Laguna Seca is Herta country. The family can’t describe how, but among the nine combined victories between both Bryan Herta and son Colton, four of which have come on the 2.258-mile California road course. Half of Bryan’s came here in 1998 and again in 1999.
His 21 year old son is following him in his footsteps. In fact, he’s surpassing his old man now.
Herta, scored his fifth career NTT IndyCar Series victory on Sunday’s in the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey. He surpasses his dad on the all-time career wins list. He also equals his dad on the win list in Monterey with two. Yes, two of Bryan Herta’s INDYCAR wins came in Laguna Seca as well as two of Colton Herta’s five.
The win looked easy as he surpassed the 27 car field by 1.9747-seconds over second place Alex Palou with Romain Grosjean putting on a clinch to round out the podium in third in his No. 51 Honda. Graham Rahal and Pato O’Ward finished out the top five.
Herta, led 91 of 95 laps and while the margin wasn’t all that close, a mid race battle with Palou due to lapped traffic in front closed the gap more than it likely should have been. But, with the final pit stop looming and a flawless final time on pit road, Herta checked back out to score his fourth win from the pole.
He was supposed to be challenged from Alexander Rossi and Will Power but both of their bad luck streaks came back to bite them. Rossi, got off course in Turn 5 on Lap 2 while battling with Herta for the lead. He crashed while running third with 60 to go just after his final pit stop two races prior in Gateway. He had bad luck with cautions then was ran off course by Pato O’Ward in Nashville. A bad caution in back to back races for the Indy 500 and Belle Isle 1 cost him a shot at wins. So did a broken front wing early on in Belle Isle 2. A badly timed first pit stop in the season opener did too.
For Power, he had engine issues and saw his fourth finish of 13th or worse in the last six races.
Here are my main takeaways.
Palou Has All But Wrapped The Championship Up
Alex Palou’s runner-up in Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey all but wraps up his chances of taking home the Astor Cup championship trophy next Sunday on the streets of Long Beach. Palou, started fourth and really never had a car seriously enough to contend for the top step of the podium this weekend with Colton Herta, but he did what he had to do to stave off the rest of the challengers for this year’s championship in what would be the first Chip Ganassi Racing driver not named Scott Dixon to win a season championship since Dario Franchitti did it in a solemn way in 2011. That title was won at Las Vegas. The tragic October day a decade ago. You have to go back to 2010 with Franchitti again for the last time Ganassi celebrated a title with someone other than Dixon.
Well, start planning the celebration and order all the fried chicken one could handle next Sunday in Long Beach. The championship is likely going to Palou.
All he has to do is finish 11th or better and it doesn’t matter what Pato O’Ward or Josef Newgarden does, the title is his. In 16 races run this year, Palou has finished 11th or better in 11 of them.
The only reason he pauses to get too hyped on the potential of a championship is, his worst appearances this year have actually come on street circuits.
Palou was 17th in St. Pete. He was 15th in Belle Isle 1. He was also third in Belle Isle 2, but that’s because he had a day ahead of time to race before racing again. Long Beach next weekend is a place he’s not yet raced on before. He’s never tested there either.
O’Ward meanwhile, is at his best on street courses. He did finish 19th in St. Pete but was on the podium there last year. He was third and first respectively in Belle Isle. A day like that and a day like Palou had in St. Pete or Belle Isle 1 may end up handing the title to O’Ward, not Palou.
The thing is, O’Ward has just one podium in his last seven starts on the season though too.
Newgarden, is the only other one who can win the title next weekend and he, like O’Ward, is at his best on street courses. He won last year in St. Pete. He was runner-up this past April. He was 10th and second respectively in Belle Isle. He has six top two finishes in his last 10 street course starts.
But, like O’Ward to though, he’s had just two podiums in his last seven starts as well.
Palou has two podiums in his last two starts with five in his last eight overall.
Dixon/Ericsson Mathematically Eliminated
Chip Ganassi Racing entered the day with three drivers still in the hunt to win the 2021 NTT IndyCar Series championship. With only five drivers still eligible, that’s a good margin on their side. But, they instead leave with one drivers’ championship hopes still in tact.
Scott Dixon hasn’t had a very Scott Dixon like season. He had a good day going on Sunday before contact with Takuma Sato near the midway mark. His day was ruined and he’d finish 13th as a result. When you enter 49 points down and the guy you’re chasing finishes second, you’re toast.
That’s the third time in the last four races that Dixon has finished 13th or worse. He’s had just four podiums all season. That’s why he’s in the spot he’s in now and that’s heading to the season finale and not in the race for the title.
Still, Dixon can hope to hold off his teammate Marcus Ericsson for the fourth spot though. Ericsson, was also eliminated on Sunday but he did earn a sixth place result in the race for his ninth straight top 10 of the season and 10th in the last 11 races. He as 12 top 10’s in 16 races this season. By comparison, he had 12 top 10’s in his first 30 races of his career prior.
So, it’s a tale of two opposite side of the fences for the teammates in Dixon is disappointed while Ericsson is hoping to end the season with momentum still in tact after a career year.
Dixon, leads Ericsson by 19 points for the fourth spot and if he can hold him off, it would be his 15th top four finish in the final standings in the last 16 year including five straight. Ericsson, is 28 points clear of Herta for fifth.
Grosjean Puts On A Show
Who said you can’t pass at Laguna Seca. Romain Grosjean put on a show on Sunday in coming from his 13th place starting spot to come home with his third podium of the season in his No. 51 Honda. He was the biggest mover of the day in the 95 Lap race.
He passed Pato O’Ward for fourth with 15 laps remaining. It was a bold pass but it paid off. He was coming and doing so in a hurry. With 12 to go, he caught and passed Graham Rahal for third. At the time, he was 10 seconds back of the lead. With Firestone Reds on, could they not fall off as much and he seriously challenge for the win.
It nearly happened. Grosjean, went from 15 seconds out of the lead with 15 to go to crossing the finish line 3.7087-seconds back. He’s now had four top fives and six top 10’s in 12 starts this year. By comparison, Alex Palou, the guy in the championship drivers seat, had one podium, one top five and three top 10’s in this same car a year ago.
Rahal Has To Wonder Where His Finishes Would Be If He Started Better
Romain Grosjean was a hard charger on Sunday, but so was Graham Rahal. Grosjean went from 13th to 3rd while Rahal went from 12th to 4th. It’s a common theme for Rahal this year. Coming from outside the top 10 to a top seven. It’s happened seven times now already this year.
Rahal started 18.th in Barber and finished seventh. He was 13th in Texas 1 and came home fifth. He was ninth a day later and finished third. The Indy GP in May he was 11th and came home fifth again. In the Belle Isle doubleheader, he started 20th and ninth. He’d finish fifth in both events.
Mid-Ohio he went from eighth to sixth, Nashville 13th to 5th, Indy GP 2 17th to 7th and now Laguna Seca 12th to 4th. Imagine where he’d finish if he didn’t have to work so hard to come through the field.
Honda Wraps Up The Manufacturers Title
The manufacturers battle won’t down to the final race. Honda clinched their fourth straight title on Sunday in Laguna Seca. They swept the podium again this weekend for the second straight week including putting five cars in the top six when it was all said and done.
This comes after Chevy held the belt for the five years prior.
See, before the 2012 season, Honda could easily be regarded as the engine that saved INDYCAR. When no one else wanted to jump in, it was Honda who provided engines to literally every team. They were the sole engine provider of INDYCAR. That takes a lot of time, money and commitment in doing so for as long as they did.
In 2012, they got relief. Chevrolet would be coming back. A new car was coming out as well. While they welcomed the competition, the bow ties just flat out dominated.
In the manufacturers championship, Chevrolet would win every year from 2012 through 2017. Every. Single. Year. Chevy won 67 times in that span compared to just 33 triumphs for Honda.
But, once the new car came out in 2018, it’s been all Honda ever since. They’re now eyeing all four manufacturers championships since 2018 including a rout of Chevrolet last season and close battle this. They also went 1-2-3-4 in the Indy 500 in 2020 and placed eight cars in the Fast Nine for qualifying for that race too. They went 1-2 at Indy this year and had nine of the top 11 starting spots again.
Really, from 2018 through now, Honda has not only evened the playing field, they’ve since taken the advantage. For the first time since Chevy came in for 2012 and beyond, Honda eclipsed Chevy for most wins in a season in 2018 (11-6). They’ve been even the last two years prior to this one with Chevy winning 9-8 in 2019 and Honda having a 7-7 split in 2020. This year, it’s 9-6.
With the same car this time around, it’s Honda 34, Chevrolet 28. In the three year span of the Aerokits from 2015 through 2017, it was Chevy 34, Honda 15.
The drivers on the podium aren’t novices to racing, but when we look back on the 2021 podium for the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey, we’ll smile and reflect on what we should have been talking about instead. Colton Herta’s win was just his eighth career podium, including the fourth of the season. Alex Palou’s runner-up was his eighth of the season and ninth of his career. Romain Grosjean finished third for his third podium of his rookie year.
Combined, that’s 20 total podiums between the three.