Fifth Gear: Five Takeaways from St. Petersburg Race

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Yet another weekend of NTT INDYCAR SERIES action is complete after Colton Herta scored his first career street circuit win Sunday in the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida.

It was a convincing performance by Herta in the No. 26 Gainbridge Honda, who led a race-record 97 of 100 laps and fended off a late charge by two-time defending St. Petersburg winner Josef Newgarden after a Lap 80 caution bunched the field for a dash to the finish.

The first temporary street circuit race of the season offered a lot to break down before the NTT INDYCAR SERIES heads to the first oval events of the season with a doubleheader this weekend at Texas Motor Speedway. The Genesys 300 is scheduled for 7 p.m. (ET) Saturday, May 1, with the XPEL 375 set for 5 p.m. Sunday, May 2 (both live on NBCSN and INDYCAR Radio Network).

Allow us to shift our minds into Fifth Gear to see what we learned in St. Pete.

Herta Is Here To Contend for Championship

Colton Herta finished third in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES points standings last season in what was considered to be a down year for Andretti Autosport. With the team appearing much stronger in the first two race weekends of 2021, that might spell danger for the rest of the field.

Herta dominated the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg and even fended off two-time series champion Josef Newgarden on two late race restarts that evaporated the nearly 10-second lead Herta had on Newgarden.

Herta also beat 2016 series champion Simon Pagenaud in the No. 22 Menards/Australian Gold Team Penske Chevrolet, who finished third, and six-time and defending series champion Scott Dixon in the No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda, who finished fifth.

The win came as Herta rebounded from practice crash and a 22nd-place finish last weekend at Barber Motorsports Park after being collected in a Lap 1 accident started by Newgarden.

Herta catapulted to fourth in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES points standings, just five behind leader Alex Palou.

“What a great job by everybody,” said Herta, 21. “I’m so happy we did this, so happy to rebound from Barber and get the momentum going for the season that we need, which is a championship season.”

Expect 2021 to be even more of a breakout year for the California native.

Dixon Looms after St. Pete

Six-time and defending NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion Scott Dixon has produced a quiet start to the 2021 season, quite the contrast from 2020 when he opened with three straight victories.

Just because he has yet to visit Victory Circle doesn’t mean Dixon hasn’t been in the mix. He scored a third-place finish April 18 in the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama presented by AmFirst and finished fifth in Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

Dixon is the only driver in the field to open the season with top-five finishes in both races. What’s more, he’s one of just five drivers to score top-10 finishes in both races, alongside Marcus Ericsson, Will Power, Rinus VeeKay and Sebastien Bourdais.

That performance has put Dixon third in the points standings, two behind his Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Palou, who won at Barber. Dixon is tied with 2014 series champion Power with 65 points, but Power wins the tiebreaker with a better finish on the season – second at Barber.

“It’s been a bit blah, to be honest,” Dixon said. “I think at Barber we did a great job as a team and got some very good points. Here, we seemed to be a little bit off. The car was hard to get in a very good pit window, and in the race we struggled with outright pace.”

It’s consistent performances like these, “blah” or not, that Dixon must produce if he wants to tie A.J. Foyt for the most INDYCAR SERIES championships at seven.

By the looks of it, he’s doing all right.

Newgarden’s Surge Begins Now

Much like Colton Herta, Josef Newgarden needed a big weekend at St. Petersburg to bounce back after a Lap 1 accident at Barber Motorsports Park relegated him to a 23rd-place finish.

It seemed there was no better place to start that charge than at St. Petersburg, where he had won the previous two years. After pacing the first two practice sessions of the weekend, Newgarden was just behind Herta all race long. Although he didn’t win, it was mission accomplished.

Newgarden left Florida with a solid points day. The two-time series champion climbed from 23rd to 10th, just 20 points behind leader Alex Palou.

“It was important for us to get on the board,” Newgarden said. “I said we needed to do that last weekend, and we didn’t do that. It was a good bounce-back by the entire crew. To get some good points is really what we needed today, so we accomplished that. Now we can get our season off the ground and go into Texas feeling good about things.”

Early-Season Surprises Are Emerging

The NTT INDYCAR SERIES point standings are starting to take shape after two races, and there are a lot of familiar faces near the top, like former champions Will Power, Scott Dixon, Simon Pagenaud and Sebastien Bourdais.

But there are also some surprise drivers starting to hold their own after the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Most surely didn’t expect the Chip Ganassi Racing duo of Alex Palou and Marcus Ericsson to be so strong early on.

Palou, driver of the No. 10 NTT DATA Chip Ganassi Racing Honda, is still the points leader after winning April 18 at Barber Motorsports Park and finishing 17th in St. Petersburg.

Ericsson, meanwhile, is ninth in the points standings, 17 behind Palou. Additionally, Ericsson is one of just five drivers in the paddock to open the season with back-to-back top-10 finishes. He finished eighth last weekend and seventh on Sunday in the No. 8 Huski Chocolate Chip Ganassi Racing Honda.

And then there’s Jack Harvey, driver of the No. 60 AutoNation/SiriusXM Honda for Meyer Shank Racing. Harvey finished 11th last weekend and arrived in St. Petersburg looking for more. He qualified second and finished fourth – the second-best finish of his career (he finished third in the 2019 GMR Grand Prix on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course).

Meyer Shank Racing fields one full-time car and has a technical partnership with Andretti Autosport, and Harvey said Saturday the connection to the winning organization helps his crew put a good car underneath him and gives him the confidence to race hard.

“The thing is, it’s not just me,” he said. “It’s a team effort. With our technical partnership with Andretti Autosport, you see it in all their guys always being very quick no matter what. I think we’ve got a really good car.”

Everything Is Bigger in Texas

Next up, the NTT INDYCAR SERIES heads to Texas Motor Speedway for the first doubleheader of the season and the first oval events of the year.

Expect double the action, but also expect double the season impact.

In the last three years, the winner of the race on the 1.5-mile oval has gone on to win the series championship. Scott Dixon did it in 2018 and 2020, and Newgarden did so in 2019.

History also tells us that the teams that are strong this weekend will be strong on ovals for the year. After Newgarden claimed Texas in 2019, he also won at Iowa Speedway, and his Team Penske teammate Will Power won at World Wide Technology Raceway.

After Dixon’s win last season, he backed up his stellar oval performance with another oval win at World Wide Technology Raceway.

Many drivers are looking forward to this weekend not just because of the exciting action oval racing brings, but because it’s an opportunity to earn double the points in one weekend.

So while Palou, Power and Dixon will look to build up their points lead, drivers like Alexander Rossi, Felix Rosenqvist, Conor Daly and Ryan Hunter-Reay will look to move up from deep in the point standings.

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