By David Morgan, Associate Editor
NASHVILLE – Colton Herta has been unstoppable thus far during the inaugural Big Machine Music City Grand Prix weekend in Nashville and Saturday’s NTT IndyCar Series qualifying session provided the latest evidence that the path to victory on Sunday will have to go through the 21-year-old Californian.
After putting up a quick time on the primary Firestone black tires during the opening round, Herta was able to parlay the advantage of having a fresher set of alternate red tires for the second round and the Fast Six into a scorching fast lap of 1 minute, 13.683 seconds to take the home the Bryan Clauson Pole Trophy.
“Car felt really good,” Herta said. “Felt really good on the blacks. We were still fast on the reds, but I think we lacked what we had in the car when we had the blacks on.
“I feel really confident for tomorrow. The car was very stable and something that I can probably take right into the race and be happy with.”
Six-time series champion Scott Dixon was able to rebound from issues in practice, clocking in second fastest, more than half a second in arears of Herta’s lap, with the remainder of the top-six starters going to Alexander Rossi, Felix Rosenqvist, Romain Grosjean, and Jack Harvey
“I think for qualifying for me, it was probably a little too cautious on the first two qualifyings to make sure I could get through the first two groups because I’ve been making a bit of a struggle to get around the track in one piece this weekend,” Dixon said.
“Once we got there, I knew we could push a little bit harder. Made I think a good gain on second run on red tires. We knew with Herta saving that set of reds, he was going to be almost impossible to beat. He has been all weekend. Class of the field. Congrats to him.”
Alex Palou originally scored a third-place start, but as a result of a grid penalty enforced earlier in the weekend for an unapproved engine change, Palou will have to drop from third to ninth in the starting lineup.
In the opening minutes of qualifying for the first group of drivers, Jimmie Johnson ran into trouble, running wide into Turn 10 and causing heavy damage to the front end of his Chip Ganassi Racing Honda after sliding into the outside wall.
As a result of the damage, Johnson will start 25th when the race takes the green on Sunday.
Johnson’s incident brought qualifying to a halt for the first group of qualifiers, but with just under three minutes to go, qualifying resumed and all of the remaining cars in the group had their chance to lay down a flying lap.
When the first group of qualifying was complete, Palou was fastest, with Rossi, Pato O’Ward, Rosenqvist, Josef Newgarden, and Will Power moving on to the next round.
The second group of qualifying went without issue, as Dixon posted the fastest time to advance, just eclipsing Herta. Following Dixon and Herta in advancing into the next round was Jack Harvey, James Hinchcliffe, Simon Pagenaud, and Romain Grosjean.
High drama unfolded during the second round of qualifying, with Newgarden, the series resident Nashvillian, providing the fireworks. Newgarden was trying his best to get into the Fast Six at his home race, but overstepped into Turn 11 and wound up in the wall, smashing the front end of his No. 2 Team Penske Chevrolet.
“Disappointing,” Newgarden said of the incident. “Obviously not what I wanted to do, but I was trying to make up the deficit from yesterday and today. Good to be here in Nashville though. Everyone’s done a great job of bringing this event to this city. This is the city where IndyCar needs to be, so I’m really proud to be from here and have IndyCar’s back, especially downtown. This is crazy cool. I never would have dreamed of this actually getting off the ground, this kind of event.
“I’m pretty pumped for tomorrow, just wish we were a little higher up. Just tried to claw some performance back there and over pushed. I think Team Chevy is doing a good job. We’ve got a fast Hitachi car for the most part. I think we can make something of it. It’s just going to be harder now.”
Though he tried to keep going in order to not cause a caution and lose his qualifying time, pulling away from the accident site and eventually coming to a stop in the Turn 1 runoff area, the parts falling off his car brought out the inevitable yellow flag, dropping him from sixth to 12th after a lengthy review by series officials. As a result of the penalty, Grosjean would take over Newgarden’s spot in the Fast Six.
“Look, you can’t wreck and not get penalized,” Newgarden added. “That’s how it works.”
Just one final practice session remains before Sunday’s inaugural Music City Grand Prix, with a half-hour warmup taking place at 1:00 pm Eastern, followed by the main event at 5:30 pm on NBC Sports Network.
If the weekend thus far is any indication, the 80-lap race will certainly be one to watch.
“I think this is going to be the craziest start of the year,” said Herta. “We’re going to be going quite quick from where the start zone is going into off-camber a second-gear corner. That’s like 60 miles an hour, 70 miles an hour. So definitely it’s going to be interesting.
“There’s not a whole bunch of ways to bail, turn into the corner. If guys are committing three-wide, it could get a little bit messy. You’re probably expecting to see something happen on the opening lap, in the opening corner.
“That’s going to open up strategy a lot. If any yellows do happen, it’s going to open up strategy. It’s going to create bigger stints because you’re going to be saving a lot more fuel. Have to wait and see.”