Photo: Luis Torres/Motorsports Tribune

Herta Leads Opening Long Beach Practice, Championship Leader Palou Third

By David Morgan, Associate Editor

LONG BEACH, Calif. – Coming off his win one week ago, Colton Herta found himself in familiar territory on Friday’s opening practice for the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach with his Andretti Autosport Honda at the top of the board.

Reminiscent of his run on the Streets of Nashville back in August, Herta’s car looked to be out of control around the 1.968-mile, 11-turn temporary street course, but the clock doesn’t lie as the 21-year-old put up a lap of one minute, 9.268 seconds to lead the way during the 45-minute session.

“It felt really good,” Herta said. “Seems like all the street courses we kind of rolled off with a really good street course car and really good balance. Credit to all the guys, we found some really good stuff with the damping and the thirds to kind of bring to the street courses this year. We’ve been really good at every single one so far.

“Yeah, I was happy. Kind of surprised at the grip level and how fast everyone was to kind of get up to speed. So that was really interesting. But, yeah, happy with how the day’s been.”

The native Californian did have one close call during practice, as his No. 26 Honda nearly skidded into the wall, but he was able to save it at the last minute, avoiding disaster.

“I did, until it kind of came around and snapped back, then I thought I was going to hit the wall,” Herta said of thinking he could save it during his near-miss. “Luckily, I don’t know what happened, but it didn’t. Kind of one of those things where you have big front tires, sometimes the car saves itself. That’s kind of what happened there. I was just along for the ride.”

Simon Pagenaud was scored second during the session, putting up a flying lap after an earlier off-track excursion, with NTT IndyCar Series points leader Alex Palou finishing practice in third – tops among the three championship contenders in the 2021 season finale.

“Yeah, was good,” Palou said. “Was all about learning the track and stuff like that. But, yeah, pretty happy. The car was good. Was a quick session. Yeah, got up to speed quite quick. So happy with the car at the moment.

“[The track] was a bit bumpier than I thought, a bit less grippy than I thought…But it’s really fun, to be honest. I really like it. The track really flows. You can connect one corner to the other that you don’t really get those corners in another street courses. So, yeah, I would say it’s one of my favorite street courses that we’ve been to.”

The remainder of the top-10 went to Felix Rosenqvist, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Helio Castroneves, Scott McLaughlin, James Hinchcliffe, Alexander Rossi, and Josef Newgarden.

With two of the three championship contenders finishing practice in the top-10, Pato O’Ward, who currently runs second in the points race behind Palou, will have some catching up to do for the remainder of the weekend, as he only managed the 16th quickest time.

“It’s hard to say where we’re at,” said O’Ward. “The car didn’t feel the best. I’d be lying if I said it did. So we need to find what is wrong with it I guess and trying to go into a direction that’s going to help us for qualifying. I think qualifying here is going to be everything.

“But, yeah, just really messy. Car was all over the place. Yeah, bummer.”

The session went relatively incident-free, aside from Pagenaud’s aforementioned off-track excursion, along with a spin by Newgarden, a spin by Scott Dixon, and a couple of spins by Jimmie Johnson. All of those drivers were able to get away unscathed, but Oliver Askew was not so lucky, making contact with the wall in his No. 45 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda, damaging the right-rear of his car.

A second practice session at 9:00 am Pacific, followed by qualifying at 12:05 pm lies ahead for the IndyCar Series drivers on Saturday in Long Beach, with a warmup at 9:00 am Sunday and the 85-lap season finale at 12:30 pm on NBC Sports Network.

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David Morgan is the Associate Editor for Motorsports Tribune. A 2008 graduate from the University of Mississippi, David has followed NASCAR since the early 90’s and became hooked at an early age after attending his first race at Talladega Superspeedway in 1993. He has traveled across the country since 2012 to cover some of the most prestigious events both IndyCar and NASCAR have to offer, with an aim to only expand on that in the near future.