By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
MONTEREY, California – What a way to cap off a roller coaster NTT IndyCar Series rookie campaign for Colton Herta, scoring his second career victory in the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca Sunday.
The sensational 19-year-old Californian led 83 out of 90 laps, which saw him leap from 14th to seventh in the final championship standings.
RESULTS: Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey
To do so, he had Will Power hot on his tail once the laps remaining went into single digits until a Turn 11 bobble sealed the deal for the Harding Steinbrenner Racing driver, who will join forces with Andretti Autosport next season.
Herta commented that conquering Laguna Seca, a track his father Bryan Herta won twice in 1998 and 1999, was tough from start to finish. This was because he dealt with the most experience drivers on the circuit, who put on an valiant effort.
However, with a great car and easily managing his Firestone tires, he stole their thunder.
“It was a tough race,” Herta said. “It was either getting hounded by Dixon or Pagenaud or Power the whole time, so they definitely didn’t make it easy on me. But yeah, happy to kind of put together what we had in Portland and learn from our mistakes of the tire wear issues and go forward with it.”
Herta said the pressure really didn’t kick into max gear until Power was cutting his moderate race lead.
“I’d never really felt too threatened until the end when Power was on me,” Herta said. “I thought I had it under control for, I guess, 80 percent of the race, 85 percent of the race.
“But yeah, it seemed like our tire wear was a lot better than a lot of people’s. I would say for sure Dixon and Pagenaud, definitely not Power. He seemed to have a little bit of an edge. But that last two or three laps I would gap by like a second a lap and have a nice margin coming into the pits if anything were to go wrong or if I had a slow out-lap or in-lap.”
A mad man on a mission was 14th place starter Felix Rosenqvist, who was one of the few competitors to solider towards the front. He wowed the fans in the Corkscrew on Lap 34 when he passed Newgarden for sixth.
The Swede would ultimately stay in that position and took top rookie honors over Herta by five points.
Rosenqvist was more satisfied about finishing well inside the top-10 in points than taking ROTY.
It’s due in most part that in the last eight races, he’s scored two runner-ups at Mid-Ohio and Portland, and two fifth-place runs at Toronto and Laguna Seca. Those stout runs climbed from 12th after Texas to sixth at season’s end.
“I’m actually more happy about that than the rookie title,” Rosenqvist said. “Being sixth, that’s probably best of the rest, I’d say, all the guys in front of me have done a better job for sure, but all the Penske guys and Scott (Dixon) and (Alexander) Rossi, they’ve done a hell of a job this year, so hopefully we can be in that mix next year.”
Prior to the halfway point, cloud covers invaded the 2.238-mile circuit and so did the competition.
Heading into the Andretti Hairpin, the Andretti Autosport duo of Marco Andretti and Conor Daly tangled, resulting Daly’s No. 25 U.S. Air Force Honda spinning. This resulted in the only full-course caution of the afternoon as Andretti finished 14th and Daly was a lap down in 22nd.
On the Lap 49 restart, Santino Ferrucci locked his brakes and plowed into Takuma Sato at the hairpin, causing Sato to spin and Ferrucci’s right front suspension damaged.
Consequently, Ferrucci went into an escape road and ended his afternoon in 24th and failed to win top rookie honors. Ed Jones went into the gravel but was able to continue his afternoon.
Ferrucci, who’ll end up 13th in points, admitted the incident was his fault after not resetting his front brake bias which he had a lot of.
“It’s tough at this track on the restarts. We were running a lot front brake bias and I made a mistake. I forgot to reset it,” Ferrucci said. “Just trying to catch up and we struggled a lot on the blacks stint. We were much better on red tires.
“I feel bad for Sato. I just locked up the tires right in the initial part of brake zone and I kept tried to pump the brakes to get them unlock. I just couldn’t get it out of the way and I knew it was going to hit him. I was trying to hit him square as I could to not do any damage. Unfortunately, I broke my end on my car.”
Further in the back on Lap 54, Zach Veach had multiple adventures with a few drivers. First was with Spencer Pigot in the hairpin. The incident was reviewed and neither competitors were penalized.
Then on the very same lap, Sato went low to get by Matheus Leist into the Corkscrew, shoving Veach high but all went on with their struggling races.
Herta continued leading the way and clinched the two bonus points for leading the most laps and once the race came down to the final 30 laps.
Final set of pit stops picked up for the leaders on Lap 65 when Herta and second-place Dixon, by this point eliminated from the title chase, pitted together with the rookie exiting out in first.
A lap later, Simon Pagenaud made his last stop and eyeing on beating Dixon to really help his title chances and barely did for a moment until the five-time champion passed this year’s Indy 500 champion entering Turn 5.
Pagenaud was the only threat on points leader Josef Newgarden’s title hopes as he continued giving it his all to win, but had to settle for fourth and second overall in points.
Newgarden’s quiet afternoon ended with raw emotions as an eight-place result was good enough to lock up his second INDYCAR title in the last three years, beating the Frenchman by 25 points.
The new champion commented that this year’s success wouldn’t have been possible without the people behind him, including his No. 2 Penske squad as his title meant owner Roger Penske has 16 INDYCAR titles.
“It’s just been a lot this year. But I have had the best people around me and they have take care of everything,” said Newgarden. “I couldn’t ask for more than what I have and it is just amazing to be able to win races and drive for this team. Its been my dream since I was a kid. I am just really thankful for everything and everyone that has done anything for me.”
While a Chevrolet driver won the war, Honda locked up the manufacturer’s championship. The Japanese brand scored race victories in 8 of 17 races, including two from Herta, who beat Power by 0.5878 seconds.