Grand Prix of St. Petersburg: Scott Dixon, Josef Newgarden quickest before qualifying

Taylor Ballantyne

Takuma Sato, last year's Indy 500 victor, and 2012 champion Ryan Hunter-Reay was sixth.

Mental changes aren't the only thing Pagenaud, and others, are facing heading into the new season.

Last season was a storybook campaign for Newgarden.

Josef Newgarden arrives for the season-opening race this weekend on the streets of St. Petersburg as the reigning champion.

Ryan Hunter-Reay and James Hinchcliffe were the fastest during practice Friday for the 2018 IndyCar season opener, the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

Things are somewhat different this season than last, not only for Newgarden but also for all the returning veterans as well as the almost 10 full- and part-time rookies on the circuit.

IndyCar heads into the season with a new American champion, a new auto, and the same hopes for a momentum-building year.

The past two seasons have been exhilarating for the 33-year-old driver. Last year: Sebastien Bourdais plowed through the field from the back and opened 2017 with an upset win.

The new Dallara looks like a race auto should: sleek and most importantly, racy.

Last season: Lewis Hamilton won the F1 championship for the third time in four seasons.

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However, the Red Devils are afraid of losing Zlatan Ibrahimovic at the end of the season and are eager to have a backup option other than Romelu Lukaku up front.

All of the entries at St. Pete are running the new-look vehicle with its universal aero kit for the first time in competition this weekend. Fast facts: Newgarden won his first series championship in his debut with Penske.

But Team Penske has downsized this season, going from four to three teams. There's a new vehicle, new drivers, old drivers on new teams, and generally a sense that IndyCar is in transition.

However, Castroneves won't be a complete stranger to the IndyCar ranks. Next race: Australian Grand Prix, March 25, Melbourne.

The Fast Six consisted of three rookies, two former series champions and last year's Indianapolis 500 victor. Gabby Chaves will race for Harding Racing, Juncos Racing has a split lineup, and Max Chilton and Charlie Kimball left Ganassi at the end of last season to form Carlin.

"No doubt, that concerns me", Hinchcliffe said.

"If you do your job and you nail the setup, you will be right there contending for wins", he said.

"We are all refreshed". "We are all anxious and excited for what's to come".

Even without Castroneves, IndyCar goes into the year with seven former champions and 13 former race winners - enough to put on a good show all year. "Any driver that gets an opportunity, like the one I got with Team Penske, will tell you they expect to win right away".

"If I made Fast Six at all, it would have been incredible and the fact that we topped Q2 was already a surprise". Track: Streets of St. Petersburg (street, 1.8 miles). "That is our only thought this weekend - going to victory lane".

But at the same time, having a brand new vehicle could present a bit of a challenge getting used to, especially at St. Pete. I welcome that because I think finesse is more my style. "I would say 30 percent". Those are the two biggest places. "Shaun White's (Winter Olympic Gold Medal-winning snowboarder) is a snowboarding hero to a lot of people who have no interest strapping on a snowboard and going down a hill. You have to look out for the cars differently, you have to drive the auto different". "You're always sort of evolving your style, whether it's the tire that's changing or the engine just changing". St. Petersburg won't be just the first race of the year; it'll be the first race for everyone to figure out how everything works, and where each team is going. The best of the best, you know, rises to the top, and I was happy to make it through.


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