After botched pass attempt, is it worth asking if Long Beach gets to Ryan Hunter-Reay?

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LONG BEACH, Calif. – Leaving the track last night after the Verizon IndyCar Series’ second race of the 2014 season, it hit me – Ryan Hunter-Reay’s passing attempt on Josef Newgarden Sunday wasn’t just a typical passing attempt.

It was part of a pattern that sees one of the series’ most complete drivers opt to make, to me at least, an out-of-body type decision when it comes to this race, the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.

Many regard Will Power as the out-and-out fastest driver and Scott Dixon as the most complete driver in the field, but it’s hard not to include the 2012 series champion in the discussion for either of those two categories.

When it comes to Long Beach in particular, move RHR ahead of Dixon and infinitesimally close to Power in that Q rating. On the streets of Southern California, since he switched to Andretti Autosport, Hunter-Reay always enters as one of the favorites.

The record in the last four years at Long Beach prior to Sunday: started second, and won in 2010. In 2011: started second, retired (P23) due to a gearbox issue. 2012: started 13th (qualified third but had a 10-spot grid penalty for an engine change) and ended sixth (time penalty added for avoidable contact with Takuma Sato after ending third on the road). Last year: started second, retired (P24) due to contact and a rare unforced error.

The 2010 win though was a career-defining moment for RHR. He’d been through a seriously rough stretch throughout 2009, needing to complete two last-minute deals just to race and on a personal note, losing his mom due to colon cancer. It was a win that helped solidify his future at Andretti Autosport, with the win turning a six-race deal into a full-season one.

Yet on-track, in this race since that 2010 win, I’ve seen a burning desire from RHR more than at almost any other track – save for maybe Milwaukee, where he’s won the last two years – to not only be the best, but possibly attempt things outside his comfort zone.

And that occasionally leads to trouble. Unnecessary trouble, at that.

Take the 2012 incident between he and Sato, for instance. It was the last lap, in a battle for third, where Hunter-Reay charged down the inside of the left-handed Turn 6 and made contact with the-then Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing driver. There wasn’t much room for the maneuver, as Sato left enough room but not enough for a reasonable side-by-side attempt to where RHR could successfully pass.

That’s the art of defensive driving; if RHR backs off there, he gets fourth place points and a reasonable chunk to take into the next race. Instead, he went for it, made contact, and got docked several positions. Ultimately it was a net 7 point loss, but considering Hunter-Reay only won the 2012 title by 3 points, those were crucial.

Last year, he came into Long Beach as defending series champion. But in the race, trying to extend the gap, he over-stepped his boundaries and made a mistake when he nosed into the Turn 8 wall. He owned it, though, and that was a good sign.

Flash back now to yesterday. Hunter-Reay dominates most of the first half from pole, and pretty much would have the race in the bag after the second round of pit stops. He approaches Newgarden entering Turn 4; at best, an overtake will only happen if it’s a leader approaching lapped traffic, not an actual lead pass attempt.

RHR had options. He could have held back and opted to wait until either of Turn 6, where his move on Sato failed to work two years earlier; Turn 8, where he made the unforced error in 2013; or Turn 9, the second consecutive 90-degree right hander at the end of the Seaside Way back straight where passing frequently occurs.

In any of those three spots, Newgarden’s cold tires would still not have been completely up to temperature, and Hunter-Reay could have afforded a simple, standard type maneuver with likely, no consequences. And the race lead.

Instead, he opted to channel his Ayrton Senna and go for a gap that he thought existed – even though it was pretty much Newgarden’s corner – and admitted as much in his post-race interview.

The end result was a completely unnecessary accident that took him and his teammate out and pissed off his team boss and race strategist. It ended the races of the guy whose team had beat the Andretti squad on pit stops thanks to pitting a lap later, and a handful of others who had nowhere to go in the fracas.

Ryan Hunter-Reay is a champion, a gentleman, a philanthropist and one of IndyCar’s all-around best drivers. But that doesn’t provide him an out-clause after making one of the least champion-worthy moves I’ve seen in a long time.

And maybe because it occurred at Long Beach, it was destined to occur anyway.

MRTI: Herta standing tall, riding wave of momentum in Indy Lights

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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It would be hard to top the month of May that Colton Herta is coming off of.

The 18-year-old, now in his second year competing in the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, enjoyed a sweep of the three Indy Lights races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, winning both events on the IMS Road Course – charging through the field to do so (he fell back as far as sixth and fourth between Race 1 and Race 2) – and outdueling Andretti Autosport stablemates Pato O’Ward and Dalton Kellett to win a frantic Freedom 100.

In short, it was a near perfect month for the young Herta.

“It’s super special to win in Indy and to get do the triple there at a place that’s so nostalgic, it’s a pretty cool feeling,” Herta told NBC Sports about his Indy success.

And all three were thrilling drives in which Herta spent the entire time battling with rivals – Santi Urrutia on the IMS Road Course, and the aforementioned O’Ward and Kellett, and Urrutia as well, in the Freedom 100.

Colton Herta edged Pato O’Ward to win the Freedom 100. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Herta is no stranger to winning – he won twice in 2017 (Race 2 at St. Petersburg and Race 2 at Barber Motorsports Park) – both times in dominant fashion.

As he explained, it isn’t necessarily more challenging to dominate a race versus battling rivals the entire way, but different mindsets are required to survive each.

“It’s a different skill set,” he asserted. “Obviously when you start up front, there’s a lot more pressure to perform, so it’s more about managing the gap to the guys behind. Whereas you’re not as nervous when you’re in the back of the pack, because you can’t go any further back. So there’s less nerves going into the race. And it’s more about attacking the whole time and taking a little more risk.”

In discussing his Indy victories more, Herta detailed that outdueling opponents in intense duels – like the ones at Indy – comes down to thoroughly analyzing one’s opponents and making aggressive, yet smart passes.

“You can see what the guys are doing ahead of you, and obviously if you follow them for a lap or two you can see where they’re struggling and you can make up ground on them,” he explained. “And that’s the biggest thing: going for an overtake that you can make – especially when you’re in the running for a championship fight like this – going for an overtake that you know you can make without taking a massive risk, and kind of seeing the tendencies of the car in front of you and where they’re struggling and when you’re making up time.”

Herta’s run of recent success comes as more evidence of a driver who appears to be more polished than he was last year. While blisteringly fast – Herta captured seven poles in 2017 – there were also a number of errors that kept him from making a more serious championship challenge.

Though Herta began 2018 with a somewhat ominous crash in Race 2 at St. Pete, the rest of his season has been much cleaner. He finished third in Race 1 at St. Pete and second and third at Barber Motorsports Park before his run of victories at IMS.

Still, despite the appearance of a more polished driver, Herta explained that his approach is no different than it was in 2017.

“Not much has changed,” he asserted. “The mindset obviously is still the same because, especially with a (seven car field), you need to win races and you need to win quite a few of them to win the championship. (Staying out of trouble is about) just kind of settling in and knowing that a second or third place, or even a fourth or fifth place, isn’t terrible to take every now and then.”

And because the field in Indy Lights is small this year – only seven cars are entered at Road America – Herta revealed that maintaining a hard-charging style and going for race wins is paramount, in that the small fields make it harder to gap competitors in the title hunt.

“It’s hard to create a gap. On a bad day, you’re still going to be closer (to the guys ahead of you). Like Pato O’Ward in Indy (on the road course) had an awful weekend and finished in the back in both races (fourth and seventh), but I’m only at a (six point) lead. It’s tough to get ahead, so you want to minimize mistakes. It’s tough to make a gap, but it’s also tough to fall behind.”

As such, Herta is most certainly focused on bringing home an Indy Lights crown in 2018, which would propel him into the Verizon IndyCar Series, but he isn’t putting undue pressure on himself to force it to happen.

“In the second year, you have to get it done, and it’s tough to move up to IndyCars without that $1 million scholarship. So yeah, it’s important, but there’s no need to put more pressure on myself for how it is. I just got to keep doing what I’m doing, keep my head down, and if we can replicate what happened in May more and more, we should be in IndyCar next year,” he detailed.

And a potential move to IndyCar is certainly on the minds of Herta and Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing, even if the Indy Lights title ends up in the hands of someone else.

“We are thinking about it for sure, and we have some sponsors already committed on this year that I think we could bring up into IndyCar,” Herta revealed. “But, if we win the Indy Lights championship, we’re going to race (IndyCar), whether it’s the four races that we’re given or whatever it may be.”

Herta will look to improve upon his results from last year at Road America, when he finished 12th in Race 1 and third in Race 2.

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