IndyCar Photo by James Black

Rookies Colton Herta, Santino Ferrucci show promise in St. Pete

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The season-opening IndyCar race on the streets and runways of St. Petersburg saw one rookie challenge for the win, two others finish in the top 10, and another wondering what might have been.

Felix Rosenqvist stole the show by challenging for the lead immediately after starting third and settling into a comfortable fourth-place running position. He finished there, wedged between veterans Will Power (who won the championship in 2014 and finished third in the standings the past two years) and Alexander Rossi (who finished second to Scott Dixon last year).

But as Rosenqvist stood on pit road and patiently took every question the media directed at him, two other freshman drivers headed to the garage with top-10 finishes.

Colton Herta (eighth) and Santino Ferrucci (ninth) had bigger obstacles to overcome during the afternoon. Herta started just outside the top 10 in 11th. Ferrucci’s day was much less promising when the green flag first waved over the field.

He crashed in the first round of qualification, brought out a red flag and had his time disallowed. Ferrucci started on the back row and had to meticulously work his way through the field. He did so by staying on the lead lap and out of trouble. By the time Ed Jones and Matheus Leist exited with crash damage on Lap 25, Ferrucci was up to 18th.

Santino Ferrucci finished ninth in the St. Petersburg Grand Prix. Joe Skibinski, IndyCar

It took a little strategy to climb all the way into the top 10, but once the checkers waved over Josef Newgarden at the end of 110 laps, Ferrucci was ninth.

“We found something in morning warmup that was unexpected, and we made it work in the race,” Ferrucci said. “Our engineer, Michael Cannon, called a brilliant strategy, and I had to do a lot of fuel saving, to say the least. We kept it clean and in the top 10, and that was the goal. I’m really happy with today’s result, especially considering where we started.”

Ferrucci’s first IndyCar top 10 came in his fifth race. He came close last September with an 11th at Sonoma Raceway.

Herta had a less consistent race. Making his second IndyCar start, he scraped the wall early. That caused him to drop through the field until he was running only one spot ahead of Ferrucci at the time of the Jones accident.

“What an up and down race,” Herta said. “We had a pretty poor start to the race. I bumped the wall after a restart and lost quite a bit of positions. We were all the way down in 17th position at one point. After that, we just had really great pace and were able to start making up positions when everyone was in the pits. An eighth-place finish isn’t too bad for the first race of the season.”

Lost in the box score was the strength of Marcus Ericsson’s run. For most of the first half of the race, he was the second-best rookie. Prior to his retirement for an engine failure, he was running 12th – two spots ahead of Herta and four in front of Ferrucci.

“It was a great race up until the end. We started quite far back, farther back than what we think we should’ve started. It was going well and we were well inside the top 10 when we had the problem (mechanical issue). Looking at what’s happening now, we were definitely going for a top eight in the Arrow car. It was just a shame because it was a really great race up until then.”

Marcus Ericsson retired from the St. Petersburg Grand Prix on Lap 54. (IndyCar photo by Chris Owens)

View from the pits: Reporters’ picks for the 103rd Indianapolis 500

INDYCAR / Jason Porter
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It’s Race Day in Indianapolis, and for the first time, the Indianapolis 500 will be on NBC.

Time will tell what impact Mother Nature has on today’s 103rd Running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. But no matter what, prerace coverage begins today on NBCSN at 9 a.m. ET, then transitions over to NBC at 11 a.m. ET.

All month long, the INDYCAR on NBC pit reporters have been bringing you the latest breaking news and stories for the Brickyard. Now, Kevin Lee, Kelli Stavast and Marty Snider share their insights from pit road. Read on …

KEVIN LEE

Throughout the last two weeks, one common theme has been, “Don’t crash.” There were five crashes, and four of those teams/drivers ended up in the Last Row Shootout. Two of the three bumped (Patricio O’Ward and Fernando Alonso) were in backup cars following heavy impacts.

Several drivers have consistently been among the strongest. Simon Pagenaud (pictured, left) not only starts on pole but has been strong in race trim as well. All three Ed Carpenter Racing cars are fast and appear good in traffic. Alexander Rossi looks like he can put his car wherever he wants, and Scott Dixon has five championships and 44 IndyCar wins, so he must be watched.

In order, my picks for most likely to drink the milk are Pagenaud, Rossi, Ed Carpenter, Will Power and Dixon.

KELLI STAVAST

A week ago, no one could have predicted that two-time world champion Fernando Alonso and McLaren Racing would be bumped from the Indy 500 by a single-car, part-time effort of Juncos Racing and its driver, Kyle Kaiser (pictured, right).  But it happened, and Kaiser now occupies the 33rd and final spot in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

So what next?  I spoke with Kyle five days after the dramatic qualifying effort, and he told me he has never been happier to finish last and that he is still “buzzing” from that experience—an energy he hopes to carry straight through to the race.  He also told me that the response from fans has been positive with people stopping him in public (including at Chipotle) to hug him and congratulate him on making the Big Show.

But reality might have set in for the Californian who now lives in Indy.  During Carb Day’s final practice, the team struggled to get a good handling car for Kyle, who described the day as “challenging.”  But Kaiser also acknowledged that the team made some progress throughout the practice and at the very least collected some data that might help for the 500-miler on Sunday.

Whether he finishes 1st or 31st on Sunday, Kyle Kaiser and Juncos Racing will have plenty of fond memories to carry with them from the 103rd Indy 500.

MARTY SNIDER

First, we cannot wait to bring you guys the 103rd running of the Indianapolis 500. It’s an honor for our entire group to broadcast such an amazing event.

So what do we expect? I have no idea, to be honest. The weather will be a huge factor today. It might be a race to halfway if rain is forecast.  If it’s cooler (mid 70’s ambient, which it looks like it’s going to be), Alexander Rossi (pictured, left) was unstoppable in those conditions last Monday.

But Rossi was very unhappy with his car on Carb Day. For that matter, most teams were. But Rob Edwards of Andretti Autosport explained a few things to Rossi about all of the experimenting they were doing in final practice, and I think that team is in a much better frame of mind heading into the race.

I find it interesting that Simon Pagenaud’s team scuffed in literally every set of tires they will use for today’s race. The No. 22 camp is convinced (and they’re not wrong) that one of the keys to Will Power’s 2018 win was his ability to gain time on out laps after pit stops. Scuffing in tires helps that out lap time. It also allows teams to do a balance check on tires. Good thing they did: Kyle Moyer of Team Penske found two sets that had vibrations, which would have been bad in the race.

Bottom line, I haven’t seen anyone really stand out and show me they can beat Alexander Rossi yet. So I’m going with Rossi to win his second Indy 500.

Enjoy the show friends. It’s going to be a fantastic race!