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Both IndyCar title contenders Josef Newgarden and Scott Dixon head into the finale uncertain of how strong their cars are on a street course given the lack of 2020 running.
With the COVID-19 pandemic-caused cancellations of Long Beach, Detroit and Toronto, while St. Petersburg has been shifted from season-opener to season-closer, this weekend the IndyCar teams are encountering a street course for the first time this season.
With some uncertainty over how Firestone's two tyre compounds will behave and with this being the first street race using IndyCar's weighty aeroscreen, teams will have just 90 minutes of practice on Saturday to hone their set-ups before qualifying.
The closest that teams have to a real-world street course simulation is Sebring, where they last tested in February and March, and even then it's far from being a perfect representation despite its bumps.
"The Sebring test was really good for us. The car was quite good. But it's Sebring. It's a road course and you run a street course tyre on it," Dixon, a four-time runner-up at St. Petersberg said.
"I think the tyre was probably the biggest change that we saw. The 2020 street course tyre seemed to have a ton more grip, but does that [reduce] the difference between the black [primary tyre] and the red [softer alternate]? We only get to test the blacks.
"So I think everybody will be pretty interested to see how that plays out. Tyre degradation could be a real thing for both. Last year [at St. Pete] the black tyre was definitely the preferred tyre because the red didn't last. If it's going to be closer, it might not be a tight [on fuel] two-stopper; everybody may have to jump to a three-stopper.
"There's always so many unknowns. I think sometimes Sebring can give you a false sense of security going into St. Pete, as we find every year. The only time we found Sebring to be meaningful was when we tested there in July and August. It's really hot.
"We're trying to apply what we do every year: we do this at Sebring, we apply this to St. Pete for the first race. I think there's always a bit of a consciousness and mindfulness on what races are coming up, whether it's simulation or directions we've learned throughout the year.
"It's so compact now on race weekends with one practice session. There's so much to get through that sometimes you can't get through [all of it]. A lot of times you just hope you roll off in a good situation."
Newgarden, who trails Dixon by 32 points heading into the 2020 title-decider, agreed with his championship rival.
"It's hard to know until you actually really get to the weekend," Newgarden said. "We were in the same position back in March where we'd all tested, we'd all been on the tyre that we were going to run on the weekend. But it's not a true street course track condition that you're testing on. You don't know how it's going to apply to each specific street course that you go to.
"I guess I could say I felt like our street course car took a massive step in 2019. I know I was very happy with our street course package [and we] tried to carry that through with the aeroscreen, modify it a bit for the differences.
"I don't think it's changed our outlook. Running this whole year with the aeroscreen, running a lot of road courses, I don't think it's changed our outlook on what we want to do going into St. Pete."
Dixon only needs to finish in the top nine on Sunday to bag his sixth championship, even if Newgarden takes the win, plus the bonus points for pole and leading the most laps. But he admitted he will not consider driving for points, after taking just eighth, ninth and two tenth places from the last four rounds.
"We try to typically keep it pretty simple," he said. "I would say that was not the case for the last few races, which got us into a bit of a tailspin. Josef and Team Penske and his team-mates have been doing a fantastic job.
"For us, we just need to have a pretty simple weekend, try to keep it clean. Obviously the goal is to go for a win. I think we're still lucky to be in the situation that we are, the points lead that we do have.
"I think that's typical of any race weekend. Yes, there's a little more on the line with being caught up in an accident, points and situations like that. But I think that is something you deal with every race weekend."
Newgarden, who successfully defended a points lead in the 2017 and '19 season finales, also feels being the underdog on this occasion will feel different but won't change his approach to the weekend.
"I don't feel the pressure so much on our end," he said. "You probably don't when you're pursuing versus trying to hold someone off.
"I'm surprised we're here, to be honest. It almost makes it more disappointing looking at the year now that we've clawed back to this point. We were in such a deficit, there was such a hill. We've reduced the hill, without a doubt, but it's still a mountain to climb. It's going to be a very hard task for us to try to win the championship."
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