Race Report: Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg

ST. PETERSBURG—The AJ Foyt Racing team didn’t win the race today but after a really tough 2020 season, putting two cars in the top eight in the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg felt as good as a win…and it paid more.

Sebastien Bourdais’s savvy drive to a fourth place finish insured the No. 14 Sexton Companies Chevrolet would be in the 2021 Leaders Circle which guarantees purse money that approaches nearly one million dollars for the top 22 entrants in the final NTT INDYCAR Series standings. Topping it off was Charlie Kimball’s eighth place finish in the No. 4 Tresiba Chevrolet for his team’s best finish of the season.

“Well, what a race!” exclaimed Bourdais, who was visibly spent due to the incredibly hot weather — temperatures climbed to the high 80s. “I’m super happy for the 14 team, AJ Foyt Racing and Chevrolet. Those guys were on the cusp the whole time and we were fighting for a million dollars today. We had things under control and then it seemed to slip away. Finishing fourth in some pretty incredible situations there at the end with a car that was legitimately fast, I’m really happy that we could finish the season on a high like that. I’m looking forward to 2021.”

Qualifying seventh for the team’s best start of the year, the Lemans, France native found himself in a points battle for 22nd which meant battling the cars in 21st (Conor Daly) and 23rd (Marco Andretti). The team went with an alternate fuel strategy based on Andretti’s strategy.  At one point past halfway, race strategist Scott Harner told Bourdais who was in 15th that “We need two more positions” because Andretti, who started 23rd, had climbed into the top 10. 

Three cautions in the space of 10 laps altered the outcome dramatically as several of the leaders had to pit allowing Bourdais and Kimball to leapfrog into the top 10. Andretti and Takuma Sato came together on a lap 75 restart resulting in Andretti sustaining a cut tire which ended with his contact with the Turn 5 wall. The No. 14’s Leaders Circle spot was secured and Bourdais’s strong finish allowed the team to gain another position to finish 21st in the final entrant standings.

A light rain started falling with 20 laps to go but not enough to halt the race. Then the pace car radioed in to race control that it was short on fuel and had to pit several laps before the final restart. All of which added to the crazy mix of the 100 lapper slowed by six cautions for a total of 26 laps. The No. 14 team also lost a tire changer to overheating in the moments before their final pit stop but they were able to make a substitution and the pit stop went off without a hitch. The crewman received fluids and was back at the transporter helping the team to load up.

“Those races when it’s that hot, honestly, if it had been a full green [flag] race I don’t know how we would have made it,” Bourdais revealed afterwards. “It was just so hot and you had to force yourself to stay focused and not make mistakes in the braking, and mistakes period. It’s one of those races where you’re well-positioned at the end, you’ve got a top-five and everything’s happy, and you expend such an amount of energy to try and stay focused and not make mistakes. It’s not even like it’s enjoyable; you’re just dreading the mistake waiting for you in every braking zone and every corner. Definitely some pretty tense moments during that last race [stint] but just so happy for the guys that everything ended up the way it did.”

Kimball, who went with the leaders’ fuel strategy despite starting deep in the field, made the most of his No. 4 Tresiba Chevrolet which improved over the course of the race.

“Well today the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg was a success for AJ Foyt Racing,” said Kimball who also was drained from the high temperatures.” For us the No. 4 Tresiba Chevrolet coming from a not optimum qualifying in 20th all the way through to eighth, so much credit goes to the guys in pitlane—great pit stops. They’ve had great pit stops all year—they’re in the top 10 as far as the pit stop championship among all the teams in pitlane. So much credit to them, credit to the engineers here and at home working to make the car better and better.”

Kimball talks to race engineer Daniele Cucchiaroni after the race. Mike Pawlowski was home sick this weekend.

“Just had to put the laps in at the end,” Kimball continued. “Got a little tight a couple of times, banged off a few people but that’s street racing in INDYCAR. It’s nice to have a double top-10 to finish out 2020 which has been tough, strange and challenging in so many ways.”

A relieved Larry Foyt congratulated both of his crews for their efforts in keeping the cars in the Leaders Circle. Kimball’s eighth place saw the No. 4 car gain two positions to finish 18th in the standings.  

Team President Larry Foyt calls the race for Kimball with assistance from engineer Cucchiaroni (center) and support engineer Dwight Brown.

“What a great weekend to end a tough season,” said Foyt. “Obviously it was challenging for all the teams but we had a really solid weekend with the 14. Bourdais was pretty fast all weekend – practice, qualifying and the race. We went off strategy as we were in a fight for the Leaders Circle.

“Unfortunately, our fight wasn’t for the race win, so we had to take an alternative strategy to try to protect that situation with the Leaders Circle. It was pretty stressful as we were in it and then we were out and then we were back in it. And then to get a top-five finish in P4, Seb drove a great race. We definitely needed a good run with the 4 car and it was great to get a top 10. Charlie fought hard all day and just kept moving up. To have both cars in the top-10 gives us some great momentum for the offseason.”

 A.J. Foyt, who made just his third appearance at a race this year, was visibly happy after the race.

“When the race started we knew what we had to do,” said Foyt. “Even though we were running seventh at the start of the race, we committed to following Marco’s race strategy which meant pitting early when he pitted because we needed to stay ahead of him. We wanted to be sure we weren’t caught out by a yellow the way some of the leaders were towards the end of the race. It paid off.”

There’s a smile behind that mask! Foyt is on the stand alongside Kurt Westman of K-Air Leasing, a longtime partner of Foyt Racing. 

Speaking of Bourdais, Foyt continued, “Sebastien did a lot for us today and he’s working really well with our engineers and that’s the reason we wanted him in these last couple of races. It’s been a while since we had both cars finish in the top 10 so I’m really proud of my team. They did a great job today.”

Scott Dixon won his sixth NTT IndyCar Series title after finishing third today. His closest challenger was Josef Newgarden who won the race but finished second in the final standings. Pato O’Ward finished second in the race. Following Bourdais across the line was Ryan Hunter-Reay who rounded out the top five.

Bourdais will be testing next week at Barber Motorsports Park as the team starts on its 2021 season.