Herta dominating weekend in Nashville, wins the pole for Sunday’s Big Machine Music City Grand Prix (5:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, INDYCAR Radio Network) my main takeaways

NASHVILLE, Tenn — Colton Herta is showing that if you want to win Sunday’s Big Machine Music City Grand Prix (5:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, INDYCAR Radio Network) then you’re going to have to go through him to do so. Herta, has now topped the timing charts in literally every session as he was quickest in practice on both Friday and Saturday as well as earning his sixth career NTT IndyCar Series pole as well.

The Andretti Autosport driver turned in a lap of 1:13.6835-seconds in his No. 26 Honda in the Firestone Fast Six to score his fifth front row starting spot in the last six races and sixth in 11 races this season too. This time though, unlike most of the others, he will be on the pole.

“Yeah, I feel really confident for tomorrow,” the 21-year old driver said. “The car was very stable and something that I can probably take right into the race and be happy with.

“We came here and we rolled off the truck. It was just really good. It has a lot to do with Honda and their simulator, how accurate it actually was. I think a lot of guys and teams were kind of wondering if it was going to be like the real thing, where the barriers and bumps were.

“I thought it was really accurate. That kind of helped us get the car kind of where you wanted to. You never fully want to rely on the simulator. But we kind of got it in an operating window where we liked it. We kind of brought that car here and it worked right away. Just minor changes to keep up with the track evolution. The car was good.

“We were really in a league of our own. It felt amazing. Good car to take into the race tomorrow, too. Nice and stable.

“This is a weekend where I feel really strong. Like St. Pete, I feel like I have a gap, a margin to everybody else in the field. I feel really confident for tomorrow. Hopefully I’ll be back in here tomorrow with a trophy.

Herta, benefitted from an extremely fast lap in the first round and never had to use his Firestone alternate tires as a result. Instead, he saved a fresh set for the final round which proved to be the difference. He was .549-seconds quicker than Scott Dixon as the defending series champion will roll off second alongside of Herta on Sunday afternoon.

“It was a good lap, but what we did in Q1 really helped us there, with being able to transfer on the black tires,” Herta said. “That was the biggest thing. Being fast on the blacks made it just a lot easier for the rest of the way. Great job by everybody.

“I don’t know if I could have done that on used reds because I was struggling a little bit more on the reds. It was important that we had that set.

Dixon, turned in a flier of 1:14.2327-seconds in his No. 9 Honda for his third appearance in the Fast Six in the last four tries. He crashed his car twice in practice earlier but the Ganassi team got his Dallara prepared good enough to join Herta up front.

“It kind of sits in the back of your head,” Dixon said. “In the first two rounds of qualifying, I was taking it a little bit cautious and made sure we converted. I knew the PNC Bank No. 9 was super fast.

“We knew Herta was going to be fast (in the Fast Six) because he was the only guy with new tires. But he’s been quick all weekend, so he definitely deserved that. So, kudos to their group, and we’ll see how tomorrow plays out. Starting on the front row is fantastic.”

His Ganassi teammate of Alex Palou (1:14.6316-seconds) qualified third in his No. 10 Honda but the current points leader will have to serve a six spot grid penalty and roll off ninth instead.

Alexander Rossi on pit lane at Nashville – Photo Credit INDYCAR Media

Alexander Rossi (1:14.6646-seconds) was fourth quickest in his No. 27 Honda for his sixth straight top 10 starting spot including three of the last five in the Fast 6. Prior to the Indy 500, he had four starts of 11th or worse in the first five races of the season.

Felix Rosenqvist (1:15.0045-seconds) had his best qualifying effort of the season in being fifth overall. This was actually the first time he had even made it out of the first round of qualifying all season. Rosenqvist though, has had a ton of speed as he has been the quickest Chevy driver in both practices thus far too.

Romain Grosjean (1:15.3980-seconds) moved into the Fast Six via Josef Newgarden losing his fastest two laps from crashing at the end of the second round but he couldn’t gain any additional positions by doing so.

Here are my main takeaways from qualifying.

Scott Dixon on the streets of Nashville – Photo Credit INDYCAR Media

Dixon’s Charge Could Start Now

Scott Dixon entered Sunday’s race 56 points behind his teammate Alex Palou for the championship lead. But, did Palou’s grid penalty from having to change an engine open the door for Dixon to come back in?

Palou, initially qualified his No. 10 Honda in third but due to a blown engine in an offseason test at the Barber Motorsports Park back in the winter, it put them behind. See, they knew they’d be one engine behind everyone else and for the second time this season, it’s came back to bite them.

The damage is at least minimal as he’ll roll off ninth instead of third, but this is a tough course to pass on. How many spots can he realistically make up?

Meanwhile, Dixon put his No. 9 Honda on the front row. In fact, he was second in practice on Friday and third on Saturday. The speed is there. Can the “Ice Man” stage a comeback?

He’s had a pair of fourth place finishes in the last two races and six top fives this season. Palou, has had seven top fives himself but six of them have been on the podium to Dixon’s two. That plus Dixon having bad luck via an ill timed first caution in the double points paying Indy 500 has put him farther back than he really should be.

The opportunity is now there for Dixon as second in points, Pato O’Ward, will start one spot in front of Palou in eighth. Fourth in points, Josef Newgarden, starts 12th. Dixon is the only one in the top six in points entering this weekend’s race to even have a top five starting spot on Sunday.

From here it’s to the Indy road course, a spot where Dixon won at last year and had three straight runner-up results prior. Then it’s to World Wide Technology Raceway to where Dixon won at a year ago. Then, it’s to the west coast swing to where Palou and O’Ward have never raced at any of those tracks.

Is this the moment the pendulum has swung back in Dixon’s favor?

Rough Weekend For Penske So Far

Team Penske put three cars in the top 12 of the starting lineup, but none of which will start in the Fast Six. Josef Newgarden was going to but he crashed on his final lap of qualifying in the second round which cost him his fastest laps and results in a 12th place starting position for Sunday’s race.

Newgarden said that he just messed up and crashed. He tried to get too much out of his No. 2 Chevrolet and it bit him. He owned the mistake and the penalty saying that he deserved it for bringing out the red to end the session.

He’s joined in Row 6 by his teammate Will Power. It’s puzzling to see the pole master being shut out of the top starting spot for all 11 races this year. Power, has now qualified 20th, seventh, 20th and 11th respectively on street courses in 2021.

Simon Pagenaud qualified eighth in his No. 22 Chevrolet while the fourth member of the team Scott McLaughlin got into the wall in the first round and will only start 23rd. McLaughlin, has failed to make it out of the first round in six of the last seven races now.

The puzzling thing is, this is about where the Penske cars were expected to start. In practice this weekend, this is where they’ve been found.

Power was eighth in the first practice while McLaughlin, Pagenaud and Newgarden were ninth, 10th and 12th respectively. On Saturday, they went 10th (McLaughlin), 11th (Pagenaud), 14th (Power) and 18th (Newgarden) respectively.

RLL/ECR Struggling A Bit

Neither of the five combined RLL or ECR cars advanced past the first round. The thing is, they’ve not only lacked some pace against their competition this weekend, but they’ve also not qualified well this year in general.

Graham Rahal narrowly did miss out on advancing past the first round as he’ll roll off 13th. This was the fifth time in the last seven races that he starts outside of the top 10. Rahal, was 14th and 16th in the two practice sessions this weekend.

His teammate Santino Ferrucci rolls off 17th. He’s qualified 23rd, 21st, 12th and 22nd in his previous four starts with the team this year. The third year driver was 25th and 20th in both practices himself.

Santino Ferrucci practices around the streets of Nashville – Photo Credit INDYCAR Media

Takuma Sato’s puzzling qualifying rounds this season continues as he’ll roll off 24th on Sunday. He’s not came from a top 10 starting spot all year as his best starts came at Texas in being 11th and 12th respectively. His other starting spots were now 19th, 15th, 17th, 15th, 16th, 19th, 20th and 19th respectively.

It’s clear where their deficiency is because their race pace is stellar. Rahal, has a top seven in all but two races run this year and in those two races, he had a top five car when something beyond his control happened.

Sato, has two top 10’s in his last three starts after having just two in the first seven races prior.

Ferrucci, has scored a top 10 in literally all four races he’s competed in this year.

One has to wonder what would happen if they could find the pace in qualifying and started closer to the front.

Same for ECR. Conor Daly starts 20th and Rinus VeeKay in 22nd. They were 16th (VeeKay) and 22nd (Daly) in Friday’s practice and ninth (VeeKay) and 23rd (Daly) on Saturday.

Ericsson’s Qualifying Struggles Continues

Chip Ganassi Racing has dominated the speed charts this weekend. They went 2-5-6 with Scott Dixon, Alex Palou and Marcus Ericsson on Friday and 3-4-7 with the same three on Saturday. Both Dixon and Palou qualified second and third on Saturday afternoon, but Ericsson was remarkably absent. He didn’t even make it out of the first round as he’ll roll off 18th on Sunday.

In saying that, it shouldn’t be too shocking either to see that. Ericsson, has shown pace in practice and on race day but on qualifying day, he’s struggled.

Ericsson. has started 13th or worse in seven of the last 10 races including not making it out of the first round all but two times all year. Can he amount a charge to the front tomorrow?

The Crashes

This weekend has been very treacherous for the teams and drivers. The bumps, the narrowness of the track as well as having a hard time finding the limit on a track you’ve never been at has caused chaos. 7 of the 27 drivers here this weekend have found the wall. The names on that seven are fascinating.

Pato O’Ward and Conor Daly crashed in practice on Friday.

Scott Dixon, Alexander Rossi and Scott McLaughlin crashed in practice on Saturday.

Jimmie Johnson and Josef Newgarden found the concrete barriers in qualifying on Saturday too.

That doesn’t even count a lot of spins and run offs by other drivers this weekend which shows just how hard this is. I mean look at the names on that list. These are some of the best of the best with drivers known for great car control and even they are finding the wall.

Of Note:

Honda’s look to be the best this weekend with taking 1-2-3-4-5-6 on the speed charts in practice on Friday. They followed that up with being 1-2-3-4 on Saturday and having five of the top seven in the second session. In qualifying, they took five of the top six speeds too.

Starting Lineup

Row 1: Colton Herta, Scott Dixon

Row 2: Alexander Rossi, Felix Rosenqvist

Row 3: Romain Grosjean R, Jack Harvey

Row 4: Simon Pagenaud, Pato O’Ward

Row 5: Alex Palou, James Hinchcliffe

Row 6: Will Power, Josef Newgarden

Row 7: Graham Rahal, Ryan Hunter-Reay

Row 8: Helio Castroneves, Sebastien Bourdais

Row 9: Santino Ferrucci, Marcus Ericsson

Row 10: Dalton Kellett, Conor Daly

Row 11: Max Chilton, Rinus VeeKay

Row 12: Scott McLaughlin R, Takuma Sato

Row 13: Jimmie Johnson R, Ed Jones

Row 14: Cody Ware R

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