MONTEREY, Calif. – Despite heavy pressure from the IndyCar championship leader midway through Sunday’s race, Colton Herta led nearly flag-to-flag at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, grabbing the fifth win of his still-young career.
The 21-year-old Andretti Autosport driver finished 1.9747 seconds clear of race runner-up Alex Palou, who in turn strengthened his title race chances over Pato O’Ward, who finished fifth. Coming into Sunday, Palou was 25 points clear of the Arrow McLaren SP driver in the race for the Astor Cup and padded that by 10 more points up to 35 with just the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach next Sunday left to decide the fight.
“It was amazing,” Palou said of his runner-up finish Sunday. “I was surprised we were really competitive. We didn’t have enough for the win, but we did as much as we could. It was Herta and Andretti’s day today, and I’m happy with P2.”
Added O’Ward: “All weekend, we didn’t really have it. I truly feel like we absolutely used every ounce of energy and pace this car had. I’m happy that we honestly really maximized what we had, though I’m disappointed the guy we’re trying to catch outscored us again. All we can do in Long Beach is win and let everything else fall as it may.”
After a Lap 2 caution, where Herta’s teammate Alexander Rossi darted inside Sunday’s polesitter in Turn 5 and then spun after the pair touched wheels, Sunday’s 95-lapper ran green the rest of the way. Just 12 laps into the action, Herta had created a 6-second gap on the rest of the field, but Palou, who started fourth, began to reel in the eventual winner of IndyCar’s last two races at Laguna Seca.
Following the pair’s first of three pitstops, Palou trailed Herta by 2.6 seconds on Lap 23. The Spaniard had cut into that lead by more than a second early into their third stints, edging within a half-second of Herta by Lap 55 when the leaders began to hit traffic waiting to be lapped of Max Chilton, Felix Rosenqvist and Jimmie Johnson.
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While trying to get around the slower cars, O’Ward managed to claw his way back from a 24-second deficit of the lead on Lap 47 to 16.7 seconds by Lap 61 through the bulk of the Mexican driver’s third stint. At that moment, it looked as if O’Ward might have something for the leaders, but he fell back over his final stint, passed by Graham Rahal and Romain Grosjean for places O’Ward wasn’t able to make up by the race’s end.
In one of the key moments of the race, Herta managed to get around Rosenqvist on Lap 59, allowing the driver of the No. 26 Honda to work back up his gap on Palou before they would pit for the final time. With 15 laps to go, Herta’s gap on 2nd-place was back up to 6.8 seconds and too large for the Ganassi driver to chip away at before the checkered flag.
With the win, Herta passed his father (and strategist), Bryan, in career wins. Like Bryan, Herta has now won twice at Laguna Seca, both going back-to-back.
“I have no clue (what it is about Laguna Seca). I enjoyed racing here so much,” the younger Herta said. “I’m just so happy to have done it. It’s my favorite track in North America. I love it so much.”
Behind Herta and Palou, Grosjean proved the biggest mover of the day after starting in 13th. The Dale Coyne Racing driver, who recently committed to running the full IndyCar calendar next year, made an Alex Zanardi-like pass on Scott Dixon in the corkscrew early in Sunday’s race.
With 15 laps to go, the Swiss-born Frenchman executed a daring outside pass on O’Ward for fourth, then picked off Rahal for third three laps later. With under 10 laps left, he’d worked himself within 10 seconds of the lead, and with seven seconds to go, he’d shaved off three more seconds. That lap, Grosjean dove hard inside a lapped Jimmie Johnson in the corkscrew, and the two made contact — the Coyne driver even taking some brief air, but both exited okay.
With two laps to go, Grosjean was within 6 seconds of Herta and just 2.5 from Palou, but both managed to hold onto their positions to solidify Sunday’s podium. Rahal took 4th, with O’Ward 5th, and Marcus Ericsson (6th), Josef Newgarden (7th), Simon Pagenaud (8th), Oliver Askew (9th) and Ed Jones (10th) rounding out the top-10.
Despite making up 10 spots during the race, Newgarden all but fell out of title contention with his 7th-place finish. The Team Penske driver started Sunday 34 points out of the lead in 3rd, and he now stands 48 points out. He would only be able to make up 49 points on the championship leader if Palou were to start Long Beach and finish last, with Newgarden picking up all the possible bonus points. Scott Dixon, who started 8th on Sunday, settled for a disappointing 13th at Laguna Seca, after he made contact with Takuma Sato on Lap 38 when the latter spun across the track entering the corkscrew. He’s now 72 points back from Palou and mathematically eliminated from defending his 2020 IndyCar championship.
Email IndyStar motor sports reporter Nathan Brown at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @By_NathanBrown.