Colton Herta delivers Andretti’s first IndyCar victory of season at Mid-Ohio

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Colton Herta became the second consecutive NTT IndyCar Series driver to win from the pole position at MId-Ohio Sports Car Course, capping a podium sweep Sunday for Andretti Autosport as the team scored its first victory this season.

Starting first just like Saturday winner Will Power, Herta, 20, led 57 of 75 laps and finished 1.3826 seconds in his No. 88 Dallara-Honda ahead of teammate Alexander Rossi for the third victory of his career.

Andretti’s Ryan Hunter-Reay finished a season-best third, followed by Graham Rahal and Marcus Ericsson.

“I’m so happy, we’ve been knocking on the door almost every week,” Herta told NBC Sports pit reporter James Hinchcliffe. “We’ve had the pace, but for some reason or another, something has gone wrong. We finally put everything together. Got the pole this morning, had a stellar car, and Honda Andretti 1-2-3.”

In the previous 10 races this season, Andretti Autosport had managed only two podium finishes, both third places by Rossi. Sunday’s trio of podium results marked the first 1-2-3 finish for the team in 15 years since a 1-2-3-4 finish in April 2005 at St. Petersburg, Florida.

“It’s so huge,” team owner Michael Andretti told Hinchcliffe after his team’s 65th IndyCar victory. “Man, 1-2-3, after the way things have been going for us this year. This is huge for us, the whole team.”

Said Rossi after his season-best finish: “I’m just so happy for Andretti Autosport and Michael. It’s been a terrible year for us globally. To do this, huge hats off to Colton and the 88 guys but then to sweep the podium is very cool for us.

“The championship went away from us very early on, so we’re just focused on race wins and really trying to build a good foundation for next year, and we’re doing that now. It’s a step in the right direction. We’ll enjoy this one for sure.”

The rest of the top 10: Simon Pagenaud, Will Power, Josef Newgarden, Pato O’Ward and Scott Dixon, who nipped Rinus VeeKay on the last lap for 10th.

The championship race tightened after Dixon made a mistake and spun while running fifth on Lap 22.

Trying to chase down Herta while under pressure from Rossi and Hunter-Reay, Dixon clipped a curb off Turn 1 and lost 15 spots.

After entering the weekend with a 96-point lead over Josef Newgarden in the standings with five races remaining, Dixon’s lead shrunk by 24 points after consecutive 10th-place finishes in the Saturday-Sunday doubleheader at Mid-Ohio (which historically had been one of his strongest tracks with a series-high six victories).

“Got a little aggressive, hit the overtake (button) on the exit of (Turn) 1 and just way too much Honda power there, and it spun the tires and just spun the car,” Dixon told NBC Sports reporter Kelli Stavast. “Totally caught me off guard. Total rookie mistake. I’m so bummed for the team. Such a stupid mistake I shouldn’t have made. Obviously the car was fast and able to fight our way back, but it should have been an easy points day.”

Dixon said he won’t be laying back heading into the final three races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course doubleheader and the Oct. 25 season finale at St. Petersburg, Florida.

“The easiest way is to win Race 1 at Indy road course and same in Race 2 and be nice to go to St. Pete without having to worry about it,” Dixon said. “The series is so tight right now. The competition is super tough. Even trying to rebound off days like this is very tough.”

After a chaotic qualifying session, the first lap of Sunday’s race also proved eventful.

Santino Ferrucci, starting second, received a penalty for avoidable contact after running into Dale Coyne Racing teammate Alex Palou. The crash also collected Felix Rosenqvist.

Ferrucci attempted to pass leader Colton Herta on the outside into Turn 1 but skidded through the grass and then re-entered the track by hitting Palou.

“He was the outside, and I got halfway in front of him, so it was my corner at that point,” Herta said. “I tried to leave him as much room as I could, but he just wanted to stick on the outside, so I had to push him off.”

“I think we just have to look at the video,” said Palou, who is battling for rookie of the year with Rinus VeeKay. “I did a good start. I was just keeping the position I had. It was the first lap. Someone went out and just drove into me and Felix. Nothing we could have done.

“Disappointing because I couldn’t do anything, and it’s the first lap of the race. And we’ve had such a hard season to now with all the ovals and learning those. We’ll just look forward to the Indy GP.”

Ferrucci was sent to the rear of the field.

James Hinchcliffe on Andretti: ‘It’s certainly the place I want to be’

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Since before the start of the 2020 NTT IndyCar Series season, James Hinchcliffe tirelessly has worked to ensure the future would include a full-time return in 2021.

And with an opportunity to run the final three races this season with Andretti Autosport, there seems a surefire (albeit unlikely) path.

“If I go out and win all three,” Hinchcliffe joked with IndyCar on NBC announcer Leigh Diffey in an interview Friday (watch the video above), “it would be hard for them to say no, right?”

Regardless of whether he can go unbeaten at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course next weekend or the Oct. 25 season finale at St. Petersburg, Florida (where he earned his first career win in 2013), Hinchcliffe will have the chance to improve his stock with the team that he knows well and now has an opening among its five cars for 2021.

All three of Hinchcliffe’s starts this season — the June 6 season opener at Texas Motor Speedway, July 4 at the IMS road course and the Indianapolis 500 — were with Andretti, where he ran full time in IndyCar from 2012-14.

“Obviously, the plan from January 2020 was already working on ’21 and trying to be in a full-time program,” he said. “I’ve really enjoyed being reunited with Andretti Autosport, and everybody there has been so supportive. It’s been a very fun year for me on track. It’s been kind of a breath of fresh air in a lot of ways.

“It’s certainly the place I want to be moving forward. We’ve been working on that, working on those conversations. Genesys has been an incredible partner in my three races. We’ll be representing Gainbridge primarily, but Genesys will still have a position on our car in the last three.”

Gainbridge is the primary sponsor of the No. 26 Dallara-Honda that was vacated by Zach Veach, who left the team after it was determined he wouldn’t return in 2021. Hinchcliffe can empathize having lost his ride with Arrow McLaren SP after last season with a year left on his deal.

“You never want to earn a ride at the expense of somebody else in the sense that has happened here with Zach,” Hinchcliffe said. “I feel bad that he’s not able to see out the last three races of his season. I’ve got a lot of respect for him off track. He’s been a teammate this year, a colleague for years before that and honestly a friend for years before that. I’ve got a lot of time for him and his family. I understand a little bit of what it’s like in that position and what he’s going through.”

Hinchcliffe is ready to seize the moment, though, starting with the Oct. 2-3 doubleheader race weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He had been hoping to add the Harvest Indy Grand Prix to his schedule and had been working out for the possibility.

“Then last week I had given up hope (and) was resigned that wasn’t happening,” he said. “I told my trainer, ‘I think we’re done for this year.’ Three days later, this call comes. I’m glad we didn’t make that decision too early. I feel great physically.

“I look at it as a great opportunity to continue to show I’ve still got what it takes and should be there hopefully full time next year on the grid.”

Watch Hinchliffe’s video with Leigh Diffey above or by clicking here.