St. Petersburg Preview

The 2020 NTT IndyCar Series champion will be crowned this weekend in a surreal setting for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. This is usually the site where we kick the season off, not bring it to a close. Quite honestly it seems like two or three years have passed since that fateful Friday the 13th back in March, when IndyCar made a last minute decision to cancel this race. A lot has happened since then, both on the track and off.

At the time this race was cancelled, we had no idea if it would even be rescheduled. Other races were lost for the year (Barber, Long Beach, Belle Isle, Toronto, Portland and Laguna Seca), some lost for good (COTA and Richmond), some were rescheduled (the Indianapolis 500, the IMS Grand Prix, Road America, Mid-Ohio and St. Petersburg) and some were doubled up on (Road America, Iowa, Gateway and the newly created Harvest Grand Prix). Looking back, it’s hard to believe that IndyCar was able to produce a fourteen-race schedule – even though St. Petersburg will be only the seventh venue the series has visited this season. It’s all too bizarre.

But for all the craziness, we have the same two drivers at the top of the points that have won the last two championships – Scott Dixon and Josef Newgarden. Dixon is trying to win his sixth championship since 2003, and Newgarden is vying to win his third championship in four years.

Many are speaking of this weekend’s race as if it will be a nail-biter for the championship. I’m not buying it. Scott Dixon enters the weekend with a thirty-two point bulge. While that is less than it has been in months, Newgarden still has to win the pole, win the race and lead the most laps to have a shot. Even if he does all that, Dixon needs to finish ninth or better to wrap up the championship. It’s definitely possible for Newgarden.

There is a level of intrigue beneath all of that. Josef Newgarden did win the last race at St. Petersburg – a lifetime ago in March of 2019. Scott Dixon has run in every IndyCar Series race at St. Petersburg since 2005, yet he has never won. But don’t draw from that little tidbit that Dixon is clueless on this track. He has five podium finishes at St. Petersburg in that time, including finishing second to Newgarden last year.

It’s odd thinking that St. Petersburg is this weekend, while the leaves are turning bright orange. This race usually runs as we are emerging from a long winter. They are going to allow some fans through the gates.

Although it seems forever ago, Susan and I went to last year’s race at St. Petersburg. A lot has happened since then, both personally and within the IndyCar community. At St. Petersburg last year, Pato O’Ward was still seeking a ride after being released from Harding Steinbrenner Racing. Since then, he drove in a handful of races for Carlin, and failed to qualify for the 2019 Indianapolis 500 before heading off to race in Japan. Now he has a fulltime ride with a team we had never heard of at St. Petersburg last year – Arrow McLaren SP (AMSP) – and was third in points just a couple of races ago, but now sits in fifth. He is still looking for his first race win, having been denied at Road America by Felix Rosenqvist, who was also looking for his first career win.

Speaking of Rosenqvist, he debuted for Chip Ganassi Racing at St. Petersburg last year, qualifying third and finishing fourth. This weekend, he’ll be saying farewell to Ganassi as he heads to be O’Ward’s teammate at AMSP in 2021.

This weekend will also feature the long-awaited IndyCar debut for Penske driver Scott McLaughlin. He will drive the familiar No. 3 normally associated with Helio Castroneves. His only other appearance was way back during Spring Training in February at COTA, where he turned a lot of heads. I’ll go on record and predict he will be a fulltime participant with Team Penske next season.

This weekend’s race has been shortened to a two-day affair, and has also been slightly shortened to fit the championship post-race broadcast into the TV window. Saturday’s practice starts at 10:55 am EDT and will only be available on NBC Sports Gold. Qualifying will be shown live on Gold at 3:05 pm EDT, and on a delayed basis on NBCSN at 8:00 pm EDT. This will be the first time the series will hold Knockout Qualifying with the Firestone Fast Six, since the GMR Grand Prix at IMS on July 4th weekend. The Sunday warmup will take place at 10:40 am EDT on NBC Sports Gold, while the race broadcast will be carried on Big NBC (not cable) on Sunday afternoon at 2:30 pm EDT. If you listened to Trackside the other night, you heard the warning from Kevin Lee that the Green Flag will probably fly around 2:32 pm; so don’t dawdle thinking there will be a forty-minute pre-race show. The race will start as soon as they go on the air.

When we were there nineteen months ago, I was very impressed with the track and the area. Once you’ve visited a track, it’s a lot easier to know what is where when you see it again on television. There were a lot of interesting viewing angles. We spent Friday and Saturday roaming around the track and taking it all in, but we stayed along the main straightaway during the race.

Looking back more than a year and a half later, the main takeaway that sticks with me is the concession area lined up behind the stands on the main straightaway, then another major area up at the north end of the track. I would rank the concessions just a tick below Road America and just a tick above Gateway. By the way…I rank Road America as the top food track I’ve been to, so if I put St. Petersburg just a tick below Road America, that says something.

I’m sure concessions will be scaled down this season, due to the smaller crowds and the pandemic in general. When things get back to normal, I can’t think of anything better than taking in the warm Florida sunshine in March, sampling my favorite ice-cold adult beverage and enjoying all the fun things to eat that are offered there – all with Indy cars whizzing by underneath the palm trees.

Back to this weekend, not only will the championship be decided between Dixon and Newgarden – but I think the race will be also. For what it’s worth, I think Newgarden will win the race and make things interesting, but I think Dixon will keep it close – maybe even a podium finish – and will win his sixth championship, putting him within one IndyCar championship of the legendary AJ Foyt.

George Phillips

Please Note: For the first time in decades, I will actually miss Sunday’s IndyCar race. Sunday is the day we travel to to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN; for Susan to seek treatment as she continues her battle with pancreatic cancer. We will be up there all week, but her surgery will be scheduled for later next month. They had eight inches of snow there, earlier this week. There is a 100% chance of snow for today and a 70% chance of more snow on Sunday when we fly into Minneapolis. The high for Monday is 25-degrees, with a projected low of 12. Yikes! That’s not what I consider October weather. It was 82-degrees here in Nashville yesterday.

I will watch the race Sunday night on NBC Sports Gold in our hotel room, and do a very short and quick recap here for Monday (hopefully). But that will be the last you’ll hear from me here until next Monday Nov 2, after we return. Please keep Susan in your prayers. – GP

15 Responses to “St. Petersburg Preview”

  1. James T Suel Says:

    I also belive Newgarden will win this race. But Dixon has a good lead and would have to have a very bad day to loose this champship. Iam a Newgarden fan, but its a long shot. George I would like to wish you and Susan a safe trip, and all the best.

  2. Good luck Susan, we’re all hoping you win this race and take home your own championship.

  3. Race results and commentary inconsequential when compared to Susan’s health. Mayo is an amazing health system , Susan will be in the best hands possible. Take plenty of reading material or other time consuming material as you will both have plenty of down time.
    Drive safely, stay positive

  4. Best of luck to Susan, she’s rocking this and she is going to do well going forward.

    For many reasons, I am ready to get this season over so we can hopefully start fresh in 2021, I think we all need that fresh start. Glad we had a season at all though, not a thriller by any means, Indy was great though.

  5. First off, good luck to Susan.

    One angle to the championship that I haven’t seen mentioned elsewhere; If Newgarden pulls it off and wins this year’s championship, does this make him the leading candidate to reach or surpass Foyt’s record, instead of Dixon? After all, he’d only be two championships behind Dixon, while being over a decade younger. Foyt won his third championship in 1963 at the age of 28. Newgarden is also 28. It’s possible that 10 or 15 years from now, we’ll look back on this as the pivotal race that determined whether Newgarden or Dixon was the one to catch Foyt.

  6. billytheskink Says:

    Continuing prayers for Susan and for you, George. You all travel safe.

    There was a time when Newgarden was one to press and make mistakes in a situation like this, but I think that time has passed. He has been collected and quick as he has eaten well into Dixon’s once enormous lead. Dixon is probably due for some bad luck too, but I don’t think he’ll have it this weekend, or at least not enough of it to leave the door open for Newgarden. Still, it is remarkable that Newgarden was able to close the gap to make this championship competitive at all, given that Dixon lead by more than two full races worth of points just four races ago.

  7. Thoughts and prayers with both of you. Be positive. Be optimistic. We want to see BOTH of you at Road America in 2021.

  8. Susan – All the best with your treatments at the Mayo next week. We will all be with you in spirit. Your strength and positivity is a blessing. Take care, George.

  9. Mark Wick Says:

    The contest that really matters this weekend is the one in Rochester. There is no question who we all favor in that one.

  10. Looking forward to seeing George and Susan at IMS next May! 🙏👍 Back home again in Indiana!! Prayers for Susan!!!!

  11. Leslie Bissell Says:

    Best to you and Susan. Mayo is incredible. Looking forward to the 2021 season and to hearing positive news for Susan and you.

  12. Some things are more important than a pretty-much-decided championship . Kathy’s and my prayers go with you and Susan to Mayo. Best of luck and Godspeed my friends.

  13. May Susan get well soon.

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