Laguna Seca IndyCar: Herta dominates, beats Palou, Grosjean stars

Colton Herta scored his second win of the IndyCar season leading 91 of 95 laps, as Alex Palou extended his points lead with runner-up finish and Romain Grosjean charged to third.

Andretti Autosport-Honda teammates Herta and Alexander Rossi retained their advantage at the start, while Chip Ganassi Racing’s championship leader Palou appeared ready to brave it around the outside of Will Power but played it cannily and tucked in behind the Team Penske-Chevrolet driver.

Pato O’Ward on the primary tires had a devilishly loose moment exiting Turn 2, allowing Dixon to easily slice by him into Turn 3 to claim fourth. Behind them, Marcus Ericsson and Simon Pagenaud had both demoted Oliver Askew to eighth ahead of Grosjean and the fast-starting Scott McLaughlin, up from 16th to 10th.

Then on Lap 2, Herta ran slightly wide exiting Turn 3, Rossi got a run on him up the inside through T4 and into T5, but Herta hung tough on the outside, for the uphill left-hander. Rossi’s car got a tad out of shape, his right front touched Herta’s left-rear and spun across the track and stalled, causing the first yellow of the day.

At the Lap 5 restart, which came before the final turn, Ericsson was fired up and with O’Ward battling to get heat into his primaries he was passed by the Ganassi driver, and next time by the Arrow McLaren SP-Chevrolet driver was overtaken by Pagenaud, too, falling to seventh. This was emphatically not working out for a driver who needed to finish ahead of Palou to retain life in his championship challenge.

On Lap 7, Grosjean dived past Askew at the start of the Corkscrew to claim eighth.

Josef Newgarden, who had started 17th and had made it up only to 15th, pitted to get off his primary Firestones onto reds on Lap 8. Power also pitted early but this was far more serious – mechanical troubles sent him to the pits, engine cover off.

He had delayed Palou long enough so that by the time Ganassi’s three-time winner moved into second he was six seconds adrift of leader Herta.

O’Ward, having also been passed by Grosjean, stopped on Lap 12, as did Pagenaud, Johnson, McLaughlin and Meyer Shank Racing-Honda’s Jack Harvey.

Ericsson was the next of the frontrunners to stop on Lap 14 and emerged just ahead of the Penskes of Pagenaud and Ericsson, and just behind O’Ward. Palou and Dixon stopped on Lap 16, taking on reds and blacks respectively. Grosjean was now up to second, having just deposed Dixon at the top of the Corkscrew, but he was 17sec adrift of Herta, and three seconds ahead of Dale Coyne Racing teammate Ed Jones, who was facing pressure from Graham Rahal. Behind them ran Takuma Sato and Sebastien Bourdais who had stopped under the Lap 2 yellow.

Rahal stopped on Lap 18, Herta on 19, the latter switching from reds to new blacks.

Herta emerged in third behind only the two Coyne cars, who both stopped next time by. Herta resumed barely ahead of Sato, but soon Palou was challenging the Rahal Letterman Lanigan driver and on Lap 22 he sat it out with him, on the inside at Turn 2, then ducking underneath the Japanese driver on the exit of Turn 3 to claim second. At the same point of the track, Dixon repassed Grosjean but that was only for 12th.

Sato and the even more off-strategy Newgarden pitted on Lap 24, the latter having struggled to keep his reds alive which had allowed O’Ward to dive up the inside of Newgarden at Turn 2 which allowed several drivers to pass the #2 Penske. A few laps later, Bourdais would suffer similar problems as he tried to get his black tires to last for 24 laps. The AJ Foyt Racing-Chevrolet driver was demoted from fourth to seventh by Ericsson, Pagenaud, Hunter-Reay and Rahal.

Grosjean repassed Dixon for 10th on Lap 30, while just ahead, McLaughlin passed Bourdais for eighth, and Grosjean knocked his compatriot back a further place to 10th. But it wasn’t Dixon now filling the Foyt driver’s mirrors but the charging Askew who had also passed the struggling Dixon. On Lap 33, the #45 RLL driver got ahead of Bourdais to move into the Top 10. Finally, Bourdais made his second stop on Lap 33 and tumbled outside the Top 20.

Up front by Lap 35, Herta was leading Palou by 4.8sec on Lap 35, the Ganassi driver struggling on his reds, and Herta having no problems on his blacks. Some 23sec back, O’Ward was third, 2.2sec ahead of the battling Ericsson, Pagenaud and Rahal. Into Turn 2 on Lap 36, Grosjean passed McLaughlin for seventh.

Dixon’s rotten day got worse on Lap 38 when he came over the Corkscrew crest to encounter the RLL car of Sato who had just spun and was rolling backward. The RLL car kept rolling and struck the Ganassi #9 car hard, even as the six-time champ was driving through the sand in avoidance.

Both Ericsson and McLaughlin pitted at the end of Lap 37, a lap later so did O’Ward (switching back to primaries) and then Palou also took on primaries.

Herta pitted out of the lead on Lap 43 to take on fresh primaries emerging three seconds ahead of Palou which became two seconds as Palou’s new tires were well up to temperature. Grosjean and Jones were third and fourth but about to stop ,and Jones didn’t have enough grip to hold off the late-braking O’Ward into Turn 2 on Lap 46. He and his teammate, 15sec ahead, stopped on Lap 47 and rejoined ninth and 14th respectively.

As Herta hit traffic – Max Chilton, Jimmie Johnson and Felix Rosenqvist (who had twice spun his AMSP car), Palou closed within a second of the leader. With O’Ward in third – albeit 21sec in arrears – could Palou risk a passing attempt on Herta?

In fourth, Ericsson remained a second behind the AMSP driver and a second ahead of Rahal, while Pagenaud was 3sec further back but 11sec ahead of Grosjean. Hunter-Reay, McLaughlin and Askew completed the Top 10. On Lap 55, into Turn 2, Askew went around the outside of McLaughlin to grab ninth and the very next lap he chose the same corner – but on the inside – to pass Hunter-Reay for eighth.

If Herta felt any pressure with the blue #10 Ganassi car in his mirrors, he didn’t betray it… but nor for a long time did he look like he was going to lap Rosenqvist. Instead, he appeared to be hanging back so as not to accelerate his tire wear, but keeping just out of Palou’s outbraking range.

Then into Turn 10 on Lap 59, finally Herta was able to put the Swede between himself and Palou. Next target was Johnson, but in fact Johnson passed Chilton for position before Herta could make his move.

With the leaders being held up by backmarkers, by Lap 62 O’Ward was only 17sec back but he was struggling, only half a second ahead of Ericsson and Rahal. That was the same lap that McLaughlin followed teammate Newgarden past Hunter-Reay to push the Andretti driver outside the Top 10 and prompting him to pit. Handily he was helped into his pitbox by a nudge from Bourdais.

On Lap 65, Rahal passed Ericsson for fourth to become O’Ward’s primary chaser, until the AMSP driver – and Palou, who had fallen 4.3sec behind Herta – pitted on Lap 66.

Rahal and Ericsson stopped on Lap 67, Ericsson then making a mess of his pit exit and losing time to the RLL driver. Indeed, Rahal also emerged ahead of O’Ward, but he was on red tires and this was a 95-lap race. Could he make them last?

In came Herta for the final time on Lap 68, and now came out 6.5sec ahead of Palou. He was behind Grosjean but the ex-Formula 1 driver would need to stop again soon, having already put 24 laps on this set of tires. Herta wasn’t prepared to wait, and passed the Coyne with RWR car up the hill to Turn 6.

Newgarden made his fourth and final stop on Lap 73 and took on reds, while Grosjean pitted next time by, also taking on the softer compound Firestones. He emerged in seventh, 5sec ahead of Askew, 5sec behind Pagenaud. That latter gap quickly diminished, and Grosjean passed the Penske #22 driver for sixth on Lap 79. Next up, and less than 2sec ahead, was Ericsson, and he too fell to the Grosjean/red-tire sword on Lap 80, before the Coyne driver sent it around the outside of O’Ward at Turn 3 to claim fourth.

He then zoomed onto the tail of Rahal whose reds were six laps older, and into Turn 2 on Lap 84 he dived down the inside to claim third, nine seconds behind Palou and 14 behind Herta, albeit with only 11 laps left to run.

While Grosjean had been carrying out his heroics, the leader had suffered an alarming moment, striking something on the track and asking his strategist and father Bryan Herta to check his front wing as he passed by. All seemed to be under control, although again some lapped cars were holding up Herta and Palou. Fortunately for them, Grosjean was also stuck behind Jimmie Johnson who had impressed everyone all race, and had passed Hinchcliffe at the top of the Corkscrew.

On Lap 90, at the same place, Grosjean braked incredibly late got up on the curbs and sideswiped Johnson, knocking the Ganassi car off-track and damaging his own left-hand sidepod, but he made it through – and Johnson survived – to continue his charge. With five laps to go, he was only 2.6sec behind Palou, although that extended a little as he dealt with backmarkers.

Another driver to impress was Newgarden who had made his four-stop strategy work, and his last set of reds work to pass Askew and Pagenaud in the closing stages and move onto the tail of Ericsson.

Herta eventually passed the checkered flag two seconds ahead of Palou, who was 1.7sec ahead of Grosjean. Rahal was fourth, while O’Ward’s fifth place meant he slipped to 35 points behind Palou in the points race.

Ericsson retained sixth ahead of Newgarden and Pagenaud, while Askew took ninth ahead of Jones.

Race results:

 

 

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