So how does the NTT Data IndyCar Series field shape up for the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg? In the first 2020 edition of my team and driver power rankings, I look back at who finished 2019 strong, who needs to improve, and who just might make a move up or down the queue during the new year.
Based on the above disclaimer, let's look at my team rankings heading into the opening event..
1.) Team Penske
There is a reason the term "Super Team" is often linked to Roger Penske's group. The organization is loaded in every facet and even without "The Captain" in the role of race strategist, the leadership is lacking nothing with longtime associate Tim Cindric at the helm. Driver-wise, Josef Newgarden leads the current trio, which could see a boost in performance from his compatriots Will Power and Simon Pagenaud, as the presence of Australian SuperCars ace Scott McLaughlin looms large in terms of a full-time IndyCar seat for 2021. Safe to say, it will take a herculean effort elsewhere to bump the current aces off the mountain top in 2020.
2.) Andretti Autosport
Michael Andretti certainly has the strength in numbers with five full-time mounts for the new year, but is that in reality too much of a good thing? While Alexander Rossi and Colton Herta are the top dogs on the rostrum entering round number one, question marks hang over each of the remaining full-time pilots. Ryan Hunter-Reay has regressed in recent years over the course of a full schedule, while Marco Andretti and Zach Veach have each been in an extended slump. If the two main cogs deliver and one of the other members steps forward, the squad should be solid in the "Best of the Rest" category.
3.) Chip Ganassi Racing
The Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-native is still going strong as his operation enters its 30th anniversary campaign. Scott Dixon continues to be a regular championship contender, but will his eventual regression begin soon (he turns 40 this July)? Felix Rosenqvist had a strong rookie year in 2019, but he needs to improve his output on oval tracks if he is to trend closer in the title hunt. Marcus Ericsson had his moments with Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports in 2019, but can he fully take advantage of a better car in 2020? More consistent talent from top to bottom when compared with Andretti, but not quite enough to place them directly behind Penske at this point.
4.) Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing
The Buckeye State combatants have piled up the top-ten efforts over the last few campaigns, but have been unable to break in among the so-called "Big Three." Although his over-aggression has gotten the best of him recently, Takuma Sato has used that weapon to garner several big results, including a top-five at last year's Indianapolis 500. Graham Rahal is a consistent points scorer, but has not won an IndyCar race since sweeping both halves of the Duel in Detroit in 2017.
5.) Dale Coyne Racing
The loss of Sebastien Bourdais in the cockpit and head engineer Craig Hampson will hurt the Windy City boys in the short term, but a breakthrough from either second-year wheelman Santino Ferrucci or intriguing freshman Alex Palou could allow them to factor in several rounds, although wins could be a tough ask.
6.) Ed Carpenter Racing
The jury is out as to whether the additions of Conor Daly and Rinus VeeKay will boost ECR's stock on road and street courses in 2020. Until proven otherwise, expect the majority of impact to remain in the oval events as it has been since the team boss's pole position at the 2013 Indianapolis 500.
7.) Arrow McLaren SP
McLaren plans to make a major splash in its first full year on the circuit, but it is certainly asking a lot of two relatively inexperienced hands in Oliver Askew and Pato O'Ward to carry the load. The addition of Craig Hampson in the technical department will be a step forward, but it may not be enough to make this group a legitimate podium challenger this season.
8.) AJ Foyt Enterprises
Super Tex's organization is essentially starting from scratch in 2020, the final competitive run for the popular IndyCar pilot Tony Kanaan. While the Brazilian is on the shelf till the month of May, smart money says Sebastien Bourdais will play a major role in the early headlines. Charlie Kimball's addition was another smart move, while Eric Cowdin's inclusion is a plus in the technical development. Still a ways to go to join the main contenders, but progress in winter testing seems to have been made.
9.) Meyer-Shank Racing
Jack Harvey has certainly stolen some thunder from the main part of the grid over the past two seasons, but now MSR joins the IndyCar circus for all 17 races in 2020. Expect several strong efforts, but a lack of experience on oval tracks could be a stumbling block in terms of the new season hopes.
After a brutal month of May where three of their entries failed to qualify for the Indy 500 and also shooting down rumors of ceasing their program, Trevor Carlin is back for redemption in 2020. Mainstay Max Chilton will feature in 12 of the 17 races, with Conor Daly taking over in the other rounds. The second car could go among several pilots, with veteran sports car driver Felipe Nasr getting the call for St. Petersburg. A long shot for success, but expect a positive turnaround in some form.
REST OF THE BUNCH:
Dreyer & Reinbold Racing will contest four races with Sage Karam, including this weekend's season opener. If the Pennsylvanian can control his aggression, a top half finish is within range. Elton Julian's DragonSpeed squad got a late start on its 2020 program only receiving its new aero screen days before a recent test at Sebring. Ben Hanley gets the wheel for St. Pete and it will be interesting to see if year two for the squad shows any steps forward.
So with the teams ranked.. let's shift the focus to the ten best drivers entering the Firestone Grand Prix at St. Petersburg..
1.) Josef Newgarden: Champion gets the benefit of the doubt and entering as the defending St. Petersburg winner does not hurt either.
2.) Will Power: Two victories on his resume at St. Pete, but also several iffy results that are tough to ignore. Should factor in the outcome regardless of placement.
3.) Alexander Rossi: A pair of top-five efforts in past two editions in Florida. Remains the most likely threat to the Penske runners this weekend.
4.) Scott Dixon: Has finished seventh or better in all but two efforts at St. Pete since 2011. Should stay true to form in 2020.
5.) Simon Pagenaud: An uncertain future could return the Frenchman to the pace he showed in back-to-back runner-up postings in the season openers of 2016 and 2017.
6.) Felix Rosenqvist: A bad strategy call cost him a shot to win in his debut race in Florida 12 months ago. If he's on pace heading into qualifying on Saturday, we could be talking about a first-time winner Sunday.
7.) Takuma Sato: If he can avoid the potential first turn chaos that's common at St. Pete, the 2017 Indy 500 champ could threaten to at least match his 5th place showing here in 2017.
8.) Colton Herta: The 2020 sophomore kept his nose clean in his debut effort to take eighth a year ago. With more experience under his belt and perhaps a faster car, a move up the scoring pylon is a reachable target.
9.) Ryan Hunter-Reay: 2014 Indy 500 champ started off 2019 with a DNF in Florida, but ignore that, and he's fared no worse than 7th every year at St. Pete since 2014.
10.) Graham Rahal: St. Pete has been downright evil to this second-generation pilot since his history making triumph in 2008. Of course, he did finish second here in 2018 however.
UNDER THE RADAR:
Newcomer Alex Palou has the potential to steal the show in his maiden IndyCar voyage, as could reigning Indy Lights Presented Cooper Tires champ Oliver Askew. Conor Daly and two-time St. Pete king Sebastien Bourdais are also live long shots, but are the cars they are piloting capable of challenging for the podium?
Stay tuned to Speedway Digest for further updates on the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg and the NTT Data IndyCar Series.
NOTE: Thoughts and opinions mentioned in this article are those of the writer and may not reflect the opinions of others on staff at Speedway Digest.