The NTT IndyCar Series’ season is set to begin this weekend on the streets of St. Pete. It will mark the 15th straight year that the series has taken to the 1.8-mile Florida street circuit.
This year though, is different. In is a new TV network (NBC Sports) as well as a new entitlement sponsorship (NTT Data). Also, we have brand new teams, a thriving series with a ton of demand.
That alone is a nice storyline. But, here are five more.
Can Team Penske Find Their Groove?
Prior to 2016, Team Penske was the most dominant organization at St. Pete. From 2006 through 2015, Penske had won eight races in an 11 year span. The last two years though – have been tough.
Credit that to a surprising struggle on street courses.
Last year, Penske won six times, three were on natural road courses, two on short ovals and the other on a superspeedway. In fact, in 2017, Penske had just one victory on a street course then too.
That’s 1 win in their last 10 street course starts.
In this day and age of IndyCar racing, that’s not going to cut it, especially when points battles are coming down to just a few points in the end.
Just look at what they did this past year on them. At St. Pete, they finished 7th (Josef Newgarden), 10th (Will Power) and 13th (Simon Pagenaud). In Long Beach, they were second (Power), seventh (Newgarden) and 24th (Pagenaud). In Belle Isle 1, they were seventh (Power), ninth (Newgarden) and 17th (Pagenaud). In Belle Isle 2, they were second (Power), 10th (Pagenaud) and 15th (Newgarden). In the final street course race at Toronto, they were second (Pagenaud), ninth (Newgarden) and 18th (Power).
Compare that to Scott Dixon and Alexander Rossi and you can see where they missed.
Dixon, was sixth, 11th, first, fourth and first respectively. Rossi, was third, first, third, 12th and eighth respectively.
It all comes down to balance as street course races are difficult. The combination of the tracks being slick as well as rough too, it’s a hard setup to figure out. With the new car last year, the Penske group didn’t have the best setups to contend. It hurt their title hopes.
This is the biggest area they need to fix. It starts in Sunday’s season opener, the one in which they swept the front row.
Can Bourdais Go 3 In-A-Row?
Two years ago, Bourdais came from the back to the front to win his first ever race on St. Pete. It was a big win for him since the St. Pete is the place the Frenchman now calls home. Last year, he came from the 14th starting spot to go back-to-back.
Now, can Bourdais make it a three peat? If so, he will have to do so for the third straight year from the back. Bourdais, was a bystander of wild first round in which he never turned a hot lap. He will start 19th as a result.
He became the third driver to win two straight season openers at St. Pete. On Sunday, the Dale Coyne Racing driver is hoping to be the first to win three in-a-row.
Bourdais, has no prior top five finishes at St. Pete prior to his two year run. He ended 2018 though with a ton of momentum as he brought his No. 18 Honda home in the top six four times over the final five races.
Can he pick up where he left off in 2018 and start 2019 how he did in 2017 and again last year?
Starting Position Hasn’t Mattered Lately Due To Cautions
As stated above, Bourdais has won each of the last two years and he didn’t even make it out of the first round of qualifying in either race. Will that happen again?
Trends still say, no.
From 2009 through 2016, every St. Pete winner came from a top five starting position. If you go back to 2005, all of the drivers to celebrate in victory lane came from the top nine.
Bourdais, is the only one to buck the trend.
The reason though was due to cautions. We saw eight last year. The year prior, we saw an early race caution occur in the middle of a pit sequence. See, Bourdais and others that started in the back short pitted just in case a yellow did fly. The leaders were on a quick pace and felt no need to short pit.
That bit them.
The field was flipped and never went back the other way.
Will we see more cautions in 2019?
Power The Pole King
As I stated above, Team Penske has struggled the last two years in St. Pete. But, that hasn’t slowed down one of their drivers in qualifying. Will Power has now won seven poles (2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2015, 2017, 2018) in St. Pete since 2010.
Can he turn this pole into a win?
Several Big Named Drivers Left Without A St. Pete Win
It’s hard to believe that Scott Dixon hasn’t won at St. Pete before. Tony Kanaan also hasn’t won on the street course either. Each have made 14 starts on the Florida road course and none of which have resulted in a win.
Dixon, has just one top five finish in his last five tries. He does have three runner-ups (2006, 2007, 2012) but that and a third place finish in 2017 are his only podiums. Also, the Chip Ganassi Racing driver has failed to lead a lap in 11 of those 14 starts and hasn’t led a lap since 2013. He will start fourth on Sunday.
Kanaan, started his career off great in St. Pete with four straight podium finishes and six top five finishes in his first seven tries. He’s actually finished in the top 10 at that in 11 of his first 12 races. But, his last two have resulted in a 12th place and 11th place run respectively. He only qualified 17th as his speed has been down.
Ryan Hunter-Reay also hasn’t won either. He does have three straight top five finishes in St. Pete and five straight top seven’s in his No. 28 Honda, but he’s failed to reach victory lane. From 2012 on, his finishes are actually – 3rd, 18th, 2nd, 7th, 3rd, 4th and 5th respectively. Counter that with ending 2018 with a win in Sonoma and second the race prior at Portland, and you get a driver who can end his winless drought in his home state. He rolls off fifth.
Lets not overlook Newgarden either. He’s yet to lead a lap and has failed to score a top five finish in seven St. Pete tries. But, he will start second this weekend.
Simon Pagenaud has seven starts and two runner-ups (2016, 2017) and two fifth place finishes (2014, 2015) but no wins including a 13th place finish last season.
Alexander Rossi has only made three starts and even finished third last season, but was 12th and 11th the two seasons before.
Would you take a repeat winner or these six to win on Sunday?