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.”
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.
That's not gone well.
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“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.