If it weren’t for Jimmie Johnson’s spin and light contact that brought out a caution, Colton Herta would have won by a mile at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
It was the yellow for Johnson on Lap 73 of 100 that erased the Andretti Autosport driver’s monster 11.2s lead in the No. 26 Honda over Josef Newgarden’s No. 2 Chevy as the race approached the final quarter of action. Other than the unexpected return of the yellow flag a few laps later when Ed Jones made a mess of a passing attempt on James Hinchcliffe, Herta aced two restarts and withstood immense pressure from the two-time champion to earn a crushing win on the Floridian street course.
In the end, he had to settle for a modest 2.433s victory over Newgarden as the two drivers lost on Lap 1 at Barber Motorsports Park rebounded to own Round 2. But it was the Hertamania 2.0 Show as he led 97 laps and vaulted from near the bottom of the championship standings to P4 with his most masterful IndyCar win to date.
“It’s one of them,” he said when asked where the performance ranked among his best. “What a great job by everybody. I’m so happy that we did this and so happy we rebounded from Barber. I was able to hold [Newgarden] off. Wow, what a start to the year.”
“Can I do donuts?” he asked his father and race strategist Bryan Herta after crossing the finish line, and after climbing from his car, his first win with his father on the timing stand was also cause for another milestone to be mentioned.
“That was awesome, and I tied him for wins today, which is special,” he said.
Outside of the contact that took place throughout the race, St. Pete didn’t offer an exceptional amount of excitement, barring Herta’s remarkable mastery of the event.
“We lost a little too much ground in the second stint,” Newgarden said. “Then we had the caution which gifted us a second chance. I pushed really hard on those two initial restarts but didn’t want to risk anything. Great rebound for the both of us. I wish we could have fought him more, but we were lacking a little bit.”
Behind the race-winning polesitter, Newgarden led a Penske 2-3 with Simon Pagenaud a distant third in the No. 22 Chevy (+6.1496s), and despite falling back from a front-row start to P4, Meyer Shank Racing’s Jack Harvey delivered his best result in a year in the No. 60 Honda.
“I think that was a solid day,” Harvey said. “Obviously when you start on the front row, you want a podium. It would have been awesome to be on the podium in AutoNation’s home race, but it’s been a really great start to the year, and that’s what we didn’t have last year. We’ve been close to a pole, and to a podium today. But if we keep working at it, those things will come.”
Fifth went to Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon who earned valuable points on a day where the winning team from Barber had nothing to offer against Andretti, Penske and MSR.
The reigning series champion (+8.9497s) led home the charging Takuma Sato in sixth (+11.6802s) who improved from P15 on the grid, and the biggest mover on the day was Penske’s Will Power who, like Sato executed a number of crafty passes to climb from P20 to P8.
Drivers won’t have much time to rest as they prepare for their third and fourth races in a span of three weeks when the first of the Texas Motor Speedway doubleheaders get under way on Saturday night on NBCSN.
AS IT HAPPENED
Round 2 of the NTT IndyCar Series season completed Lap 1 without any dramas, with the exception of Sebastien Bourdais suffering minor nose damage after hitting the back of a Penske car. Dixon fell back from P8 to P10 and Pato O’Ward dropped from his P6 starting spot to P9, but Dixon demoted O’Ward to P10 on Lap 5.
By Lap 8, Herta held 2.2s over Harvey in P2 and 4.9s over Newgarden in P3. Ten laps in, Power’s terrible qualifying position of P20 was unchanged as he fell 20 seconds behind Herta; on Lap 11, he made forward progress to take P19 from Jones. Barber winner Alex Palou was another who went backwards and was holding P14 — after qualifying P10 — on Lap 15.
Lap 16 brought the first issue of the race when Johnson locked up his brakes and nosed into the tires at the final corner. IndyCar was in no rush to call for a pause to the action as Johnson attempted to find reverse, and two laps later, the series went for the yellow flag on Lap 18. Prior to the caution, a few drivers towards the back, including Power, Romain Grosjean, and Jones, among others—ducked into the pits for fuel and tires.
The Lap 22 restart saw Graham Rahal move past Rinus Veekay for P6, and on the following lap, a late passing attempt at Turn 1 by Sato on Hinchcliffe came with contact and a puncture the Canadian’s right-front tire. Grosjean hit the wall on three occasions after being hit by Power at Turn 10; he hit with the right-side wheels first, then the left coming onto the front straight, and once more on the lap as he complained of a steering problem.
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By Lap 27, Herta’s lead over Harvey was 1.9s with Newgarden 3.0s arrears. Herta pushed it out to 3.5s by Lap 30 as Sato continued to move forward up to P9. Harvey’s struggles saw Newgarden go by for P2 on Lap 31, and by Lap 32, he faced a 4.0s deficit to Herta who was mighty impressive on used alternate tires. Newgarden was similarly impressive on used primary tires.
By Lap 34, Herta’s tires were surrendering as Newgarden cut the lead down to 2.0s. Harvey, on well used tires in P3, was slowing down the rest of the field as he fell 9.0s back. Harvey, Bourdais, Dixon, and O’Ward pitted on Lap 35, and Herta and Newgarden were in on the following lap. Pagenaud, who inherited the lead, pitted on Lap 37, as did Alexander Rossi.
Emerging in front of Rahal, Rossi charged out of the pits and down towards Turn 4 as Rahal dove down the inside; the two made contact, which flattened Rossi’s right-front tire as the two drivers made contact again and came to a stop in front of the tire bales at Turn 5. Rahal selected reverse and drove away as Rossi lost a lot of time trying to do the same. He’d get going and pit for a fresh tire, but his hopes of a top 10 finish were dashed. Rahal faced a similar loss as he resumed in P19 as Rossi circulated in P22.
That's not gone well.
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With the top five running on primary tires, Herta performed a disappearing act by Lap 44 with 6.4s over Newgarden. Pagenaud was 11.5s back from Herta, Harvey was 12.5, and the big mover during the first round of pit stops, Dixon was 14.0s back in P5. A longer pit stop for Bourdais left him in P7 and was he 19.2s back from Herta by Lap 46. Herta’s epic drive continued as he held 7.9s over Newgarden by Lap 48; he was the only front-running driver running below the 62s range. Pushed out to 9.0s by Lap 53, the question of the moment was whether Herta was saving enough fuel while driving away from Newgarden? Power’s progress had him up to P14.
Not much was happening by Lap 64, other than Herta extending his lead to 9.9s over Newgarden and 17.7s over Pagenaud. On Lap 65, Scott McLaughlin took P9 from Palou; then Power took P11 from O’Ward. Lap 68 had Herta with 10.9s over Newgarden as drivers started making their last pit stops.
Herta was in on Lap 69 for primary tires as Newgarden was given the faster alternates. Lap 74 showed there was no immediate benefit for the Penske driver as he was 11.2s behind the leader, but a spin and minor contact with the wall by Johnson at Turn 3 brought out a caution that negated Herta’s big advantage.
The Lap 77 restart saw the top six of Herta, Newgarden, Pagenaud, Harvey, Dixon, and Sato hold station as VeeKay took ninth off of McLaughlin. Newgarden kept Herta within sight over the first few laps, with the gap at a modest 0.4s on Lap 80. Another caution was required on Lap 81 as Jones made a late and desperate passing attempt on Hinchcliffe at Turn 4; Jones was nerfed from behind by O’Ward, spun, and stalled while Hinchcliffe continued. O’Ward was forced to stop for attention to the front of his car.
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The Lap 85 restart saw Herta bolt away as Power took P10 from teammate McLaughlin, and he soon claimed P9 from VeeKay. Herta’s 1.2s lead over Newgarden was whittled down to 0.5s by Lap 88 as Pagenaud was dropped by 2.6s in third.
Lap 97 showed Herta’s steady progress as the lead over Newgarden stretched to 1.7s and he was under no threat from behind as he cruised to his fourth career win.