LONG BEACH, Calif — Colton Herta was on the wrong end of strategy in qualifying on Saturday on the streets of Long Beach. Good thing he was because he provided a thrilling day of action in his No. 26 Honda in going from 14th to win Sunday’s Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach.
Herta, knew that he had the pace. He never flinched. He was quickest in both practice sessions this weekend to go along with being second in both practices last weekend. He won last week but did so from the pole. Could he come through the field in 85 laps on a 1.968-mile street course?
By hoping to save a set of Firestone Reds for the Fast Six, it bit them. He got into the wall while pushing hard on his final lap on the Blacks and it bent a toe link. He just didn’t have it and for the first time all year, he failed to get out of the first round in qualifying.
It didn’t end up mattering.
He quickly moved up to the top 10. By time we got through the first round of stops, he was in second. On Lap 34, he was handed the lead and he never looked back en route to his sixth career NTT IndyCar Series victory including two straight.
He staved off a furious charge from Josef Newgarden in the end but held him off for Andretti Autosport’s third straight win in Long Beach and their fifth in the last seven years.
“Yeah, this is the biggest race for me outside of Indy,” a joyous Herta said. “I said previously that this is the first race I ever was able to come to, being from Santa Clarita. I was two weeks old when I first came to Long Beach. My father was driving in 2000. It was the only race I could go to because I was so young and I couldn’t fly yet. Lucky enough that it came around.
“I remember growing up around here, coming to this race every year when I was five, six, seven, all the way up until I was racing in INDYCAR in 2019. I can’t believe I won it on my second try. I’m super happy. This is a big one for me.”
Newgarden, finished runner-up for the second straight time here and his third podium in the last four Long Beach starts. He just didn’t have the pace for Herta despite earning the pole on Saturday.
Scott Dixon finished third in his No. 9 Honda while Alex Palou and Simon Pagenaud rounded out the top five in the season finale.
By Palou finishing fourth, the 2021 NTT IndyCar Series championship is his. He did so with ease as Pato O’Ward was his main challenger but was spun in the hairpen on the opening lap by Ed Jones. It took him from seventh to the back but 18 laps later his transmission blew ending his day as well as his championship early.
By doing so and finishing second, Newgarden moved up to second in the points for his fourth top two result in the final standings in the last five years.
O’Ward, fell to third after being fourth last year.
From Lap 20 forward, it was Palou vs. Newgarden for the championship. Newgarden, had to lead the most laps as well as the race too, but Herta was just too strong. Palou, settled in and gave Chip Ganassi Racing their 14th series title, three of which coming in the last four years.
Herta Wanted More Podiums This Year, He Has To Wonder, “What If”
Colton Herta told me entering this season that he wanted to turn those top fives into more podiums. That was the difference he felt. He had 10 top fives in his first 32 starts to his career. The problem was, he only had four podiums out of those 10.
Through 16 races run this season, Herta had seven top fives in his No. 26 Honda. Out of those seven, five of which were on the podium giving him more podiums in 16 races this season than in 32 starts prior.
The next logical goal from that would be turning podiums into wins. Three of his four podiums were victories including two straight to close out the year. He equaled his number of wins this season compared to his career wins entering.
That has to make Herta the one to watch next year and also has to make him wonder “what might have been.”
He was collected in a first lap crash in the season opener at Barber. He had pit road troubles in Mid-Ohio. He crashed while pursuing the lead in Nashville after leading a race-high 39 laps that day. He had a driveshaft break while leading in Gateway.
Take those three instances out and Herta very likely has three more wins.
On top of that, he had a front row starting spot in exactly half the races run this season. That gives him high hopes for 2022.
Dixon Gets Another Podium But Too Little Too Late
Another driver wondering “what if” has to be Scott Dixon. Sunday was his second podium in the final three races but if he had that earlier this season, maybe it would have been Dixon, not his teammate Alex Palou celebrating a championship on Sunday.
Dixon started the year off with six straight top 10 results including four of which being in the top five. He was leading the points heading into the Indy 500, a race he also qualified on the pole for.
From that point forward, it was really all downhill.
Dixon, was caught out by a badly timed first caution in the ‘500 in which he didn’t pit yet. Due to the crash on pit road, the pits were closed in fact. He ran out of gas and had to do an emergency service stop. That, plus his engine stalling and being slow to refire cost him dearly. He fell a lap down and would only finish 17th in a double points race.
Belle Isle had another bad first timed yellow. It just stacked on from there. Dixon, went from Texas 2 until heading west for this west coast swing with one podium in 10 races.
That’s why Dixon was fourth in the final standings in the end. Still, it’s 15 times in the last 16 years he’s been in the top four at seasons end. Can he rebound in 2022? He’s only had one win in the last 22 races, the longest drought between wins of his career.
Drama Filled Day
You know how the song goes, “with so much drama in the LBC…” That’s exactly what we saw this weekend. It started with Pato O’Ward being pissed at Race Control on Saturday to Helio Castroneves vs. Alexander Rossi in Sunday’s warmup to Ed Jones punting O’Ward in the final corner of the opening lap and a late race spat between Conor Daly and Oliver Askew made for a couple of days of instant drama.
In qualifying, Will Power stalled on course towards the end of the second round. O’Ward was sixth at the time. Ed Jones, Felix Rosenqvist and James Hinchcliffe all sped through a yellow corner and improved their times.
After a lengthy review by INDYCAR, they determined only Jones would get penalized meaning despite evidence that their own car in Rosenqvist went through the yellow at speed, O’Ward would only move back up one spot.
“Yeah, our car has been good. I mean, we didn’t roll off the best, but I think we made some really good changes, just kept improving,” said O’Ward. “We had enough for the Fast 6. Yeah, we should have been in the Fast 6, so…
“Yeah, I mean, really, really happy for Felix, that he went into the Fast 6. I mean, we’re in the same team and we have literal data that shows that at least two of the cars that didn’t get penalized kept going quickly in the yellow flag. I don’t know. Maybe rules don’t apply the last race of the season when everything’s at stake.
“It just sucks. Sucks that we’re stuck there because we should have transferred. We had the car to fight it. I don’t know if for pole, but we definitely had a car to be in the Fast 6 and start within the first two rows.
“Kind of sucks to get hosed by a very odd call. I’m still seeking for answers. But, yeah.”
Jones, punted O’Ward and ended his championship hopes at the start of Sunday’s race too to spark a wild moment of the day.
Prior to that, Alexander Rossi exited the pits during warmup ahead of Helio Castroneves. That move and the one that Rossi didn’t allow Castroneves who was on a flier by created an even bigger stir including one of the more iconic interviews of the season.
This has deeper implications in the sense that both were IMSA teammates with Wayne Taylor Racing as well as Meyer Shank Racing having a technical alliance with Rossi’s team, Andretti Autosport.
Then you have Alsew and Daly’s run in towards the end of the race in which brought out the final caution.
“The U.S. Air Force crew did a fantastic job in the pits today. We jumped guys every time we stopped and put ourselves with a really strong group,” Daly said. “We were having the best day we could have, but sadly another competitor took that away from us. I’m still very confused about what [Oliver] Askew was trying to do there on cold tires. This is a street circuit, it’s really hard to brake off-line and he had no hope of making that corner. When you force someone off the track, you’re not supposed to crash yourself at the same time! It’s a shame, but I am thankful my guys stuck with me this weekend. It was very challenging, but we had some pace at the end and were on the right strategy.”
Rossi Quiet This Weekend
Alexander Rossi led 71 of 85 laps from the pole in 2018. A year later, he led 80 laps of 85 en route to his second straight dominating performance in Long Beach. This weekend, he entered having 10 straight top 10 starting spots including two of which on the front row during this west coast swing. Would more Long Beach glory be ahead and end his 36 race winless drought?
It didn’t. He was only 15th in qualifying on Saturday and sixth in the race on Sunday without leading a single lap.
Rookie Of The Year Battle
One of the more underrated championship races this watch on Sunday was for Rookie of the Year. We already knew that Honda won the manufacturers crown for fourth straight year. They clinched that last weekend. Alex Palou beat Josef Newgarden and Pato O’Ward for the season championship.
What about ROY?
For the first time in the storied history of Team Penske, they produced the Rookie of the Year. Scott McLaughlin entered the weekend 20 points up on Romain Grosjean and with the Swiss born Frenchman’s troubles near the mid race mark, the title went to McLaughlin.