ST. PETERSBURG — The IndyCar Series opens this weekend for the 20th running of the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
Though there was some offseason movement, most of the usual suspects return to the downtown 1.8-mile, 14-turn street course.
Here are seven drivers to watch, from when practice begins Friday until Sunday’s 12:30 p.m. race.
Scott McLaughlin, Team Penske
Though McLaughlin was a three-time champion in Australian Supercars, he led only five laps in his first full IndyCar season (2021) and entered last year’s opener with questions about his potential. They disappeared when he won the pole, led 49 laps and earned his first career win.
“It was a great momentum shift for me,” McLaughlin said. “It really completely changed my career path.” McLaughlin finished fourth in points and returns as one of the favorites.
Colton Herta, Andretti Autosport
The 22-year-old Belleair resident is one of the country’s brightest racing stars with, perhaps, an eventual future in Formula One. For now, the 2021 Grand Prix winner is trying to shrug off last year’s disappointing season (10th in points) and re-establish himself as a championship contender.
Will Power, Team Penske
The reigning series champion is always a contender here; he has won the pole nine times, earned a victory twice and finished on the podium four other times (including last year). Eventually, the 42-year-old Australian will show signs of slowing down, but that hasn’t happened yet.
Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing
The six-time IndyCar champion has won almost everything in the series except, somehow, the Grand Prix. He has finished second four times (most recently in 2019) and led 26 laps last season. Is this the year Dixon finally breaks through?
Alexander Rossi, Arrow McLaren
The California native was the last American to compete in Formula One and had immediate success in IndyCar, winning the Indianapolis 500 as a rookie in 2016. He earned five victories at Andretti Autosport from 2018-19 but since then has finished ninth, eighth and 10th in points.
NBC Sports analyst James Hinchcliffe called Rossi’s offseason move from Andretti to Arrow McLaren “one of the top stories” of the series. This is our first sign of how quickly it will pay off for both Rossi and his new team.
Josef Newgarden, Team Penske
The 32-year-old Tennessee native has been as good as any driver in the series. The two-time IndyCar champion has finished second in points each of the last three seasons and won the Grand Prix in 2019 and 2020. There’s no reason to think he won’t be in the mix to win Sunday.
Kyle Kirkwood, Andretti Autosport
The 24-year-old Jupiter native starred on his way to IndyCar, becoming the first driver ever to win championships in all three feeder series. But he struggled mightily after replacing Sebastien Bourdais in AJ Foyt Racing’s No. 14 Chevrolet; as a rookie, Kirkwood finished 24th in points with more crashes (seven) than top-15 finishes (three).
Looking back, Kirkwood said being on a smaller team helped him last year because he “would have been really thrown into the deep end” as a rookie at a power shop like Andretti. We’ll see how much the experience and change of scenery help, starting this weekend. “A lot of eyes on him,” Hinchcliffe said.
The Grand Prix announced Thursday that Firestone and RP Funding have signed on to remain the event’s title and presenting sponsors through 2025. The race also signed a “multiyear extension” with IndyCar and announced the dates for the next two years: March 8-10, 2024, and March 7-9, 2025.
Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg
Friday-Sunday, downtown; the 1.8-mile, 14-turn track uses the streets circling Pioneer Park, the Duke Energy Center for the Arts and The Dalí Museum, and extends onto the runways at Albert Whitted Airport.
Main race: 12:30 p.m. Sunday TV: NBC
More info: Details on tickets, parking, event schedule and more here.