Herta scores Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey pole, main takeaways with my recap

Colton Herta was second quickest in both practice sessions so far this weekend in Laguna Seca. He earned the pole the last time out here in 2019. It seemed like he was just biding his time in his No. 26 Honda. That’s exactly what ended up happening too.

Herta, circled the 2.258-mile California road course with a time of 1:10.7994-seconds en route to his seventh career NTT IndyCar Series pole on Saturday afternoon. It was his third of the season as he’s had four in his previous 32 starts in the series.

“I’m glad we ended up doing three (laps in final stint of qualifying) because I guess two wasn’t enough,” Herta said. “I really got to nail that third lap. The Gainbridge car was awesome, awesome being powered by Honda. What an amazing track. I love this place so much. Two for two for poles here.”

The thing is, can he reach victory lane in Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey (3 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network)? Herta, has now scored eight front row starting spots in 15 races run this season and in only one of those instances did he actually win. In fact, in his last five front row starting spots, the Andretti Autosport driver has had one podium in them. Four of his last six have seen him finish 13th or worse at that.

So, that’s something to be watched this weekend despite the last four winners here coming from the front row, three of which being on the pole. Three of Herta’s four career wins though have all come from the pole, so I wouldn’t count him out in the 95 Lap race on Sunday afternoon.

If it’s not Herta though, then his Andretti teammate of Alexander Rossi has to be among the favorites then. Rossi, gave the organization a lockout of the front row with him turning in a time of 1:10.9951-seconds in his No. 27 Honda.

Rossi, started second last weekend in Portland and also finished there too. He’s had 10 straight top 10 starting spots on the season after having just one in his previous five starts in his No. 27 Honda.

Still, he was on second due to Will Power losing his top time. Rossi meanwhile, would have rather started one spot further back due instead. As to why?

“Yeah, I mean, it’s good. I mean, I wish sometimes in racing you got to decline penalties because I think we would have rather started third than second,” Rossi said.

“It’s great for the team to lock out the front row. I think that’s a big testament to the development that continues to happen with the whole organization and the progression that we’ve made really since the summer break.

“It’s a great result for the guys. Obviously Colton did a great job. We knew he was going to be difficult to beat here, obviously winning from pole last year.

“We think we have a good shot at it tomorrow. We’re happy with the car. We haven’t made many changes this weekend. The used tire pace seems okay. We’ll just wait and see what tomorrow brings.”

Will Power starts third in his No. 12 Chevrolet. Power (1:11.1317-seconds) earned his third top three starting spot in the last four races and his fifth time in the top 2 Rows in the last seven races in general.

Between Herta and Power, they take 2 of the top 3 starting spots and went 1-2 back in 2019.

Oliver Askew make a championship sandwich with him qualifying fifth in his No. 45 Honda with a lap of 1:11.8937-seconds) while points leader Alex Palou (1:11.3317-seconds) starts in front of him and second in points, Pato O’Ward (1:24.2715-seconds) starting behind in sixth.

Here are my main takeaways.

Andretti Expected To Be This Strong

Alexander Rossi said they were happy to get a podium last weekend in Portland but expected better things this time around in Laguna Seca. See, he said that they didn’t test on the Portland road course like the Chip Ganassi Racing camp did and he felt like that was the differential between them a week ago. This time around, they did test in Monterey and with the pace they showed from Portland, he expected it to translate over this week.

It definitely did.

Colton Herta was second in both practice sessions and scored his seventh career pole after. Rossi, will start alongside in an all Andretti lockout of the front row. Where this is big is, the last 3 winners on the season on natural road courses have all come from the front row. Same for the last four winners on this track. 21 of the 23 Laguna Seca visits by the series has seen the winner come from the top three.

Andretti has 2 of the top 3 spots.

James Hinchcliffe was the third AA driver to escape out of a brutal first round too as he’ll start 11th.

The 2 1st Round Groups Were Vastly Different, Helps Points Leader Alex Palou

Group 1 featured 4 of the 5 championship contenders. Group 2 had 8 of the bottom 9 in the entrant standings. That helped points leader Alex Palou. He was in the second group. Pato O’Ward, Josef Newgarden, Scott Dixon and Marcus Ericsson were in Group 1. Three of those four took the six spots out and into Round 2. One didn’t. That one was Josef Newgarden.

Palou meanwhile, luckily escaped to Round 2 and ended up the top qualifier among the five championship eligible drivers. Now, can he keep them all behind him on Sunday? The last two times Palou qualified fourth, he finished third.

O’Ward In A Ganassi Sandwich

Pato O’Ward was happy to qualify sixth. See, he’s only had two top five starting spots in the last eight races. So, to get in the Fast Six, especially after how he was outside the top 10 in both practice sessions was a win to him.

“Honestly, I’m pleasantly surprised with our result in qualifying today,” he said. “I’m happy with sixth. It’s a lot better than where we were at in the sessions before qualifying. The team did some good changes to the car and I’m happy with how I executed. We will see what we have for the race tomorrow. We just need to make the car and package better tomorrow during warm up to race against these guys.” 

He has points leader Alex Palou in his sights as Palou starts one row in front in fourth.

But, is O’Ward going to have a rough start to the race though. He’s the meat in a Ganassi sandwich. Palou is fourth. O’Ward is sixth. Behind O’Ward though are Palou’s Chip Ganassi Racing teammates of Marcus Ericsson (7th) and Scott Dixon (8th). Do the Ganassi trio squeeze out O’Ward at the start?

Askew’s Impressive 2 Weeks Continues

The No. 45 Honda at Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan Racing continues to shine. Santino Ferrucci had four top 10’s in his first four starts in this car. He was 11th in his last. Christian Lundgaard qualified it fourth at Indy but didn’t get a top 10 in the end though. Then, the keys were handed to Askew last weekend in Portland.

He qualified ninth. A week later, he qualifies fifth. How impressive is this?

Takuma Sato hasn’t had a top 10 start all season.

Graham Rahal has had one start better than eighth all year and here Askew is in just his second start with the team equaling Rahal and bettering Ferrucci and Sato.

The pace of this car though is real. That’s four straight top 10 starting spots for it with 2 top 5’s in the last 3. The 15 and 30 have 1 top five combined between them.

Power Helps Newgarden, But Josef, McLaughlin Can’t Help Themselves

Josef Newgarden’s pace of his No. 2 Chevrolet has remarkably gone away. In the first 10 races of the season, he had nine top 10 starting spots. Among them were three straight poles heading into the month long break. He’s come out of the break with one top 10 in his next five starts including four of the five being 12th or worse at that.

Last weekend, Newgarden qualified 18th. This time, he’s 17th.

When the two guys he’s chasing for this year’s championship both make the Fast Six, it shows Newgarden’s in trouble. Will Power did help his teammate in qualifying third, ahead of both Alex Palou and Pato O’Ward. But, Scott McLaughlin had a chance of keeping Palou out of the first round though but pit too soon. It was a costly miscommunication.

McLaughlin, had one more lap to turn but pit instead. Palou, was sixth and holding onto that final transfer spot to the second round. McLaughlin, sat on pit road instead of having a final lap to knock him out. Imagine if he did.

Palou, would have been starting 14th instead of fourth.

Championship Implications

Josef Newgarden starting 17th in notable in the sense that he’s virtually got no shot of a win on Sunday.

79% (11-for-14) of the races this season were won by top 10 starters. Furthermore, 24 of the last 28 (86%) overall were won by top 10 starters in general. Also, among those 24 winners, 23 of them came from the top 4 Rows at that.

In respect to this track in general, the last 4 Laguna Seca winners came from the front row with three of which coming from the pole. 21 of the last 23 visits were won from a top 3 starter (15 from the pole, 4 from 2nd). 22 of the 23 were won from a top 6 starter in general.

For natural road course races this season, the starters came from – 3rd (Barber), 7th (Indy 1), 5th (Road America), 1st (Mid-Ohio) and 2nd (Indy 2) and 1st (Portland). Last year, it was 7th (Indy 1), 9th (Road America 1), 7th (Road America 2), 1st, (Mid-Ohio 1), 1st (Mid-Ohio 2), 2nd (Indy 2), 1st (Indy 3).

That’s 13 straight from the top 10 with 5 of 6 this year as well as 9 of the last 10 overall from the top five.

He enters this weekend 34 points out of the lead. Anyone not within 55 points of Alex Palou when the checkered flag drops is mathematically eliminated from championship contention.

He doesn’t have that much wiggle room. Marcus Ericsson (7th) is 75 points back. Scott Dixon (8th) is 49 points back. They’ll be looking at the rear wing of Pato O’Ward (6th) who’s 25 points arrears.

Trends say none will win Sunday either. Palou rolls off fourth. He’s coming off of a win and has a path to victory himself.

He leads all five championship drivers across the green on Sunday and if he can keep the other four behind him when the checkered drops on Lap 95, then he will all have but wrapped up the title.

Of Note:

Meyer Shank Racing has had a rough go of it in qualifying. They were quick in practice at Portland but that didn’t translate well over to qualifying. Helio Castroneves has started 8th, 15th, 23rd, 17th and now 22nd in his five attempts this year. Jack Harvey is in the same boat. His last three starts are 16th, 20th and 20th respectively. 7 of his last 10 have seen him qualify 16th or worse.

Rinus VeeKay has also lost pace.

Before his injury, he had five top 10 qualifying spots in the first eight races of the season. Since? 1 in the last 6 including 4 of the last 5 being 22nd or worse.

Carlin meanwhile has picked up their pace. Max Chilton qualified 11th last week in Portland and 10th time time around. His previous nine starts of the season were all 15th or worse.

Top Stat

The two drivers quickest in practice this weekend each failed to make it out of the first round in qualifying. Josef Newgarden was fastest on Friday but was only 17th in qualifying. Scott McLaughlin was quickest this morning but only 16th himself.


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