LONG BEACH, Calif — I wrote entering this weekend that this felt like Andretti Autosport’s time to shine. They had won each of the last 3 Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach’s all in dominating fashion. Alexander Rossi led 71 of 85 laps in his 2018 victory on the seaside street course. A year later, he upped it even further. He led all but 5 laps (80-of-85) in a win that saw a margin over 20 seconds. Colton Herta won last year’s after a year hiatus due to COVID. He started 14th but still led 43 laps that day.
Then, with how this weekend started, it was really their race to lose.
Herta, broke the track record and sat on the pole. He was 6th and 2nd respectively in the two practice sessions this weekend before topping the speed charts in warmup this morning.
Rossi, was 2nd and 4th in practice and qualified 5th. Grosjean, was quickest in practice on Saturday morning and was second before crashing in the Fast 6. That lost him his top two laps which forced him to start 6th.
Quickest in practice on Saturday morning, quickest on Sunday morning, 3 of 6 in the Fast Six. Despite that, they had just 1 car in the top 5 in the end. Disappointing.
Herta, likely feels like he let another one get away. He led the first 28 laps, but a slower stop (9.3-seconds) and a slower in lap, put him back to third. That had to be on his mind as he was coming to the next pit stop. He had a faster car but was relegated to third. So, with him being beat by Alex Palou by 1.029-seconds on his pit in lap and his crew being 1.861-seconds behind Palou’s on the stop itself, Herta was pressing extra hard to make the lap before his stop count.
See, his crew had problems on pit road in each of the first two races prior. They didn’t get his car full of fuel in St. Pete on his initial stop. That affected his strategy the rest of the way and would have to save fuel in the end which meant going from a podium to fourth.
For Texas, he entered the pits for his final stop inside of the podium but a slow stop relegated him to 12th. Now, they played a role in the first pit sequence in dropping him from first to third.
“You just have to understand it,” he said last week on the pit road problems. “I make mistakes on the track. Everyone makes mistakes. It’s just kind of one of those things that happen unfortunately. I know the guys are back in the shop working on pit stop to make sure that it doesn’t happen again.”
It ended up costing him. Instead of finding pit road, he found the wall. Race over.
It was another day of what should have been for him. These are days he’s trying to end. These are ones keeping him from being where he eventually wants to be – an INDYCAR champion.
His goals of being a champion rest on turning top fives into podiums. So far, he’s 0-for-2 in 2022.
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.
Last season, Herta had seven top fives in his No. 26 Honda in 16 races run. Out of those seven, five of which were on the podium giving him more podiums in 16 races last season than in 32 starts prior.
Still, he needs to do so on a more consistent basis. Alex Palou had eight podiums. Josef Newgarden had six. They were 1-2 in the championship. Sine 2016, all but one champion had a podium finish in 50% or more of their starts throughout a season. Josef Newgarden had a 41% podium rate in 2019. Other than that, everyone else has been around the 50% mark.
That’s what Herta is missing is turning those solid days into podiums.
In 2021, he led 39 laps from the pole in a similar type of weekend at Nashville. He was pushing too hard in the end to get the lead back and crashed. He’d finish 19th instead. Two races later, he led 101 laps in Gateway. He broke a drive shaft late.
This is the detriment to Herta. It’s especially all the more painful when it’s a track that he considers his home race.
“As a young kid, I always dreamed of becoming an INDYCAR driver, and that was because of this race,” said Herta, 22 of his pole on Saturday. “To get the win last year was amazing, and we checked another box with the pole. It feels incredible.”
Out of his 6 career wins, 4 of which came from the pole. He left two more on the table between Nashville and Long Beach.
Herta, now sits 11th in points, -59 heading to Barber.