Colton Herta put the disappointment of a tough season opener behind him to dominate the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, earning his first NTT Indycar Series victory of the season.
NTT P1 Award winner Herta led a race-record 97 of 100 laps from the pole in the No. 26 Gainbridge Honda run by Andretti Autosport to win by 2.4933 seconds over two-time series champion Josef Newgarden in the No. 2 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet. 2016 series champion Simon Pagenaud finished third in the No. 22 Menards/Australian Gold Team Penske Chevrolet on the 14-turn, 1.8-mile temporary street circuit.
Herta’s average speed was 96.552 mph in a race slowed by just three full-course cautions for nine laps. All 24 drivers in the starting field coped with air temperatures in the low 80s and high humidity, sapping every bit of their world-class fitness over one hour, 51 minutes in the cockpit.
“What a great job by everybody,” Herta said. “Sorry, I can barely talk; I’m so winded. I’m so happy we did this, so happy to rebound from Barber and get the momentum going for the season that we need, which is a championship season.”
Front-row starter Jack Harvey ended up fourth in the No. 60 AutoNation/Sirius XM Honda. Six-time and defending series champion Scott Dixon finished fifth in the No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda.
The strong finishes for Herta and Newgarden erased memories of a rugged season opener for both last Sunday at Barber Motorsports Park. Herta finished 22nd and Newgarden 23rd in the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama presented by AmFirst after Newgarden spun on the first lap and collected multiple cars, including Herta’s machine.
Barber race winner Alex Palou finished 17th today in the No. 10 NTT DATA Chip Ganassi Racing Honda but kept the championship lead, 67-65, over the tied second-place duo of Dixon and Will Power. 2014 series champion Power rallied from a 20th starting spot to finish eighth in the No. 12 Verizon 5G Team Penske Chevrolet.
Herta, who started the race on the Firestone “red” alternate tires, chose Firestone “black” primary tires on his final pit stop on Lap 67. Newgarden was forced to use the “reds” on his final stop on Lap 67 since he started on “blacks” and used another set of primary tires on his first stop.
It appeared tire strategy would be moot three laps after those final stops, as Herta was on cruise control and led Newgarden by 9.4390 seconds on Lap 70. But rookie Jimmie Johnson spun and clipped the inside wall in Turn 3 with his No. 48 Carvana Chip Ganassi Racing Honda on Lap 73, triggering the second full-course caution and evaporating Herta’s big lead.
On the ensuing restart on Lap 76, Newgarden and his grippier alternate tires made a run at Herta but couldn’t get close enough to pass. But then the No. 18 SealMaster Honda of Ed Jones and the No. 29 Genesys Honda of James Hinchcliffe made contact in Turn 4 on Lap 79, triggering the final full-course caution on Lap 80.
Two-time defending St. Petersburg race winner Newgarden got another chance to make a run at Herta on the restart on Lap 83, but Herta held him off. Newgarden stayed close to Herta in a gripping, all-American duel for the next 10 laps, but Herta kept his California cool and pulled away gradually for victory over Tennessee titan Newgarden.
“He’s so good around here,” Herta said of Newgarden. “I was nervous because he was on those new red tires. I thought they were going to be better. But they ended up being similar (to the primary tires), so I was able to hold him off.”
Said Newgarden: “We lost a little too much ground on that second stint to capitalize on the reds. Then we had the caution, which almost gifted us another chance. I just didn’t want to overextend myself today. I felt like I had close to an opportunity, but Colton was really good. He was doing a great job on the restarts.
“Congrats to Colton. It’s a great rebound for both of us. I felt bad about what happened last week, so really happy he got back on it today and had a very deserved victory. I wish we could have fought him a bit more. We were just lacking a little bit.”
It was the fourth career victory for Herta, 21, in his third season in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES. He matched the INDYCAR SERIES win total of his father, Bryan Herta, who competed from 1994-2006 and now calls race strategy for his son for Andretti Autosport.
“That was awesome,” Herta said. “I love that he’s on my radio.”