The newly-christened Verizon IndyCar Series kicks off its 2014 season on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida, home of the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on Sunday, March 30. Missing from the field this season will be veteran Dario Franchitti, who retired after being injured in a horrific accident at Houston last October. His Target Chip Ganassi ride is now in the capable hands of his long-time friend and reigning Indy 500 winner Tony Kanaan, who will be among the drivers to watch at St. Pete. Kanaan has five podium finishes in nine starts on the 1.8-mile street course, including a fourth-place finish in last year’s event with KV Racing Technology. Here are a few other drivers to watch this weekend as the IndyCar season begins.
James Hinchcliffe – Hinchcliffe’s career got a jump-start last year at St. Pete, as the Canadian driver picked up the first win of his career, and his first of three on the season. The 2013 season was feast or famine for Hinchcliffe, who followed up his St. Petersburg win with two 26th-place finishes before winning again in Brazil – the up-and-down finishes continued throughout the season. If Hinchcliffe can build some consistency in the first few races, this could be his breakout year.
Helio Castroneves – After leading the points standings for most of the 2013 season, Castroneves watched the title slip from his grasp with two disappointing finishes at Houston late in the season. Castroneves was runner-up to Hinchcliffe last season at St. Pete, a track where he has three wins for Penske Racing.
Juan Pablo Montoya – The open-wheel-turned-NASCAR driver returns to open-wheel with Penske Racing after racing for rival Chip Ganassi for nine-plus seasons in NASCAR and CART competition. This week marks Montoya’s first non-stock car race since racing Formula 1 in 2006, as well as his first race in St. Petersburg.
Jack Hawksworth – The British rookie, driving for Bryan Herta Autosport this year, is no stranger to victory lane at St. Pete: he won last season’s Indy Lights race in his series debut, and also picked up a win at the street course in 2012 Pro Mazda competition. Hawksworth is one of three rookies competing in the series in 2014; joining him are Carlos Munoz, who made a stunning debut at last year’s Indy 500 as runner-up, and Mikhail Aleshin, who becomes the first Russian to compete in the Verizon IndyCar Series.
Qualifying for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg takes place Saturday, March 29 at 2 p.m. ET, with the race going green on Sunday, March 30 at 3:20 p.m. ET.
Source: “Fast Facts: Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg,” IndyCar Media