Herta Holds Home Court; Palou on the Brink of a Title

Colton Herta leaves the pits after a stop. Indycar photo by Chris Jones

Some rambling thoughts on a race with some entertaining parts:

Colton Herta’s win in today’s Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey was pretty much a foregone conclusion, but there was some entertaining action behind the front two.

Herta’s two wins this year have come from the pole position. In his two victories Herta has led 188 of 195 laps.

Romain Grosjean put on quite a show, in moving from 13th on the grid to third at the end. He made some excellent passes, especially in the Corkscrew, and his altercation with Jimmie Johnson was probably the highlight of the race. Grosjean caught Johnson at the top of the hill leading to the Corkscrew, but he appeared to misjudge his speed. His car got airborne as the two collided, and Johnson was forced to go off track in the turn. How Grosjean did not have damage to nd his race I don’t know.

Indycar photo by Chris Jones

Grosjean is now just 20 points behind Scott McLaughlin for Rookie of the Year honors although he has run three fewer races.

Alex Palou started fourth and seemed content to run the entire day in second place after he fell into the position. Alexander Rossi collided with Herta in an attempt to take the lead. The two touched wheels and Rossi spun into the dirt and stalled. A lap later Will Power, who started third, pitted with an engine issue.

Palou is now very close to winning the series title next week at Long Beach. He extended his lead over Pato O’Ward to 35 points. Josef Newgarden, the only other driver who is still in contention, is 48 points behind. Newgarden needs to get the maximum 54 points while Palou finishes 25th or worse. An 11th place result next week will give Palou the title if O’Ward wins the maximum number of points. Palou is taking nothing for granted next week. After the race, he said,

“INDYCAR you cannot relax at any moment. We just keep
doing what we’ve been doing, race hard, race smart, and
hopefully we can get that championship without needing to
finish 11 or anything. We will try and get the best result as
possible.”

Another nice run for Ed Jones today with a 10th place finish. Jones is ending his time with Dale Coyne Racing on a high note. He has qualified and raced well except for Gateway.

Simon Pagenaud ‘s eighth place was his best finish in a while. This has been Pagenaud’s best weekend of the year.

Oliver Askew has done enough this weekend to earn a ride somewhere for 2022. In just his second race for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, the former Indy Lights champion qualified fifth and came home ninth. I’m not sure theses last three races are an audition for RLL, but I’m sure someone in the paddock has noticed what he did.

O’Ward’s fifth place seems surprising. He was fighting the car and the tires all day, yet pretty much maintained his spot in the top five. he will be a champion some year.

Scott Dixon charged into the top five on the first lap, then faded after colliding with Takuma Sato. I can’t remember the last time Indycar went into the season’s last race without Scott Dixon having a chance at the championship. Still, he will finish fourth in the standings.

Jimmie Johnson recorded his best Indycar finish, 19th. He showed some competitiveness, making a couple of passes for position and had that great battle with Grosjean.

I thought that NBC could have spent some time in the prerace show talking about the schedule for 2022. I didn’t like seeing it mentioned during the race when it cut away from on track action. You would think they would have given it more emphasis since 14 of the races will be on NBC.

Honda clinched the engine manufacturer’s title with Herta’s win.

Race Day at Laguna Seca-Tires and Title Hopes

Alex Palou can move closer to the Astor Cup today. Indycar photo by Joe Skibinski

Today’s schedule: All Times Pacific

Today’s race will determine how many are still left to fight for the championship next weekend in Long Beach. Josef Newgarden and Scott Dixon are on the brink of elimination given their starting spots. Pato O’Ward should still be in the hunt after today, and points leader Alex Palou has things pretty much in his control. Anyone who leaves the track 50 or more points behind is out of contention.

The winner has started on pole here 15 times in the 23 previous races, and every winner has started in the top six. As unpredictable as 2021 has been, that tradition might get a bit of a shakeup today.

Tire degradation and grip are going to be crucial for success in the race. In the post qualifying media conference, Herta said about tires,

“My initial feeling is that it’s going to be a black race. You’re
going to want to get off those red tires. I guess the
important thing we’ll try to learn about is how long can we
make those tires last before the huge dropoff comes in.”

The race is 95 laps, five laps longer than the 2019 distance. Teams will likely make three stops. A two stop strategy would be very iffy.

Alexander Rossi added, “The tire deg is pretty aggressive. I don’t know what that
means (smiling). A lot of people are wanting to pit for new
tires, like in practice after 12 laps, and we got to go 25.
There’s going to be a lot of screaming on the radio from people.”

Rossi also talked about the tendency tooverdrive the track, which has resulted in numerous off course incidents so far this weekend.

“But also you can’t
underdrive. It’s one of those places, it’s a pretty fine line. I
think on street courses you’re rewarded for trying as hard
as possible most of the time. Some of the road courses,
it’s a little better. Like Indy GP, I feel it’s better to almost
underdrive. Here you have to be on the 100%, not 101%,
not 99%. ”

Indy Lights

Kyle Kirkwood led flag to flag in yesterday’s race and now leads David Malukas by eight points. He is on the pole again for Race 2 today. The Indy Lights season concludes at Mid Ohio October 1-3.

I’ll have a warmup summary and of course post race comments later today.

Herta Family Tradition Continues; Palou Fastest Contender

Indycar photo by James Black

Some thoughts on a wild qualifying session:

This event should be renamed the Herta Family Invitational. Colton Herta’s pole today is the fifth for the family. His father Bryan won three straight pole from 1997-1999, and now Colton has two in a row. The elder Herta also won the race in 1998 and 1999, which almost makes the winner tomorrow a foregone conclusion. I don’t think it will be that simple, though.

Herta has three poles and five second place starts this season. His results from the front row have been mixed, and he has just one win.

It was an exciting, dramatic session to set the grid for tomorrow’s 95 lap race. The points leader just squeezed into the second round, the two cars that led the practice sessions did not advance, and off track excursions led to drivers losing positions.

It has been a long time since we have seen an all Andretti front row. Alexander Rossi moved to the front row due to Power’s penalty.

I feel bad for Scott McLaughlin, who looked to be in position to advance, but pitted when he had time for another lap. I’m sure it was a communication mixup.

Herta beat Power’s best lap by .027 seconds as time expired. Power’s lap was deleted because he did not slow for a local yellow.

Alex Palou was the fastest of the title contenders. After barely escaping Round 1, Palou made the Fast Six and he will start fourth. O’Ward was the only other driver with a chance at the title to make the Fast Six. O’Ward starts sixth after losing his fastest two laps when he spun off course. Josef Newgarden will start 17th tomorrow, his second consecutive ninth row start. Scott Dixon will start eighth.

The star of qualifying today was Oliver Askew. He took RLL’s third car to the Fast Six, led his Round 1 group, and will start between Palou and O’Ward. Today was Askew’s second career appearance in the Fast Six.

It was nice to see Simon Pagenaud have a respectable qualifying day. Pagenaud has struggled in qualifying all season. He made the second round today and will start ninth.

What happens to Newgarden’s car in qualifying? For the second week in a row, the two time champion was one of the fastest in practice, but did not make it out of Round 1.

McLaughlin Tops Practice 2; Palou Leads Title Hopefuls

Indycar photo by Chris Jones

Rookie Scott McLaughlin recorded the fastest time in the final warmup before Indycar qualifying with a time of 1:10.875. For the second day, Colton Herta was second, this time 0.18 seconds behind. Team Penske placed all four cars in the top 10, with Simon Pagenaud fourth, Will Power fifth, and Josef Newgarden 10th.

Points leader Alex Palou was third quickest, the best of the top three title contenders. Newgarden was 10th and Pato O’Ward was 20th. Scott Dixon, still mathematically eligible, finished the session 18th.

Qualifying begins at 5:05

The top 10:

Qualifying Groups:

Group 1 Group 2

Colton Herta Scott McLaughlin

Simon Pagenaud Alex Palou

Felix Rosenqvist Will Power

Ryan Hunter-Reay Alexander Rossi

Josef Newgarden Alexander Rossi

Marcus Ericsson Ed Jones

Graham Rahal Jack Harvey

Romain Grosjean James Hinchcliffe

Scott Dixon Oliver Askew

Pato O’Ward Max Chilton

Sebastien Bourdais Callum Ilott

Jimmie Johnson Helio Castroneves

Takuma Sato Conor Daly

Rinus VeeKay

Dalton Kellett

Qualifying Day

Today’s Schedule (All Times Pacific):

Teams have one more 45 minute practice session to get their cars ready. Colton Herta and Josef Newgarden said they each used just one set of tires yesterday. Both drivers said conditions were similar to when they tested at Weather Tech Raceway earlier in the year.

Today’s qualifying is arguably the most important session of the year for the top three in points. On a track where passing is difficult, starting position is important. Newgarden said, “… it’s important to start up front here. I think
it’s a little bit harder to pass here than at other places.”

He went on to add that it is still possible to move up if you have a good car, and the tire degradation isn’t too bad.

This morning’s practice to set qualifying groups is also important for the title contenders to get in a group where advancing to the second round is the least challenging.

Ed Jones has found some pace on the west coast. At Portland the Dale Coyne driver qualified eighth and finishes 11th. He was fourth in practice yesterday. Jones also finished sixth at Nashville. Despite his late season burst of speed, Jones likely will not return to this seat in 2022.

Indy Lights– Kyle Kirkwood is on the pole for Race 1 today. The race follows Indycar’s second practice. Kirkwood trails David Malukas by just four points with only four races remaining.

Newgarden Fastest on Slippery Dusty Track

Josef Newgarden led the field in the opening practice for the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey. Defending winner Colton Herta was second, followed by points leader Alex Palou.

Helio Castroneves locked up and went deep into the dirt, narrowly missing the tire barrier with 18 minutes left in the practice round. Scott McLaughlin stalled on course with about 20 seconds left, and the red flag ended the session.

Weather Tech Raceway was quite slippery this afternoon, with several cars going off track and sending large dust clouds obscuring the vision of drivers behind the errant cars.

Newgarden and Palou were the only title contenders in the top 10. Pato O’Ward was 14th and Scott Dixon was 11th. Newgarden was the only Chevrolet in the top 10. His best lap was 0.08 seconds better than Herta’s fastest circuit. Palou was 0.26 seconds behind.

The top 10:

Date Change for St. Pete

The Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, the opening race of the Indycar Series, will be earlier in 2022 and 2023. In 2022 the race weekend is February 24-27, and in 2023 the season begins March 2-6. I understand the date changes are because of television network availability.

Race Preview-Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey

Marti Update: Marti is in rehab and is showing tremendous improvement. She may be able to come home around the end of the month,, which seemed unlikely a week and a half ago. Thanks for your continued thoughts and prayers

Today’s schedule:

Sunday’s race is the last one of the year on NBC. Next week’s season finale will be on NBCSN>

Today the California Cup Rush begins-two races to determine the NTT Indycar Series champion for 2021. I feel sorry for the winners of theses last two events if they happen to be non contenders. No one ever remembers who they are. I think it’s exciting to have this year’s title chase end on two classic tracks- Laguna Seca, now known by the awkward name of Weather Tech Raceway, and Long Beach, the second longest running race in the Indycar Series.

This weekend will be the 24th Race at the track near Monterey. CART began racing here in 1983 and continued until 2004. Indycar returned in 2019, and last year the pandemic cancelled the race. Colton Herta won the race from pole in 2019.

Given all the twists and turns of this incredible season, it is apt that the penultimate race include a corner named The Corkscrew.

Just 34 points separate the top three drivers-Alex Palou, Pato O’Ward, and Josef Newgarden- making the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey the key race in the championship. In a normal year this would be the season ender. The race will seem like a year end event. The title fight is the main thing to watch this weekend, but other things are at stake as well.

Battle for the Astor Cup

Palou, O’Ward, and Newgarden don’t need to win, but each driver will look to finish ahead of the other two. Scott Dixon has a minimal chance of being the hunt, but 49 points behind at this point seems like too much to overcome.

Palou could clinch the title this weekend, but he would have to earn the maximum number of points-54- and even then it depends on where Newgarden and O’Ward end up. I have no doubt the battle goes down to the last lap at Long Beach.

I think both Newgarden and O’Ward will gain a bit of ground on Palou, who will still lead heading into the finale. I still believe, as I’ve said since early May, that Palou will win the title.

Rookie of the Year

Scott McLaughlin leads Romain Grosjean by 38 points after Portland. Grosjean has driven three fewer races than McLaughlin this year. He sat out Texas and the Indianapolis 500. Another Top 10 finish could wrap up the Rookie title for McLaughlin. He just needs to gain12 points on the Dale Coyne driver.

Grosjean couold still catch McLaughlin, but it will be difficult. Team Penske was strong here in 2019. Will Power finished second and Simon Pagenaud ended the race in fourth. Newgarden was eighth, but he was points racing to win the title.

Overal, I think Grosjean has had a better year than McLaughlin, but the three missed races will cost him the Rookie crown.

Desperately Seeking Victory Circle

Alexander Rossi and Graham Rahal are still looking to end their winless streaks which have stretched for more than one full season. Each of them had an opportunity to win last week at Portland.

Rossi contended at Gateway until car trouble put him in the wall late in the race. Rahal has had pit strategy cost him wins this year. Rossi last won at road America in June, 2019. Rahal last won in June 2017.

Other drivers looking to break victory droughts are Takuma Sato, Ryan Hunter-Reay, and Simon Pagenaud.

Notes

We may see the Indycar schedule for 2022 this weekend. From what i’ve heard the season will start early and end early. A couple of venues are still working out dates.

Since Ryan Hunter-Reay and Andretti Autosport officially announced their separation this week, will we see the new driver of the 28 presented this weekend? I still believe it to be Romain Grosjean.

I’m hearing that Takuma Sato may be driving for Dale Coyne next year. That makes sense, and lends further credence to the rumor of Jack Harvey going to RLL.

Fast Facts-Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey

From Indycar. Look for my preview tomorrow.

Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey Fast Facts

Race weekend: Friday, Sept. 17 – Sunday, Sept. 19

Track: WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, a 2.258-mile permanent road course in Monterey, California

Race distance: 95 laps / 214.51 miles

Media Links: Entry List (PDF) | Driver Video Quotes 

Push-to-pass parameters: 150 seconds of total time with a maximum time of 15 seconds per activation.

Firestone tire allotment: Six sets primary, four sets alternate. Teams must use one set of primary and one new set of alternate tires in the race. (Note: A seventh set of primary tires is available to any car fielding a rookie driver.)

Twitter: @WeatherTechRcwy@IndyCar, #IndyCar #FirestoneGP

Event website: www.WeatherTechRaceway.com

INDYCAR website: www.IndyCar.com

2019 race winner (most recent): Colton Herta (No. 88 Capstone Turbine Honda)

2019 pole winner (most recent): Colton Herta (No. 88 Capstone Turbine Honda), 1 minute, 10.1405 seconds, 114.867 mph

Qualifying record: Helio Castroneves, 1:07.722, 118.969 mph, Sept. 8, 2000

NBC television broadcast: Race, 3 p.m. ET Sunday, Sept. 19, NBC (live). Leigh Diffey is the lead announcer alongside analysts Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy.

Peacock Premium Live Streaming: This weekend’s NTT INDYCAR SERIES practice sessions and qualifying will stream live on Peacock Premium, NBC’s direct-to-consumer live streaming product.

INDYCAR Radio Network broadcasts: Mark Jaynes will be the lead announcer alongside analyst Davey Hamilton. Jake Query, Nick Yeoman and Michael Young are the turn announcers. Dan Rusanowsky and Alex Wolff will report from the pits. The Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey will air live on network affiliates, SiriusXM 205 and 211, indycar.com and the INDYCAR Mobile app powered by NTT DATA. All NTT INDYCAR SERIES practices and qualifying are available on SiriusXM 205, indycar.com and the INDYCAR Mobile app.

At-track schedule (all times local):

Friday, Sept. 17

2:30–3:15 p.m. – NTT INDYCAR SERIES practice 1, Peacock Premium (live)

Saturday, Sept. 18

10:45–11:30 a.m. – NTT INDYCAR SERIES practice 2, Peacock Premium (live)

2:05 p.m. – NTT INDYCAR SERIES Qualifying for the NTT P1 Award (three rounds of knockout qualifying), Peacock Premium (live)

Sunday, Sept. 19

9-9:30 a.m.– NTT INDYCAR SERIES warmup, Peacock Premium (live)

11:50 a.m. – Driver introductions

Noon – NBC on air

12:23 p.m. – Start engines command

12:30 p.m. – Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey (95 laps/214.51 miles), NBC (live)

Championship Facts:

  • Alex Palou leads the NTT INDYCAR SERIES championship with two races to go for the first time in his career. Palou has led the point standings after nine of the 14 races this season.
  • Palou leads Pato O’Ward by 25 points with Josef Newgarden (-34), Scott Dixon (-49) and Marcus Ericsson (-75) behind. Palou assumed the point lead following his win at Portland. The lead has changed hands six times between Palou, O’Ward and Dixon.
  • There are five drivers still mathematically eligible for the 2021 NTT INDYCAR SERIES championship: Alex Palou, Pato O’Ward, Josef Newgarden, Scott Dixon and Marcus Ericsson. Any driver who trails the points leader by 54 points or more following the race will be eliminated from contention.
  • Since the first INDYCAR SERIES race at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, the winning driver has won the INDYCAR SERIES championship six times: Bobby Rahal (1986 and 1987), Danny Sullivan (1988), Michael Andretti (1991), Alex Zanardi (1998) and Cristiano da Matta (2002).

Key championship point statistic: Since 2008, the driver who has led the championship with two races to go has failed to win the championship five times. Scott Dixon in 2008, 2018 and 2020, Dario Franchitti in 2011, Will Power in 2014, Simon Pagenaud in 2016 and Josef Newgarden in 2017 and 2019 are the exceptions who have won the title after leading with two races remaining.

Don’t call it a comeback: No point lead is ever safe in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES. Five times since 2008, a driver has made up a deficit with two races to go to win the championship – Dario Franchitti, who trailed Ryan Briscoe by four points in 2009 and Will Power by 23 points in 2010; Ryan Hunter-Reay, who trailed Will Power by five points with two races remaining in 2012, Scott Dixon, who was in third place, 48 points behind Juan Pablo Montoya in 2015 and Power who overcame a four-point deficit to Helio Castroneves in 2014.

CHAMPIONSHIP WITH TWO TO GO (2008-2021)

YEARLEADERSECOND LEADCHAMPION
2008Scott DixonHelio Castroneves78Scott Dixon
2009Ryan BriscoeDario Franchitti4Dario Franchitti
2010Will PowerDario Franchitti23Dario Franchitti
2011Dario FranchittiWill Power26Dario Franchitti
2012Will PowerRyan Hunter-Reay5Ryan Hunter-Reay
2013Helio CastronevesScott Dixon49Scott Dixon
2014Will PowerHelio Castroneves4Will Power
2015Juan Pablo MontoyaGraham Rahal42Scott Dixon (-48)
2016Simon PagenaudWill Power27Simon Pagenaud
2017Josef NewgardenScott Dixon18Josef Newgarden
2018Scott DixonAlexander Rossi29Scott Dixon
2019Josef NewgardenAlexander Rossi35Josef Newgarden
2020Scott DixonJosef Newgarden72Scott Dixon
2021Alex PalouPato O’Ward25?

RACE NOTES:

  • There have been nine different winners in 14 NTT INDYCAR SERIES races this season. Alex Palou (Barber Motorsports Park, Road America, Portland International Raceway), Colton Herta (Streets of St. Petersburg), Scott Dixon (Texas Motor Speedway-1), Pato O’Ward (Texas Motor Speedway-2, Raceway at Belle Isle Park-2), Rinus VeeKay (Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course-1), Helio Castroneves (Indianapolis 500), Marcus Ericsson (Raceway at Belle Isle Park-1, Streets of Nashville), Josef Newgarden (Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, World Wide Technology Raceway) and Will Power (Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course-2) have all won in 2021. The modern record (1946-present) for most different winners in a season is 11 in 2000, 2001 and 2014.
  • There have been seven different winners in the last 10 NTT INDYCAR SERIES races (Rinus VeeKay, Helio Castroneves, Alex PalouMarcus Ericsson, Pato O’WardJosef Newgarden and Will Power) The only repeat winners in that stretch are, Ericsson (Raceway at Belle Isle Park-1 and Streets of Nashville), Newgarden (Mid-Ohio and WWT Raceway) and Palou (Road America and Portland).
  • The Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey will be the 24th INDYCAR SERIES race at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, but just the second since 2004. Teo Fabi won the first INDYCAR SERIES race at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca in 1983. Colton Herta – who won the most recent race at the track in 2019 – and Helio Castroneves -who won at the track in 2000 – are the only former winners entered in this year’s race.
  • Thirteen drivers have won at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca from the pole – Teo Fabi (1983), Bobby Rahal (1985), Danny Sullivan (1988), Rick Mears (1989), Danny Sullivan (1990), Michael Andretti (1991 and 1992), Paul Tracy (1994), Alex Zanardi (1996), Bryan Herta (1998 and 1999), Helio Castroneves (2000), Cristiano da Matta (2002), Patrick Carpentier (2003) and Colton Herta (2019).
  • Team Penske has won six times at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca. Penske’s winning drivers are Danny Sullivan (1988 and 1990), Rick Mears (1989), Paul Tracy (1993 and 1994) and Helio Castroneves (2000). Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing has three wins with Bryan Herta (1998-99) and Max Papis (2001). Chip Ganassi Racing has two wins with Alex Zanardi in 1996 and Jimmy Vasser in 1997.
  • Eighteen drivers entered in the event have competed in past INDYCAR SERIES races at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca. Helio Castroneves has four starts, most among the entered drivers, but hasn’t raced at the track since 2001. Five entered drivers have led laps at the track (Colton Herta 83, Will Power 6, Scott Dixon 2, Sebastien Bourdais 1 and Simon Pagenaud 1).
  • Four rookies – Romain GrosjeanCallum IlottJimmie Johnson and Scott McLaughlin – are expected to compete. The four rookies, along with veteran drivers Oliver AskewDalton KellettPato O’WardAlex Palou and Rinus VeeKay, will all be making their first INDYCAR SERIES at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca.