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IndyCar Grand Prix of St. Petersburg 2022: What We Learned

The 2022 IndyCar season kicked off in a more usual fashion with the 2022 Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, and what race fans saw on Sunday, Feb. 27 was exactly what they’ve come to expect from the NTT IndyCar Series. Team Penske’s Scott McLaughlin got his first IndyCar victory in dominating fashion, though not without some great racing moments, and the rest of the field proved that they’re ready for another nail-biting campaign.

Here’s what NTT IndyCar Series fans can take away from the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg as viewers now look ahead to Texas and the rest of the 17-race season:

Scott McLaughlin is an IndyCar Title Contender

Scott McLaughlin is who we thought he was. The New Zealander was solid in 2021, winning Rookie of the Year honors, but there was still the sense that he hadn’t reached his full potential. McLaughlin came back in 2022 with a nearly perfect performance—stealing the inaugural NTT P1 Award out from under perennial polesitter Will Power, then leading the majority of Sunday’s race en route to becoming the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg winner.

It was an impressive drive from McLaughlin, but what stood out the most was how he performed when things weren’t in his favor. Those last few laps were an example of what separates contenders from pretenders. Held up by Andretti Autosport rookie Devlin DeFrancesco in front of him, the No. 3 Team Penske driver also had defending series champion Alex Palou breathing down his neck. At one point, the gap between Palou and McLaughlin was half a second. On top of that, McLaughlin had to monitor his fuel, which also meant not leaning on the push-to-pass button for any extra horsepower that might have helped him get clean air.

He had every reason to get frustrated and make a mistake but he kept his cool, and if he can maintain that mindset, he can go that much further in 2022 than he did last year. Team Penske is clearly betting on McLaughlin by giving him Simon Pagenaud‘s former strategist Kyle Moyer and engineer Ben Bretzman, and that extra support plus a year more of perspective on the Kiwi’s part is a vicious combination. No one doubted his talent with his trio of V8 Supercars championships; he had to learn the logistics of IndyCar and readjust his mindset, and he just proved he’s done both.

(It also stands as a note to every IndyCar team about the virtue of growing talent. Drivers like McLaughlin and Palou have improved by leaps and bounds from year one to year two. Motor racing can be a very transitory business, but if people are given the chance to learn from those early experiences, there’s the chance for them to develop into incredible assets.)

Alex Palou IndyCar
Alex Palou at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. (Photo Credit: James Black/Courtesy of Penske Entertainment.)

Alex Palou Could Repeat as Champion

Every professional sports champion is immediately asked whether or not they can win another one. NBC’s IndyCar broadcast team brought that up in regards to Palou, pointing out how no one has gone back-to-back in IndyCar since Dario Franchitti over a decade ago. No pressure, right? Based on the No. 10 Chip Ganassi Racing driver’s performance in the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, Palou has a very good chance at following in his mentor’s footsteps.

Palou did exactly what helped him to his first NTT IndyCar Series title last year: he drove unflappably and took what the race gave him. He could have gotten overly ambitious and maybe he would’ve gotten past McLaughlin, but then he would have been vulnerable to being passed back or potentially run out of fuel. Instead, he took the second place finish and racked up the points. Palou didn’t make a lot of noise during the race either; he just calmly sailed his way through the 100 laps. His biggest strength as a racer is his steadiness and he’s still got one of the coolest heads in the IndyCar field.

McLaughlin vs. Palou could shape up to be a very interesting rivalry to watch this season, because the stats from McLaughlin’s first year are fairly comparable to what Palou did in his maiden season with Dale Coyne Racing. So if McLaughlin becomes championship-caliber in his second year, how will Palou answer that call?

Will Power IndyCar
Will Power at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. (Photo Credit: James Black/Courtesy of Penske Entertainment.)

Will Power Proves the Value of Race Strategy

The 2022 Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg looked incredibly grim for McLaughlin’s Team Penske colleague Will Power at the start. He barely lost out on his 10th St. Pete pole to McLaughlin on Saturday and then got swallowed up on the start. But the reason for that became evident: Power had opted to start the race on the harder-compound primary Firestone tires while most of the rest of the field was on the softer red tires.

Power and his No. 12 team were playing the long game. They were understanding that the red tire had speed but an awful lot of fall-off, so Power could do his fast laps after the field got onto the slower black tires. He just had to hang in there during that first stint. So while we saw everyone else start to debate two vs. three pit stops (and Dalton Kellett nearly upset the race by almost causing a caution), there was Power just quietly humming along in third place. Sure, he wasn’t going to catch McLaughlin and Palou, but a podium was a strong end to his race and that happened because his team dared to go in the opposite direction at the beginning.

Sometimes viewers forget that IndyCar is a team sport, but the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg reminded audiences of that with how teams like McLaughlin’s and Power’s helped coach them and made decisions that put them into the top spots. It’s not just speed that wins races; it’s also strategy.

The 2022 IndyCar season continues on Sunday, March 20 with the XPEL 375 at Texas Motor Speedway. Race coverage begins at 12:30 p.m. ET on NBC.

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Ted

Is Penske going to attempt to get him into Nascar?,.. would seem more appropriate given his Supercars expertise.

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