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5 questions about next week’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg

Jimmie Johnson and two Pinellas County residents are among the drivers to watch in IndyCar’s second race of the season.
Who will take the checkered flags at this year's Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg?
Who will take the checkered flags at this year's Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg? [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Apr. 15
Updated Apr. 15

The Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg returns to downtown next week for the second time in six months. Because of the pandemic, attendance is limited to 20,000 fans per day.

Here are five key questions about this year’s event:

1. How does the schedule change affect the racing?

The Grand Prix has seen its share of chaos over the years. Will that continue with a revised IndyCar schedule?
The Grand Prix has seen its share of chaos over the years. Will that continue with a revised IndyCar schedule? [ LUIS SANTANA | Times (2020) ]

St. Petersburg served as the IndyCar Series’ season opener from 2011-19 before shifting to the finale last year because of the pandemic. It was going to host this year’s first race, but organizers pushed it back a month to try to boost attendance as more people became vaccinated. Instead, IndyCar’s season debuts Sunday at Alabama’s Barber Motorsports Park.

Related: How the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg became one of IndyCar’s crown jewels

The extra race before St. Petersburg will obviously be beneficial for rookies, but what about the rest of the field? Two-time defending Grand Prix winner Josef Newgarden said some drivers start the year trying to prove something immediately, which can create early chaos. By moving to race 2, the Grand Prix might be a little calmer than usual.

“Hopefully that takes out the variable of maybe getting crashed into a little less likely,” Newgarden said.

2. How will Jimmie Johnson and the other high-profile rookies fare?

Jimmie Johnson was in St. Petersburg in October for the last Grand Prix. He'll be racing in this one.
Jimmie Johnson was in St. Petersburg in October for the last Grand Prix. He'll be racing in this one. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times (2020) ]

After retiring from NASCAR, the seven-time Cup Series champion is racing on IndyCar’s road and street courses for power team Chip Ganassi Racing. No other cars were on the track when he tested during the offseason, so he has a lot to learn about a very different type of car in a very different series. Johnson, 45, has kept his expectations muted, but his car owner believes he can contend for top-three finishes, if not a victory, this season.

Related: Jimmie Johnson still adjusting to IndyCar ahead of Grand Prix

“It’s certainly not impossible,” Ganassi said.

Scott McLaughlin is in his first full IndyCar season after winning three Supercars championships in Australia; he made his series debut at the Grand Prix in October and finished 22nd. Romain Grosjean, a veteran of 179 Formula One starts, has also jumped to IndyCar. All three are worth monitoring early.

3. Can Team Penske keep dominating?

Josef Newgarden has been a part of Team Penske's dominance in St. Petersburg. He has won the last two races here.
Josef Newgarden has been a part of Team Penske's dominance in St. Petersburg. He has won the last two races here. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times (2020) ]

Not even the 2020 curveballs could stop Team Penske’s success at the Grand Prix. One of its drivers (Will Power) won his ninth pole here in October, and Newgarden’s second consecutive victory gave the top-tier team 10 wins in the past 15 races in St. Petersburg. Power, Newgarden and teammate Simon Pagenaud will likely all be contenders again this year.

4. Is this the year Scott Dixon finally wins the Grand Prix?

Scott Dixon clinched his sixth IndyCar Series championship at the Grand Prix last year but still hasn't won the race in St. Petersburg.
Scott Dixon clinched his sixth IndyCar Series championship at the Grand Prix last year but still hasn't won the race in St. Petersburg. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times (2020) ]

Dixon at least got to celebrate some type of victory here in October when his third-place finish clinched his sixth series championship. But one of the most accomplished drivers of his generation has still never won the race itself, despite six top-three finishes (including three in the last four years). Will this be the year he moves from the bottom of the podium to the top?

5. Will one of the locals take the checkered flag?

Colton Herta is one of the rising stars in the IndyCar Series. He's due for a good showing in St. Petersburg.
Colton Herta is one of the rising stars in the IndyCar Series. He's due for a good showing in St. Petersburg. [ SHADD, DIRK | Times (2019) ]

St. Petersburg resident Sebastien Bourdais has high hopes after landing a full-time ride with A.J. Foyt Enterprises. The two-time Grand Prix winner said he has all the resources he needs to compete. The first two races will be big tests for him and his team. Belleair’s Colton Herta was third in the championship standings last year and will need to improve on last year’s 11th-place finish if he wants to challenge for the series title.

Related: IndyCar team owner George Steinbrenner IV is The Kid, not The Boss

George Steinbrenner IV, a Clearwater Central Catholic alumnus, should have a shot at a nice showing as an owner. The new driver for his No. 29 Andretti Steinbrenner Autosport Honda is James Hinchcliffe, the 2013 Grand Prix winner.

Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg

When/where: April 23-25. Gates at intersections of 1st Ave SE and 1st St. SE; 2nd St S and 5th Ave S.

IndyCar qualifying: 1:45 p.m. April 24. IndyCar race: Noon April 25. TV: NBC

Notable: The event will host up to 20,000 fans per day. Advance ticket sales only.

More information and complete schedule here.