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An IndyCar season that should have started in St. Petersburg ends with Sunday’s Grand Prix

“We’re back where we should be,” IndyCar veteran Alexander Rossi said. “Racing in St. Pete.”
IndyCar driver Josef Newgarden is seen rounding Turn 1 during the morning IndyCar practice session at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on Saturday.
IndyCar driver Josef Newgarden is seen rounding Turn 1 during the morning IndyCar practice session at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on Saturday. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Oct. 24, 2020

ST. PETERSBURG — Josef Newgarden knows his IndyCar Series title odds are long.

Of the almost 20,000 different scenarios that can play out between him and Scott Dixon Sunday, less than 1 percent of them have Newgarden leaving the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg as IndyCar’s champion.

“You’re saying there’s a chance,” Newgarden said, “and that’s all we need.”

It wouldn’t be the weirdest thing to happen at this event this year.

The simple fact that the Grand Prix is here at all is noteworthy, considering how the coronavirus pandemic shut the race and series down in March. The fact that IndyCar’s traditional season opener will instead crown the champion of a wild year is extraordinary.

Related: How the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg marked the end of the pre-pandemic era

“I never thought that we would have been back here in 2020,” rookie Alex Palou said. “It’s crazy that the teams and the championship and all the sponsors were able to make this happen, again.”

Fans watch IndyCars on the track during the morning practice session at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on Saturday.
Fans watch IndyCars on the track during the morning practice session at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on Saturday. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

It’s happening again because all the relevant parties insisted that it must. Before the event was called off in March, IndyCar said rescheduling the event would impractical. But the city and Green Savoree Racing Promotions kept some of the grandstands up to minimize the construction time and costs. They never gave up on the chance of cars racing through the 1.8-mile, 14-turn street course. Local, state and race officials kept the possibility of spectators alive, ultimately settling on about 20,000 fans.

The series kept working, too, revising its schedule repeatedly as coronavirus restrictions came and went across the country. One double-header at Mid-Ohio last month wasn’t officially announced until a week before the green flag. The Indianapolis 500 — one of the largest sporting events in the world — took place three months later than usual, without fans.

“I think that’s probably the most highlighted thing of the season,” two-time Grand Prix winner Will Power said.

Crew members of Team Penske work on the No. 12 car of Will Power on Frida in St. Petersburg.
Crew members of Team Penske work on the No. 12 car of Will Power on Frida in St. Petersburg. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

As unconventional as it all was, the series and the season kept going, building to a championship event at one of its most beloved tracks. And on the way to these downtown streets, some drama followed.

Related: The Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg is on, with a different feel

After winning four of the first eight races, Dixon slowly started to drift back to the pack. Instead of arriving with the series title already clinched, Dixon only enters as a heavy favorite. The Chip Ganassi Racing star can clinch his sixth career championship by finishing ninth or better.

“Obviously the goal is to go for a win,” said Dixon, who has still somehow never done that in his 15 previous races here. “That makes it a lot easier, then you don’t have to worry about any of the scenarios.”

IndyCar driver Scott Dixon is seen after the morning practice session Saturday.
IndyCar driver Scott Dixon is seen after the morning practice session Saturday. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Newgarden is the one who has to worry about those. He’ll likely have to repeat as the Grand Prix winner and get some help from the rest of the field to have a chance at the season-long prize. It’s unlikely but not impossible for a Team Penske veteran who climbed his way into contention despite ranking fifth in points through the first four races.

“He’s a fighter,” NBC announcer Leigh Diffey said. “I wouldn’t call him a scrapper. I call him a classy fighter.”

Whoever leaves here with the series title will be a worthy, deserving champion.

Related: Meet the two Grand Prix drivers fighting for the IndyCar Series title in St. Petersburg

Newgarden already has a pair of series titles and would become the first driver to win back-to-back IndyCar championships since Dario Franchitti (2009-11). With 50 career race victories (third-most ever), Dixon has already established himself as one of the all-time greats in the series.

And it will all happen in a setting that seemed impossible seven months ago — at a revised, rescheduled downtown Grand Prix.

“We’re back where we should be,” IndyCar veteran Alexander Rossi said. “Racing in St. Pete.”

Times staff writer Mari Faiello contributed to this report.