clear to us until probably (following two 45-minute practices) in St. Pete.”
Newgarden said he expects everyone to approach the new style different.
“I think you're going to see people power sliding the car a lot more, being aggressive on the throttle, maybe slide the car a bit more friendly and get away with it,” he said. “That could be quite exciting, especially on a street course.”
The Aeroscreen will make its competition debut in Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
"Park It Here"
The Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, one of four street events for the NTT INDYCAR SERIES, could be called a weeklong downtown festival, and it begins with the “Party in the Park” on Thursday from 6-8 p.m. in North Straub Park, positioned between Bayshore Dr. NE and Beach Dr. NE along the waterfront.
The unique fan experience is free and will bring drivers on stage, with giveaways every 15 minutes, a deejay, food trucks and fireworks.
This is the 16th time for the series to race in St. Petersburg, the 10th consecutive year it’s been the season opener.
Dixon said there are few events like the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
“I think it just has the combination of everything, and it’s the first one (of the year),” he said. “The city really embraces the race, too, which I think is really special. It’s the general size of the event, the viewing areas, the downtown atmosphere … an all-around top race to go to.”