The NTT IndyCar Series put on a rip-roaring two-day season finale. The Firestone Grand Prix of St Petersburg, scheduled as the first race of the year, turned out to be the last of a 14-race campaign.
It was filled with action and intrigue… Scott Dixon and Josef Newgarden were going for the championship; polesitter Will Power simply wanted to win in 2020. The two Penske drivers didn’t get everything they wanted – but Dixon did, taking his sixth INDYCAR title by a measly 16 points over two-time champ Newgarden. It took a third-place podium finish for Dixon to claim his title and it wasn’t easy, especially with an 11th place starting position (Newgarden started eighth).
Even before the cars hit the 1.8-mile tricky airport/street circuit for Saturday morning practice, there had been some news to discuss, including the revelation that Carvana, the used-car company is going to sponsor the No. 48 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda-powered Indy car for seven-time NASCAR champ Jimmie Johnson. At least JJ keeps his favorite number even as he segues to a new engine maker. He’ll run only road/street courses in 2021 but the car will be on-track for every race.
Team Penske returns to a four-car full-time team in 2021 with the addition of Scott McLaughlin, the now-three-time Supercars champion from New Zealand who will trade continents to compete in INDYCAR next year, joining Newgarden, Power and Simon Pagenaud on series owner Roger Penske’s squad. McLaughlin didn’t have the results he wanted for his debut, but he’s only 27 so he’s got plenty of time to learn the ropes.
Ed Carpenter Racing confirmed that 2020 Rookie of the Year Rinus VeeKay returns to the No. 21 in 2021, Rahal Letterman Racing renewed the contract of two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Takuma Sato and Arrow McLaren SP added Felix Rosenqvist to its roster in place of rookie Oliver Askew, who returned to the series for the season finale in the team’s No. 7 Chevrolet, after being cleared by INDYCAR’s medical staff. Pato O’Ward, who finished second on Sunday is staying with the team; he earned fourth place in season standings, just five points behind his former teammate Colton Herta.
The race was, in no way straightforward. It began on a steamy, high-80-degree, humid day with a nice side-by-side start, but by the fourth lap, pole man Power was starting to wilt with downshifting issues, giving up the lead to Alexander Rossi, the 2016 Indy 500 winner. Rossi would lead the most, 61 laps but he would hit a Turn 3 bump on the 69th lap and cause the fourth of six cautions. Power’s contact at the fourth turn caused the first caution on the 36th lap and, as is so often the case, that begat another caution on the 41st (Sato pushed Santino Ferrucci off-course in Turn 2), followed by the third, Turn 1 contact between newcomer Scott McLaughlin and VeeKay.
From the 52nd to the 69th lap, the race progressed until Rossi’s incident, followed by another Sato-induced hit on Marco Andretti, who had scrambled from his 23rd starting spot to run in the top 10 at the time. Again, that caution begat the final yellow when Askew went off at Turn 10 – again with Sato’s assistance – but it was clean to the close of the 100-lap contest, despite light misting on the circuit. Newgarden leapt from third to first on the final restart, led the final 21 laps and, while he did everything he could to get a third championship and second straight, it was Dixon’s turn to star as the “Iceman” kept his cool until he was able to earn his sixth title, just one behind the great A.J. Foyt, who earned his sixth 45 years ago. Dixon’s championship is the 13th for Chip Ganassi Racing in its 30th anniversary season.
Aside from the stars of this race – the two guys and their teams vying for the championship – there were some extremely bright moments, including Marco Andretti’s fight for position in the middle of the contest, as he rose to seventh place before being punted. And it’s true what they say about Sebastien Bourdais: he’s a monster when racing in his own backyard. Giving the Foyt team more than a glimmer of hope, Bourdais finished fourth from seventh on the grid in the No. 14; his challenge will be to have results like this away from his St. Petersburg home next season. Teammate Charlie Kimball took eighth place, giving the Foyt team cheer in the off-season.
Colton Herta, who finished third in the title chase, threw away any chance for victory on Sunday when he made his second contact with the tire barrier on the 86th lap. The second-generation racer, driving the No. 88 Capstone Turbine Honda from Andretti Autosport, owned up to his error: “I just messed it up,” he said.
Teammate James Hinchcliffe, driving the No. 26 formerly piloted by Zach Veach, was en route to a good result when he spun under caution in the final turns – the Firestone tire marbles were vicious off-line – and made contact with Jack Harvey when he reentered the track. Harvey’s No. 60 Meyer Shank Racing team has an affiliation with Andretti Technologies. The Canadian apologized and noted the pace vehicle was going so slowly the car was even more difficult to drive.
Behind Newgarden, O’Ward, Dixon and Bourdais in the leading order at the close of 100 tough laps came Andretti’s Ryan Hunter-Reay, whose 2021 plans still haven’t been announced, Team Penske’s Simon Pagenaud, Marcus Ericsson (who’s also uncertain for next year), Kimball and Rahal Letterman Lanigan teammates Graham Rahal and Sato, the latter coming back after restarting at the back of the field due to his penalty for avoidable contact. There were 14 cars on the lead lap with Herta, Carlin’s Max Chilton, rookie Alex Palou and Hinchcliffe the remaining 100-lap finishers.
Although they didn’t win the St Petersburg battle, Honda Performance Development earned their third consecutive manufacturers’ championship and ninth overall, thanks to seven race wins, 15 additional podium finishes.
While some might think the action ends with Sunday’s checkered flags on the west coast of Florida, testing is starting this week in anticipation of next May’s 105th Indianapolis 500. Six drivers will tae part, including the newly crowned champion Scott Dixon, St Pete race winner Josef Newgarden and second-placed Patricio O’Ward, together with 2020 Indy 500 winner Takuma Sato, 2014 Indy winner Ryan Hunter-Reay and three-time Indy 500 pole sitter Ed Carpenter.