Intrigue Abundant as 2022 Season Takes Green Flag at St. Pete
Rarely has an NTT INDYCAR SERIES season been filled with so much intrigue.
How will seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson fare when he first competes on oval tracks in an open-wheel car? (The first of those races is the XPEL 375 at Texas Motor Speedway on March 20.)
Can the two Indianapolis 500 winners presented by Gainbridge – Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud – prove to be a winning combination for Meyer Shank Racing?
Are the sport’s youngest stars – Pato O’Ward or Colton Herta – ready to take on yet another young driver, reigning series champion Alex Palou?
How quickly can Kyle Kirkwood, who won back-to-back championships in USF2000, Indy Pro 2000 and Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, find success at the highest level of the sport?
Is Tatiana Calderon ready to be the next successful female INDYCAR SERIES driver?
And those are just some of the questions as the season kicks off with Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg presented by RP Funding, the first of 17 races this season, 14 of which air on NBC. Live coverage begins at noon (ET) Sunday on NBC, Telemundo Deportes on Universo and the INDYCAR radio network.
Abundant changes among extended fields
INDYCAR’s season features an expanded field – 26 car-driver combinations, two more than in St. Petersburg last year and the series’ largest season-opening field since 2012. Fifteen of the cars are powered by Honda, 11 by Chevrolet. All roll on Firestone Firehawk tires.
In total, half of the entries present something different.
These changing teams:
- Romain Grosjean (Honda #28 DHL from Andretti Autosport)
- Jack Harvey (No. 45 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda Hy-Vee)
- Takuma Sato (#51 Nurtec ODT Honda of Dale Coyne Racing with RWR)
- Simon Pagenaud (#60 Meyer Shank Racing Honda AutoNation/SiriusXM)
Veterans moving from part-time to full-time:
- Helio Castroneves (#06 Meyer Shank Racing Honda AutoNation/SiriusXM)
- Jimmie Johnson (Chip Ganassi Racing’s #48 Carvana Honda)
- Conor Daly (Ed Carpenter Racing #20 BitNile Chevrolet)
Rookie of the Year nominees:
- Tatiana Calderon (No. 11 ROKiT Chevrolet / AJ Foyt of AJ Foyt Racing)
- Kyle Kirkwood (No. 14 ROKiT Chevrolet / AJ Foyt of AJ Foyt Racing)
- David Malukas (#18 HMD Honda of Dale Coyne Racing with HMD Motorsports)
- Devlin DeFrancesco (Andretti Steinbrenner Autosport’s #29 Honda PowerTap)
- Christian Lundgaard (No. 30 Shield Cleaners Honda of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing)
- Callum Ilott (No. 77 Juncos Hollinger Racing Chevrolet)
Start with the defending champions
Chip Ganassi Racing had one of its most successful seasons last year, winning six of 16 races and placing three drivers in the top six of the standings, led by series-first Alex Palou (#10 NTT DATA Chip Ganassi Racing Honda).
Palou tied for the series lead with three wins while Marcus Ericsson (#8 Huski Chocolate Chip Ganassi Racing Honda) won two races and Scott Dixon (#9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda) one. Palou also came close to winning the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge as Helio Castroneves passed him for the lead with two laps to go. Palou is trying to become the first INDYCAR season champion since Dario Franchitti (2009-2011).
Dixon is always one to watch. He’s trying his second chance to tie Foyt for the most INDYCAR championships of his career – Dixon has six – and he entered the season with just one race victory to tie Mario Andretti for second place with 52. Foyt won 67.
Dixon also won a race in a record 19 seasons, 17 in a row. Remarkably, Dixon never won in St. Petersburg, although he finished on the podium seven times, with four second places.
Herta Dominant on street circuits in 2021
Colton Herta (#26 Gainbridge Honda of Andretti Autosport with Curb-Agajanian) is riding a two-fight winning streak in this year’s season-opening race, having won the final two races of 2021. The second of those victories came in the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach, held at the Southern California urban course in which he led 43 of 85 laps.
Last year in St Petersburg, Herta was class of the peloton, leading 97 of the 100 laps from pole. He also took pole at the inaugural Big Machine Music City Grand Prix in Nashville.
Herta will attempt to become the fourth consecutive driver to win back-to-back races at St. Petersburg. The others were Juan Pablo Montoya (2015, 2016), Sébastien Bourdais (2017, 2018) and Josef Newgarden (2019, 2020). Newgarden (No. 2 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet) is a two-time series champion and finished second in St. Petersburg last year.
Other previous St. Petersburg race winners in this area include Helio Castroneves (2006, 2007, 2012), Will Power (2010, 2014) and Graham Rahal (2008).
Power: the NTT P1 price master
Any preview of a St. Petersburg event must include Team Penske’s Will Power (#12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet). As well as winning two races, Power won nine NTT P1 Awards as the fastest qualifier. He has won all but three poles on the circuit since 2010.
Power enters the season with 63 career poles, four short of Mario Andretti’s all-time record. Also this season, Power, the 2014 series champion and 2018 Indianapolis 500 winner, will be looking to win a race for the 16th straight year. This will be his 13th full-time season as a Team Penske driver.
In addition to Power and Newgarden, Roger Penske’s organization is also fielding a car for last year’s Rookie of the Year, Scott McLaughlin (No. 3 DEX Imaging Team Penske Chevrolet).
The Indy Lights Gang
The 14-car field for the Indy Lights race presented by Gainbridge (Sunday, 9:30 a.m., live on Peacock) is led by Linus Lundqvist, the HMD Motorsports driver with Dale Coyne Racing who won three series races last year . Matthew Brabham, winner of a series race in 2014, returns to Andretti Autosport. He and Force Indy’s Ernie Francis Jr., a seven-time Trans Am champion making his series debut, are other drivers to watch.
Indy Lights launched the careers of several current INDYCAR drivers, including Newgarden, Herta and Pato O’Ward (#5 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet). Last year at Indy Lights, Kyle Kirkwood and David Malukas won 17 of 20 races and were only 13 points apart at the end of the year.
All NTT INDYCAR SERIES and Indy Lights races will be broadcast live on Peacock, the NBC Sports streaming service and the INDYCAR Radio Network.
Sunday’s INDYCAR race includes a Spanish-language broadcast from Telemundo Deportes on Universo, which will also air the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge on May 29 and the season-ending Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca on September 11.