INDYCAR Writers’ Roundtable, Vol. 15: Barber Surprises, St. Pete Picks

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Today’s question: Besides Alex Palou earning his first NTT INDYCAR SERIES victory, what surprised you the most about the season-opening Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama presented by AmFirst last weekend? And who’s your pick to win this Sunday in the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg?

Curt Cavin: Can I say I wasn’t surprised by much in the Barber race? Oh, I didn’t expect Josef Newgarden to spin by himself on Lap 1, but I predicted Alex Palou would be wicked fast at times this season and that Will Power was due to have a good start to a season. Jimmie Johnson was about what you’d expect from his first INDYCAR race, and you could have bet the farm that Scott Dixon was going to score another podium there (he’s now had nine in 11 trips). I had Sebastien Bourdais doing well, too. If I’m forced to pick a surprise, it was Romain Grosjean’s first series races. Grosjean felt so good after that competitive 10th-place finish that he now believes he can win a race this season, and I wouldn’t bet against it. As for St. Pete, it often is a Penske show, so I’ll go with Power winning his 10th pole in 12 races and Newgarden winning his third straight race. In other words, no surprises there, either.

Zach Horrall: I am all aboard the Sebastien Bourdais train here. Coming into Barber, the driver of the No. 14 ROKiT AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet wasn’t particularly on my radar. It’s no secret that A.J. Foyt Enterprises has struggled the last few seasons, and they brought in Bourdais with the goal of rebuilding their program. He started 16th, and after a pair of mid-pack rankings in practice, it didn’t appear Bourdais was going to contend for the win. Surely, I thought, it would take time to get their feet under them. I was wrong. Bourdais scored a fifth-place finish on Sunday, his second consecutive top five finish for the organization when you look back at his fourth-place finish in the season finale last October at St. Petersburg. It was a big moment for A.J. Foyt Enterprises, too, as the organization scored its first back-to-back top-five finishes since Takuma Sato won at Long Beach in April 2013 and backed it up with a second at Sao Paulo the following race. With that in mind, I’m going to stretch a little here, but not very far at all, and say the four-time INDYCAR SERIES champ picks up a win this weekend in the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. He won back-to-back races there in 2017-18, and he’s surely riding a wave of confidence from his masterful drive last October, where he also started seventh. He’s a solid choice for Sunday.

Paul Kelly: This may sound weird, but the biggest surprise to me is that Scott Dixon may have a real fight on his hands this season from inside the same team. Dixie hasn’t been a one-man band at Chip Ganassi Racing since Dario Franchitti retired after the 2013 season, but let’s face it: Franchitti was the last teammate to beat Dixon in the final season standings, in 2011. After Ganassi drivers finished 1-3-8 at Barber, I’m not willing to say either Alex Palou or Marcus Ericsson will crack the Ice Man’s code in 2021, but they’re going to push him a hell of a lot harder than teammates have in recent years. As for St. Pete, I can think of three drivers either eliminated or all but eliminated in the first-lap maelstrom at Barber who must get back on track this weekend – Josef Newgarden, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Colton Herta. But I’m picking Will Power to sweep the NTT P1 Award for pole and the race victory for Team Penske. Will is fueled by emotion more than most drivers in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES paddock, and he was beaming after that strong second-place run behind Palou at Barber. His mental and results roll will continue this weekend by the sea.

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