Can Herta turn top fives into podiums? That was his main goal entering the season and the only part holding him back now

“I believe I can.” That’s what Colton Herta said back in March regarding on if he can win the 2021 NTT IndyCar Series championship. He felt so strongly on that, he signed an extension to remain with Andretti Autosport early.

Herta, won the pole and led 97 of 100 laps in the second race of the season on the streets of St. Pete. With how quickly he was adapting to an Indy Car, why not just remain where you feel the most comfort. Andretti has given Herta a good team around him and he felt like even though his current contract wouldn’t allow him to talk to other teams until later in the season, he didn’t want to go that far. While a driver of Herta’s talent at such a young age would command a lot on the open market, Herta wanted to remain with Andretti and show his loyalty back.

With his immediate future now set, it’s time for Herta to find a way to win that title. Right now, he’s showing flashes of championship potential, but the one thing that’s lagging is what he’s wanted improve on the most in 2021 and that’s to turn more finishes into podiums.

“I think we showed it last year of what could have been,” Herta also said back in March. “If I didn’t have that slipup at Iowa, mess that up for us, we could have been really good in the championship hunt going into the last round.

“The biggest setback is that we need to win more races. Can’t be winning one or two races a year and winning a championship. You need to be winning three or four races. That’s kind of my goal is to try to get to that number. That’s been the trend the last few years for guys that have won the championship, is they’re winning four races a year. When they’re not winning, they’re finishing on the podium.

“I have full faith in myself and in the team that we can do it, but it’s going to take a lot of effort from everybody.”

He’s improved from his rookie year to 2020. He needs a little more still in 2021 to improve from 2020.

“I like to see progress every year in myself, more so on the championship side of things,” Herta continued. “I’d like to make a true championship run down to the wire, have the ability to truly win it. That’s my goal. That’s the team’s goal.

“Obviously alongside with that, winning the Indy 500 and putting a lot of resources and time towards that at the same time. But kind of cutting out the mistakes, changing kind of those top fives, fourth and fifth places that we had last year, we had a bunch of them, into podiums, and some of those podiums we had into wins. We need to win a little bit more and we need a little bit more podiums, a tiny bit more consistency to really make a true championship run.”

As to what areas that he can close that gap from top fives to get onto the podium, Herta said there’s a few that stand out.

“I think there was a few places that some guys — really just (Alexander) Rossi that I was comparing to, there were two rounds in particular that he was able to get a little bit better fuel mileage without being too much slower than I was,” he said. “He was able to go a lap longer at some of the places. That’s kind of like the key for me this year.

“Obviously I think everybody understands how important pit stop cycles are in INDYCAR, and strategy, it makes or breaks the race. Being able to save that little bit more fuel, still be in touch with the leaders, can open a whole new array of strategy options for you during the race.”

So far, Herta is eight races into his 2021 season and he’s had one podium. That was his win in St. Pete. He’s also only had three top fives too. He know that this isn’t good enough. But by having that, he’s ninth in points, 97 markers out.

Is it too late?

Also, is Andretti lagging as a whole. His teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay doesn’t necessarily think so.

“I don’t think so. I mean, Colton just won at St. Pete, right, but yeah, last year was not a good year for us as a whole, and for the whole team points-wise, and then you look at this year again, we’re struggling to keep cars in the top 10 at the moment,” he said on that.

“Yeah, it’s not coming easy, but the second half of the schedule I think suits Andretti’s strong suits. Hopefully that will go that way. It was unfortunate to see Toronto drop off the schedule, but then again, maybe a double at Mid-Ohio will be a better compromise for us.

“We’re looking forward to the second half of it.”

You also have to look at the circumstances for his finishes this year. He was collected in an opening lap crash in the season opener in Barber. He didn’t have a good Texas 1 but was fifth in Texas 2. The entire Andretti organization struggled in the GMR Grand Prix. He qualified second for the Indy 500 but his car really faded in the second part of that race. He was caught out on the wrong end of strategy in race 1 last Saturday in Belle Isle before a fourth place result on Sunday.

That fourth place finish though is to what is haunting him the most. He was in prime position to win the second Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix. That race was his. With the caution scare early that didn’t amount to any stoppage, it forced Josef Newgarden to pit too soon. That played right into Herta’s hands.

From halfway forward, this was becoming Herta’s race to lose. Newgarden was falling back into his clutches and once both pit for the final time on Lap 45 and 46, Herta was the new favorite.

He was there. It was only a matter of time. Then, two cautions come out and Herta went from second to third to closing the gap to both Newgarden and Pato O’Ward to overcooking it in Turn 3 and having to back off to losing third to Alex Palou and there he sat in fourth.

That’s a prime example on what Herta is trying to clean up. His No. 26 Honda wasn’t great on restarts. He found that out quickly. But, he had a shot to get back in the hunt and made a slight mistake. The series is too good these days for something so small to end up being a gain.

Moving forward from this weekend on, if Herta wants to become a title contender, it’s clear what needs done. On the flip side, the kid is only 21 and to be critiquing his craft at such a young age means he’s doing something right. Just thing of how legendary this kid is going to be when it all comes around.

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