Tuesday, March 1, 2022

St. Pete Rehash

The long winter is over!

No doubt, it was great to see cars back on track at St. Pete this past weekend as IndyCar kicked off the 2022 season at one of what is becoming one of the best stops on the schedule. If you haven't had the chance to attend an event there, make it a point to do so in the future. I've been to St. Pete three times -- well, just counting trips to the race, because if you count the trips to see my grandma back in the 70s and 80s, it's a lot more than that for sure!

But anyway, it's a great place to be in February, the community completely embraces racing and it seems like the event gets bigger every year. 

Let's get back to the weekend. If you remember my Fearless Predictions post, this weekend put one of my predictions in the toilet, but it's not a bad thing. Let's run through the Top 5 and see how it went.

Winner: Scott McLaughlin. I had picked Romain Grosjean as the first driver to get his first win this season, but McLaughlin parked it for the first time in his IndyCar career in a big way. After winning a fierce battle to capture the pole, the Team Penske driver bookended his day by leading the first 26 laps and the final 20 circuits to beat defending champion Alex Palou to the checkers by .5095 seconds. Josef Newgarden is still the QB1 of the Penske stable, and for good reason as he's scary good and in his prime, but McLaughlin will close that gap this season.

Second: Alex Palou. For the Champ, a runner-up finish with the winner right in front of him may have left him wanting more, but the weekend ended lots better than how it had been going. Palou was 20th in the first practice, crashed hard on Saturday morning and only qualified 10th on the grid. But, as per his usual, Palou patiently worked his way up through the field and began his title defense on a positive note. Since crashing out at Gateway last August, Palou has finished P1, P2, P4 and P2.

Third: Will Power. Power qualified next to McLaughlin on the front row, but only led one lap on the day at a place where he's had a ton of success. Power was a bit upset with Jimmie Johnson in the late stages of the race, but given the way last season ended for him, getting back on the podium is a great result.

Fourth: Colton Herta. Honestly, I expected more from him on Sunday, but that's just a representation of where the bar has been set for the soon-to-be-22-year-old. But when a guy wins the last two races of 2021 and comes in having won St. Pete as well, he looked primed for a repeat win. All he really did Sunday was not be perfect, and in this current alliteration of IndyCar, that's what it takes to win races.

Fifth: Romain Grosjean. My pick to win his first IndyCar race came home with a Top 5 after having the same type of weekend as Palou. Quickest in Friday practice, he inexplicably drove into the back of Takuma Sato in FP2 and damaged his car. While he recovered to make it to the Firestone Fast Six and qualify P5, he probably drove (or flew) away from St. Pete thinking he could've done more. I'm really excited to see him at Texas in three weeks.

Strategy. Two stops or three is always the question at St. Pete (as well as a couple of other venues), and on this day, the two stop strategy was the one that worked. Of the top 11 finishers Sunday, just one (Scott Dixon in P8) made three stops. Of course, for a few drivers who started midfield, like Pato O'Ward, Jack Harvey and Helio Castroneves, going off-sequence was necessary to find some track position, but with just one caution on the day there wasn't enough mayhem to flip the field.

Godspeed Danny Ongais

We lost another driver from my youth this past week when it was announced that six-time IndyCar winner Danny Ongais passed away, aged 79.

Ongais took a roundabout way to get to open wheel racing, starting out on motorcycles in his native Hawaii. After a stint in the Army, he returned home and started drag racing, and not getting involved with open wheel racing until his late 20s. 

While many have memories of his horrible crash during the 1981 Indy 500, Ongais was a versatile driver who won five times in 1978, but sub-par finishes in the other events led him to finishing just eighth in points. 

Fast and aggressive, Ongais had just four Top 10 finishes in 11 Indy 500 starts, but his best drive may have come in his final race in 1996. After having not raced at the Brickyard in 10 years, Ongais was tapped to drive in the car qualified by Scott Brayton, who was killed just a few days after capturing his second straight pole position. At age 54 the oldest driver in the field, Ongais started last but worked his way through the field to finish the race in seventh. 

Ongais also drove sports cars and had a victory at the 1979 Rolex 24.