Friday, March 23, 2012

FINALLY: Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg Preview

It seemed to take ages, but at long last the season opener is upon us! With the IZOD IndyCar Series roaring to life at the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, it’s a new season, with new cars, new engines, and new opportunities.

Still, history counts for something, doesn’t it? Well, here’s a breakdown of active drivers with the best average finish at St. Pete (over 3 or more races):


No other driver with 3 or more starts averaged a Top 10 finish (Scott Dixon is the closest, with an 11.7 average). Now, we obviously still need to see how the engines shake out, but if you’ve got a pool going, you’ll find several of the drivers on the above list to be smart money.

With that in mind, let’s go through some of the big storyline for this weekend:

New Cars, New Engines: The most obvious storyline of this weekend’s action is the new DW12 car and the Honda, Lotus, and Chevy engine competition. Expectations are for the DW12 to perform better than its predecessor, though precisely how much remains to be seen. On the engine front, aside from waiting to see what the reliability and performance results for each manufacturer, there’s also the lingering question of Lotus. They’re acknowledged as behind the curve in terms of development, but how will they fare when it counts? Will it be an all-Lotus back of the field, or do they have enough to give a respectable showing?

It’s been a long road to the new cars, with a lot of criticism, a lot of nay-saying, and a lot of second-guessing. We’ll see how much of that clears up when the turbos start roaring in the heat of competition.

Remembering Dan: Of course, St. Pete was Dan Wheldon’s home, and everyone will be missing him tremendously throughout this weekend. Dan will be honored during some of the functions this weekend, as befits a man who was a champion in every sense of the word. The loss remains enormous, but he left us with much to celebrate and even more of a legacy.

Starting Off Right: The last two season openers have both seen very ugly starts, including multi-car incidents right off the bat. It would be good to see this year’s performance start right, and Marco Andretti not end with either a) upside-down or b) with another car on top of him.

Welcoming Rubens: F1 star Rubens Barrichello will be making his INDYCAR debut with KV Racing Technology, and he should get plenty of attention—not only with his performance, but how the other drivers measure up against him.

Rookie Debut: We’ve seen Simon Pagenaud in a few races last season, but this will be the first race for Josef Newgarden and Katherine Legge in the IZOD IndyCar Series. All three will be vying for Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors, so we’ll see which driver gets off to the best start.

An Andretti Return(?): James Hinchcliffe, Marco Andretti, and Ryan Hunter-Reay are now the faces of Andretti’s INDYCAR efforts. This team has been perceived as falling off a bit in recent years—could personnel changes, engine selection, and the addition of Hinchcliffe give them the chemistry they need to return to the top tier? We’re going to find out in short order.

Milestone Note: Helio Castroneves is currently P14 in the all-time combined INDYCAR record book for series wins with 25, tied with Gordon Johncock. His next victory will send him into a tie with Rodger Ward for P13 in all-time wins.

Mazda Road to Indy Update: The Indy Lights race will be at 3:30 pm ET this Saturday, and will be broadcast at 5 pm ET on NBC Sports. Additionally, Star Mazda will have a race at 1:00 pm ET Saturday, and one at 10:05 am ET before the main event on Sunday. Star Mazda will feature an intriguing cast of drivers, from American prospects Sage Karam and Connor De Phillippi to international talent such as Martin Scuncio, Petri Suvanto, and Jack Hawksworth. Whomever wins the championship this year will have done so against a very deep field.

In Firestone Indy Lights, Esteban Guerrieri is back with Sam Schmidt's team after a long flirtation with an IZOD IndyCar Series seat. His main competition this year will be Sebastian Saavedra with Andretti Autosport, who's looking to get more seasoning with another full year in Lights. Gustavo Yacaman is hoping he'll finally get over the hump this year, while Belardi Auto Racing's Alon Day will be making history as the first Israeli driver to run in the U.S. This field is considered somewhat thin, so we'll have to see who can make their mark this year. Watch for Schmidt's Oliver Webb as a potential spoiler against more experienced Lights competition.

Over/Under On The Number Of Time The ABC Broadcast Crew Will Mention Danica Patrick: I’ll be an optimist, and say 5. It’ll take some time, guys...patience…

Pole: Will Power has been on the pole the last two races here. Until he doesn’t do so, he’s still the man to beat.

Winner: Tough not to go with Will Power, but Justin Wilson’s always qualified and performed well here, and I’ve got faith in a Coyne Uprising this year. I’ll be bold and take Wilson to take the checkered in a triumphant return from his broken back injury last year.

Sleeper Pick: If Wilson wasn’t enough of a dark horse, look out for Mike Conway and the Foyt team. Conway normally doesn’t have good finishes at St. Pete, but his teaming with the new engineering team at Foyt could change things this season.

Broadcast Info: Pre-race begins on ABC, 12:00 pm ET (3/25/12). Qualifications and practice sessions will be on INDYCAR Race Control.

Have fun watching the race this weekend! We’ve waited a long time, but the wait is about to pay off. We are in for a wild ride this season—take the time to enjoy every minute of it. Green green green!

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