NASCAR Race Weekend Central

IndyCar Preview – Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg

It’s about time they got started! The Verizon IndyCar Series revs up this weekend with its traditional opener in St. Petersburg, Florida. Well, it’s not really one of those long-standing traditions in theory — the race has only been opening the season since 2009 — though it had usually been the second race on the schedule. But those semantics simply don’t matter; it’s about time the teams fired up their engines.

Scott Dixon is the defending series champion after besting Helio Castroneves in the finale at Auto Club Speedway to close last year’s season. He’s sure to be a contender again this year, though he’s got two new teammates in Ryan Briscoe and Tony Kanaan after Dario Franchitti hobbled off into retirement. Not to make too much light of Franchitti’s retirement, of course, as his wreck at Houston last year showed how dangerous IndyCar can be. But the Scotsman has been no stranger to calamitous crashes over his career, and it’s good that he can at least set off into a life after racing.

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Juan Pablo Montoya returns to IndyCar in 2014 after a long break from the series while racing in NASCAR.

James Hinchcliffe won last year’s race, beating Castroneves for the first victory of his career. The win over Castroneves was significant, as he’s currently the only driver to have multiple victories (2006, ’07, ’12) at the track. The Penske driver, along with teammate Will Power, are likely favorites again this go-round. It’s their other teammate, however, who is likely to draw a lot of attention, as Juan Pablo Montoya quit his dalliance with NASCAR and returned to open-wheel racing.

What’s News

Verizon taking over the marquee sponsorship of the series is one of the big stories and gives IndyCar a stable financial backing. The long-term ramifications of the deal will not be known at this race, though watching how IndyCar and Verizon work together in marketing the sport may start to show.

The driver-team swaps have been largely detailed. That being noted, Graham Rahal’s new sponsorship deal with the National Guard is an intriguing story, as he has made overtures to Dale Earnhardt, Jr. about swapping rides at some point. Alas, the NASCAR superstar has already distanced himself from the notion by intimating that manufacturer loyalties, he with Chevrolet and Rahal with Honda, might prevent such an interesting endeavor. It seems like the fans might lose out on that one.

The Track

This race is the 10th under IndyCar sanction at St. Petersburg on a course that is 1.8 miles long, features 14 turns, and uses both the streets of the area as well as Albert Whitted Airport. The race is 110 laps long and should feature favorable weather conditions, the warmth of Florida spring shining through.

Historically, Penske Racing is the team to beat; they’ve won three of the last five events at the track.

What’s the Points? Drivers

Everyone’s tied for first.

What’s the Points? Engines

Everyone’s tied for last.

Driver(s) to Watch

Montoya is the easy choice here, but Castroneves seems like a better one. Having taken the runner-up position both at this track and in the championship, he is one to pay attention to. In many sports, the second-place finisher is one who suffers through a rough follow-up season, which means Castroneves might be fated to do the same.

Though it seems easy to stick with big names, Kanaan is also a notable driver for the race, as he’ll be debuting with Target Chip Ganassi Racing. The Brazilian, who moves from KV Racing Technology into Franchitti’s old seat (and by extension, top-tier equipment) should excel.

Other News?

Andretti Autosport will start its first races with Honda as its engine supplier. The Ganassi team ran well late in the 2013 season with those powerplants, so there should be reason for optimism. Ah, right, so that means Ganassi will also be using different engines to start the season, having moved to Chevrolet. Will it make any difference or is the game of musical chairs not all that significant?

Who Ya Got?

Will Power. He’s been strong in testing and his team didn’t switch engine manufacturers in the offseason. Matt Stallknecht, one of Frontstretch’s IndyCar experts, also sees Power in victory lane, while Toni Montgomery thinks that Kanaan’s move to Ganassi will pay off immediately with the win.

What’s Next?

The Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on April 13. Coverage switches to NBC Sports Network for the event, which will start at 4:40 PM ET. Takuma Sato finished first last year in a surprising victory.

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