Colton Herta fends off Josef Newgarden for IndyCar victory in Grand Prix of St. Petersburg

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Colton Herta dominated to win the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, leading nearly the entire distance from the pole position for an NTT IndyCar Series victory Sunday on the 1.8-mile street course.

Herta, 21, built some massive leads of over 10 seconds, but he had to fend off a strong charge by Josef Newgarden because of two cautions in the final 25 laps.

He led 97 of 100 laps and won by 2.4933 seconds in stark contrast to his 22nd-place finish last week at Barber Motorsports Park.

STATS PACKAGE: Full results, points after St. Pete

HOW JIMMIE DID: Tough day on the streets for Johnson

“What a great job by everybody,” Herta told NBC Sports reporter Marty Snider. “Sorry if I can barely talk, I’m so winded. I’m so happy to rebound from Barber and get the momentum going this season that we need, which is a championship season.”

Colton Herta takes a moment inside his No. 26 Dallara-Honda after his fourth IndyCar victory (Chris Owens/IndyCar).

Herta now has four victories in IndyCar, three when starting from the pole. Sunday was his first victory for Herta with his father, Bryan, as his race strategist after the former IndyCar winner took over the role for the 2021 season on the No. 26 Dallara-Honda.

“That was awesome, and I tied him for (IndyCar) wins today, too, which is even more special,” Herta said. “Love that he’s on my radio, and they all did an amazing job. Oh, what a hell of a job.”

Herta particularly came under attack from Newgarden (who had a fresher soft tire compound) on a restart with 24 laps to go.

“He’s so good around here and props to him and his guys, they’ve done a great job this year, too,” said Herta, who was notably exhausted after racing full tilt for nearly two hours in 90% humidity. “I was nervous because he was on those new red tires, and I thought they were going to be better, but they ended up being similar. I was able to hold him off, and oh man, I can’t even speak right now.”

Said Bryan Herta: “Super proud of him. He did such a great job. We had a game plan. We executed really well. We didn’t want to see those couple of late-race yellows. We know what a great competitor that Josef Newgarden is, and you put him on red tires on restarts, we knew we were going to have our hands full. But Colton didn’t put a foot wrong.”

Newgarden, who was trying to become the first driver to win three consecutive in the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, finished second, followed by Team Penske teammate Simon Pagenaud, Jack Harvey and Scott Dixon.

“I just didn’t want to overextend myself today,” Newgarden, who caused the crash on Lap 1 of the season opener at Barber that collected Herta, told NBC Sports reporter Dave Burns. “I had a close to an opportunity, but Colton was really good, and he was doing a great job on the restarts. I pushed really hard and didn’t have quite the run I needed, so I didn’t want to risk anything.

“But a good day. … If I have an opportunity, I’m going to go for a win. I was very close to having just enough of that opportunity. I was just a little shy of it. I didn’t want to force something. Happy with the podium, and we obviously want to win, but we’re on the board now.”

Herta’s victory was the 66th for Andretti Autosport and third at St. Petersburg (but first since James Hinchcliffe in 2013), and it came on a largely forgettable day for the team’s other three drivers.

Alexander Rossi finished two laps down in 21st after collding multiple ties with Graham Rahal in Turn 5 on Lap 37.

The incident occurred a lap after Rossi had pitted. Despite the cold tires on his No. 27 Dallara-Honda, Rossi didn’t yield when challenged by the faster car of Rahal entering the fourth turn. The contact speared Rossi’s right-front tire, which caused him to veer into Rahal in the next corner.

Both cars came to a halt, but the race remained green, and neither could recover after both had run in the top 10 over the first 30 laps.

“One of those racing things,” Rossi told Snider. “Looking at that, it’s unfortunate he ended up on the outside of me when I had the flat tire. I wasn’t trying to drive him out into Turn 5. The contact into 4 is what caused our issue. It’s one of those things. You’re racing for the same piece of real estate. I thought we had the nose ahead into the corner and gave him the room I thought he needed and it didn’t work out that way.

“Graham and I have a great relationship. I don’t think it was intentional on anyone’s behalf. I think it was a racing thing. We all know how hard it is to pass, how dirty it is on the inside. Track position is everything in these races. Unfortunate. The car was fantastic. I think we had a shot at the top five if not a podium today but wasn’t meant to be again. We’ll reset and go for it in Texas.”

Rahal, who finished 15th, told Burns: “I think it was a little bit of a racing incident. We thought we were going to just clear him. Obviously, we blocked into 4, but you’ve got to make a move. Wheel to wheel and that happens. Alex is a pretty fair guy. So I don’t think there’s any hard feelings.

“It’s a shame with the flat right front because I think we both could have gotten through perfectly fine and continued our days. It’s frustrating for us. I thought our team, our car was fast.”

Andretti driver James Hinchcliffe was involved in multiple shunts and finished a lap down, and Ryan Hunter-Reay also wasn’t a factor after starting 13th.

Jimmie Johnson, who qualified 23rd of 24 drivers, had an inauspicious street course debut in IndyCar, causing two full-course caution flags.

The first came when he went off course in Turn 13 on Lap 15.

After gently tapping a tire barrier, the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion was unable to put his No. 48 Dallara-Honda in reverse, which necessitated a full-course yellow two laps later.

After returning to the track four laps down, Johnson spun in Turn 3 and made light left-front contact with the wall. He was able to continue without assistance this time, but the yellow still flew.

The Thermal Club wants an IndyCar race, and series executives liked its initial impact at test


THERMAL, Calif. – Many teams in the NTT IndyCar Series questioned the relevancy of having a two-day preseason test at The Thermal Club.

The team owners, drivers and engineers believed the 17-turn, 3.067-mile race course that winds and twists its way through a gated private community (about 45 minutes southeast of Palm Springs) had no relevance to any track on the 17-race schedule.

To the leaders of IndyCar, however, there was plenty of relevance to hosting its “Spring Training” at a sort of motorsports country club that caters to extremely wealthy residents who also are automotive enthusiasts.

“Both with our stakeholders and the media that covers IndyCar, we wanted them to know that we are going to do things differently,” Penske Entertainment CEO Mark Miles told NBC Sports from the private VIP viewing area that overlooks the long straights and twisting turns of the course. “This is going to be a year when we expect our growth to go to a whole new level.

“What better way to send that message than to be at a place we have never been that is exceptional?

“The quality of this place; the facilities are off the charts. The customer service, the welcoming feeling you get from the staff here. The track itself is fast. The drivers are having a great time on it.

FRIDAY SPEEDSThird session l Fourth session l Combined

‘AN AMAZING PLACE’: IndyCar and its big plans for Thermal

“It really sent a message to our other promoters and our drivers and team owners that something is up. We want fans around the country and the sports industry to know that something is going on with IndyCar this year.”

The Thermal Club is a concept driven by Tim Rogers, who made his fortune by supplying gasoline to 7-Eleven stores in 36 states. He wanted to create a private community that mixed multimillion-dollar homes and luxury villas with a high-speed race course.

The two-day IndyCar “Spring Training” was the most ambitious motorsports project yet for The Thermal Club.

Rogers wants it to be the first step in a long-term goal for the community.

“Our endgame is we want to host an IndyCar Series race at The Thermal Club one day,” Rogers told NBC Sports as IndyCar hit the track again Friday morning. “This was a good trial to see how the facility can handle it and if the facility works for them.”

Felix Rosenqvist makes laps in the No. 6 Arrow McLaren Dallara-Chevrolet during the first day of NTT IndyCar Series testing (Andy Abeyta/The Desert Sun / USA TODAY Sports Images).

The two-day test was closed to the general public. It was open only to credentialed news media, members of the Thermal Club and a limited number of their guests.

With the spectacular backdrop of the Coachella Valley that is rimmed with snow-capped mountains, The Thermal Club could provide a great setting for an NBC telecast of an IndyCar Series race (and possibly line up a big sponsor for a return on its investment with a larger than normal audience during a ripe time such as the first weekend of February).

NASCAR is using that same model Sunday at the Los Angeles Coliseum by hosting the Busch Light Clash. The National Football League’s AFC and NFC Championship games were last weekend and next Sunday is the Super Bowl.

“That could work, but we have room where we could separate the public and the private members area, too,” Rogers said. “We could accommodate 4,000 or so of the general public.

“This would be a premium event for a premium crowd.”

Rogers’ dream of The Thermal Club began 11 years ago. He will talk to IndyCar about a return for Spring Training next year with hopes of getting a date on the schedule for 2025.

“Whatever fits,” Rogers said.

Miles and Penske Entertainment, the owners of IndyCar, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and the Indianapolis 500, realize Rogers has an ambitious dream of getting a race on the schedule.

Miles, however, isn’t ready to indicate that a race at Thermal is part of IndyCar’s future (though drivers seem open to the concept).

“Tim and everybody at The Thermal Club have done a phenomenal job of being hosts here for this test,” Miles said. “Everybody is very happy we are here, and I expect we will find a way to continue to be here. Whether that means a race and when is really a bridge we aren’t ready to cross yet.

“We really like opening the championship season each year in St. Petersburg, Florida. We’ll have to see. But it’s a great way to start the season in this way, and right now, we are happy to be here.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
Defending IndyCar champion Will Power takes laps at The Thermal Club during the first day of the track’s first test (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

On track, it was a successful two-day test session with 27 car/driver combinations that will compete in IndyCar in 2023. It’s the largest field for IndyCar since the 1990s. There were a few spins here and there but no major incidents across 2,560 laps.

Kyle Kirkwood led the final session Friday while getting acquainted with his new No. 27 team at Andretti Autosport. Kirkwood has replaced Alexander Rossi at Andretti, whom Kirkwood drove for in Indy Lights.

His time of 1 minute, 38.827 seconds (111.721 mph) around the 3.067-mile road course was the fastest of the fourth and final session. But the fastest speed over two days was defending Indy 500 winner Marcus Ericsson of Chip Ganassi Racing in the Friday morning session (1:38.4228, 112.182 mph in the No. 8 Honda).

Callum Ilott of Juncos Hollinger Racing was second in the final session at 1:38.8404 (111.707 mph) in the No. 77 Chevrolet. Rookie Marcus Armstrong of New Zealand was third at 1:38.8049 (111.707 mph) in the No. 11 Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing. Alex Palou of Chip Ganassi Racing was fourth at 1:38.8718 (111.672 mph) in the No. 10. Defending NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske rounded out the top five at 1:38.9341 (111.602 mph) in the No. 12 Chevrolet.

Ericsson was the fastest in combined times followed by Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Christian Lundgaard at 1:38.5682 in the No. 45 Honda, Kirkwood, Ilott and Armstrong. Positions 3-5 speeds were from the final practice session on Friday.

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
With members’ houses in the background, Romain Grosjean navigates the turns of The Thermal Club in his No. 28 Dallara-Honda (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

Drivers didn’t know what to expect before hitting the track. After the two-day test was over, NBC Sports asked several drivers what they learned from The Thermal Club.

“I think it’s a first-class facility, no doubt,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden of Team Penske said. “I think the entire facility here at Thermal really rolled out the red carpet for us. They did a tremendous job.

“It was a fairly flawless test, I would say, for two days. I think the great thing about this was we had a two-day test, which was fantastic. You got to have this warmup; this preseason build. That was the biggest positive for me, is that we were here, we were running cars. It was a great facility to do it at.

IndyCar Thermal Club test
Josef Newgarden said his No. 2 team (which has a new lead engineer) used The Thermal Club test as an opportunity for building cohesion (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).
Indycar Series Test - Day 2
Josef Newgarden (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

“I think the track was a lot more fun than we anticipated. It was challenging, definitely technical. I don’t know how relevant it is. For us, it wasn’t really relevant to anywhere we’re going, but that’s OK.”

But even though the track has no sector particularly similar to any road or street course on the schedule, there still were benefits.

“In a lot of ways, it is relevant,” Newgarden said. “For us it was relevant for building the team up, trying to work in a competitive environment, be competitive together. That’s everything. So regardless of is the setup going to apply to a certain track or another, (it) doesn’t really matter.

“For us, it was applying the principles of how we’re going to work together. From that standpoint, it was very productive for everybody. Raceability-wise, it’s hard to say. It was chewing tires up. Big drop-off from run one to two. I think from a race standpoint, that would be quite positive. You’d have big tire deg here.

“You’d have to do more work on runoff areas if we wanted to race here, but it’s possible. I don’t think it would take much effort to do the things to run an actual race.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
Will Power (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images)

Kirkwood found speed in his Andretti Autosport machine, but he used the test to create a smooth working relationship with his new crew.

“I wouldn’t say that we found something here that is going to translate to anywhere, right?” the 2021 Indy Lights champion said. “This is a very unique track, although it was a lot of fun to drive, and it kind of surprised me in the amount of grip that it actually produced.

“It was quite a bit faster than what we expected.”

Many of the NTT IndyCar Series teams will test later this month at Sebring, Florida, as they prepare for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg to kick off the season March 5.

“It’s a very nice facility, a nice area, it’s pretty cool to have two days of testing here with a lot of high-profile people,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske told NBC Sports. “It’s a very technical, tough track.

“It’s pretty good.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 2
IndyCar drivers turns laps on the second day of testing at The Thermal Club, which is nestled in the Coachella Valley that is ringed by mountains in Southern California (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

The Thermal Club received rave reviews, welcomed IndyCar and provided exposure to the movers and shakers of the business community that own the luxury villas and homes in this ultra-rich community.

Could it be a venue of the future for a series that sells lifestyle as much as on-track competition?

“This is a fantastic facility and the circuit is a fast circuit,” team owner Bobby Rahal told NBC Sports. “It’s pretty exciting to watch the cars run around here. I think it would be attractive to people.

“I’ll leave that up to Mark Miles and (IndyCar President) Jay Frye and everybody else whether we have a race here, but why not?

“It’s a great place.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500