Paddock Buzz: Plenty of Firsts To Celebrate

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Alex Palou, the surprise winner of last weekend’s season-opening NTT INDYCAR SERIES race at Barber Motorsports Park, will be aiming to go 2-for-2 with Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. The same is true for fellow Chip Ganassi Racing employee Danielle Shepherd.

Shepherd is a simulation engineer in her fifth season with Chip Ganassi’s Indianapolis-based organization. But this year she is also serving as the Aeroscreen tear-off attendant on Palou’s No. 10 car, and that role at Barber earned her a place in this sport’s history.

While Shepherd isn’t the first female crew member to go over the pit wall in an INDYCAR race, she is believed to have been the first to do so on a winning car.

Speaking of firsts, Yuvan Sundaramoorthy is believed to have achieved one last weekend, too.

The 18-year-old driver of the No. 22 entry of Pabst Racing in the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship is thought to be the first driver of Indian descent to win a race in the Road to Indy program. He won the first Barber race from start to finish.

Palou among Quickest to Victory Lane

As for Palou, he won in just his 15th INDYCAR start. While impressive, it is not a record.

In the sport’s history, 28 drivers have won in their rookie season, including Scott Dixon (third race), Sebastien Bourdais (fourth), Ryan Hunter-Reay (18th) and Alexander Rossi (sixth) in this field. Nigel Mansell (1993) and Buzz Calkins (1996) won in their first INDYCAR starts, and Juan Pablo Montoya won in his third, fourth and fifth races in 1999.

Graham Hill is the other driver to win his first INDYCAR start, that coming in the 1966 Indianapolis 500.

Also of note: Palou led 56 of the 90 laps at Barber after leading only a single lap last year – Lap 79 at this event in St. Petersburg in October. Palou was 20th in Friday’s 45-minute practice in the No. 10 NTT DATA Chip Ganassi Racing Honda.

Power-ful in Qualifying

Let’s put in perspective just how dominant Will Power has been in NTT P1 Award qualifying on the St. Petersburg street circuit. There are only three drivers in this 24-car field who have won a pole at this track, and only one of them has done so in the past decade.

Then driving for AJ Foyt Racing, Takuma Sato won the pole in 2014. Graham Rahal won a pole here for Newman Haas Racing in 2009, and Bourdais won the inaugural St. Petersburg event – then a Champ Car race – in 2003, also for Newman Haas Racing.

Interestingly, half of Sato’s 10 INDYCAR poles have come on street circuits, where a driver’s commitment level must be extreme amid tight racing quarters and the need to quickly maximize Firestone’s alternate red tires.

“You run the out lap and then usually the first time by (the flag stand) is all you have (time for here),” said Sato, who was 18th in Friday’s practice. “You have to manage traffic and get it right. There are so many blind, unsighted corners that are completely walled by concrete, so you need commitment.”

Colton Herta was third in Friday’s practice in the No. 26 Gainbridge Honda. He said the competitiveness of the field makes it “a struggle to get a clean lap here.”

Meanwhile, Power has won nine of the past 11 poles, and he won the 2014 race as Sato finished 18th. Since Rahal’s pole, the only other driver to top qualifying was Robert Wickens in 2018.

Surprisingly, Power has won only twice here, the other in 2010, his first full season with Team Penske. He was first out of the race here in October when he crashed on Lap 36 in the No. 12 Verizon 5G Team Penske Chevrolet.

NTT P1 Award qualifying begins at 1:45 p.m. ET (live on Peacock, replay on NBCSN at 10 p.m.).

Another Pato Weekend?

Along with Power, Pato O’Ward will be another driver to watch this weekend. Not only is he coming off an outstanding weekend at Barber Motorsports Park, he has enjoyed a lot of success in St. Petersburg.

O’Ward finished second in the October race – his only other INDYCAR start here – and he won a pole and a race in Indy Lights in 2018.

Mexican driver O’Ward was ninth in Friday’s practice in the No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet.

At Barber, O’Ward led 25 of the 90 laps from the pole and might have finished higher than fourth had he not had a slow tire leak from a puncture early in the race.

O’Ward also drives for Arrow McLaren SP, the latest iteration of what originally was known as Sam Schmidt Motorsports. In 2018, Sam Schmidt’s team, then known as Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, helped Wickens win the pole here. Wickens led 69 laps in that race and was in front on the restart with two laps to go when Alexander Rossi bumped him into the Turn 1 wall trying to pass on the inside.

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