Preview: 2014 Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg

Opening weekend is upon us! St. Petersburg, which has served as the opening round of the Indycar season since 2011, will kick off the 2014 Indycar festivities. The 14 turn street circuit provides a couple places to pass, but many more places to have an incident. Finding the right opportunities to pass is crucial for a good result.

There are a lot of things to watch out for this weekend. Here are some headlines heading into St. Pete:

Verizon's First Race as Title Sponsor
Verizon has agreed to a 10 year, $100 million deal to become Indycar's new title sponsor, replacing IZOD. The telecommunications giant looks to become a major tool for Indycar to use to grow their sport. Hopefully the relationship between the two starts out on the right foot! Verizon has been a long time sponsor of Will Power, and they will also sponsor Juan Pablo Montoya at select races.

Will Power - Honda Indy 200 At Mid-Ohio - Day 3
Verizon, who sponsor Will Power (pictured above), continues to invest
in Indycar (Photo: Kevin C. Cox / Getty Images North America)

Title Defense for Dixon
2003, 2008, and newly crowned 2013 Indycar Series Champion Scott Dixon will look to end this five year Indycar champion cycle he's got going by winning the 2014 title. Ryan Hunter-Reay failed to defend his title in 2013. Can Dixon, who currently sits seventh on the all-time Indycar wins list with 33 (P5 Bobby Unser w/ 35, P6 Al Unser Jr. w/ 34) defend his title?

JPM Returns
Juan Pablo Montoya bolted to F1 following his season with Chip Ganassi Racing in 2000 in CART. Since then, he's won the Monaco Grand Prix, a pair of NASCAR races, and a host of other things. Now, JPM, 38 years old, returns to Indycar. Will he pick up where he left off 13 years ago? Will he create a lot of tension with his aggressive style and his incident-proneness? Time will tell.

Rookies Kick Off Their Careers
Four rookies enter the Indycar field in 2014. Familiar name and Firestone Indy Lights graduate Carlos Munoz will make his full-time Indycar debut with Andretti Autosport. Munoz is well remembered for his thrilling performance at the 2013 Indianapolis 500, starting P2 and finishing P2. Can he dazzle us even further this season? Firestone Indy Lights graduate Jack Hawksworth will make the jump up to Indycar with Bryan Herta Autosport. Former Formula Renault 3.5 driver Mikhail Aleshin will make his debut for Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsports. He will become the first Russian driver to ever race in Indycar. Carlos Huertas was a late add for Dale Coyne Racing. The rookie makes four rookies and subsequently the fourth Colombian in the field. How will these rookies fair in their maiden voyages?

Jack Hawksworth had a solid year with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports
(Photo taken from Jack's official webstie, which can be found here)

New Faces, New Places
Every Indycar offseason is accompanied by driver changes, and the 2013-2014 Indycar offseason was no exception. Three rookies, as already discussed, make their debuts this season. They are Carlos Munoz, Jack Hawksworth, Carlos Huertas, and Mikhail Aleshin. Juan Pablo Montoya also returns to Indycar. Sebastian Saavedra and Sebastien Bourdais, both Dragon Racing drivers last season, move to KVSH Racing. Tony Kanaan moves from KVSH Racing to Chip Ganassi Racing, replacing Dario Franchitti, who retired. Mike Conway jumps onboard with Ed Carpenter Racing to split the seat with Ed Carpenter. Conway will race on all of the road courses, Ed on all of the ovals. Ryan Briscoe returns to Indycar full-time with Chip Ganassi Racing. All of these changes are tough to keep track of! Full rundown of the changes can be found here.

Here's the 2014 Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg schedule (all times Eastern):

Practice 1: 10:00 AM - 10:45 AM
Practice 2: 2:00 PM - 2:45 PM

Practice 3: 9:45 AM - 10:15 AM
Qualifying: 2:00 PM - 3:10 PM

Warm-UP: 9:45 AM - 10:15AM
Race: 3:20 PM - 6:00 PM

Here's the top-ten results from the 2013 Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg:
1) James Hinchcliffe
2) Helio Castroneves
3) Marco Andretti
4) Tony Kanaan
5) Scott Dixon
6) Simona de Silvestro
7) EJ Viso
8) Takuma Sato
9) Justin Wilson
10) Alex Tagliani

Here are the ten active Indycar drivers with the highest combined average finishing position in their careers at St. Petersburg, with the number of races they've started at St. Pete in parenthesizes:
1) James Hinchcliffe - 2.5 (2)
2) Helio Castroneves - 6.4 (8)
2) Tony Kanaan - 6.4 (9)
4) Will Power - 6.7 (6)
5) Justin Wilson - 7.2 (6)
6) Graham Rahal - 9.8 (6)
7) Scott Dixon - 9.9 (9)
8) Ryan Briscoe - 10.7 (6)
9) Ryan Hunter-Reay - 12.6 (7)
10) Marco Andretti - 13.8 (8)

Here are the past five pole sitters and their lap times at St. Petersburg:
2013: Will Power - 1:01.207
2012: Will Power - 1:01.372
2011: Will Power - 1:01.962
2010: Will Power - 1:01.602
2009: Graham Rahal - 1:02.411

Lap Record at St. Petersburg:
Sebastien Bourdais, 1:00.928 set in 2003

Finally, here is the entry list for the 2014 Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg:

#2 Juan Pablo Montoya / Team Penske / Chevrolet
#3 Helio Castroneves / Team Penske / Chevrolet
#7 Mikhail Aleshin [R] / Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsports / Honda
#8 Ryan Briscoe / Chip Ganassi Racing / Chevrolet
#9 Scott Dixon / Chip Ganassi Racing / Chevrolet
#10 Tony Kanaan / Chip Ganassi Racing / Chevrolet
#11 Sebastien Bourdais / KVSH Racing / Chevrolet
#12 Will Power / Team Penske / Chevrolet
#14 Takuma Sato / AJ Foyt Enterprises / Honda
#15 Graham Rahal / Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing / Honda
#17 Sebastian Saavedra / KVSH Racing / Chevrolet
#18 Carlos Huertas [R] / Dale Coyne Racing / Honda
#19 Justin Wilson / Dale Coyne Racing / Honda
#20 Mike Conway / Ed Carpenter Racing / Chevrolet
#25 Marco Andretti / Andretti Autosport / Honda
#27 James Hinchcliffe / Andretti Autosport / Honda
#28 Ryan Hunter-Reay / Andretti Autosport / Honda
#34 Carlos Munoz [R] / Andretti Autosport / Honda
#67 Josef Newgarden / Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing / Honda
#77 Simon Pagenaud / Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsports / Honda
#83 Charlie Kimball / Chip Ganassi Racing / Honda
#98 Jack Hawksworth [R] / Bryan Herta Autosport / Honda

Let's get this season rolling!

-Matthew Hickey