Colton Herta dominates again in Laguna Seca victory as Alex Palou closes on IndyCar title

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Colton Herta cruised to his second consecutive IndyCar victory from the pole position at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, while runner-up Alex Palou put a hammerlock on the championship race.

Herta led 91 of 95 laps — the other four laps were led by Romain Grosjean, who made a spirited charge from 13th to finish third while overcoming a wild collision with Jimmie Johnson in the Corkscrew for the third podium of his rookie season.

Heading into the Sept. 26 season finale at the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach, Palou has a 35-point lead over Pato O’Ward (who finished fifth) as he attempts to win his first championship in his first season with Chip Ganassi Racing and his second year in the NTT IndyCar Series.

RESULTS AND POINTS: Stats package from Laguna Seca

“It was amazing,” Palou, who started third, told NBC Sports reporter Kelli Stavast. “I was surprised that we were really competitive in comparison to qualifying. We didn’t have it today for the win, but we did the most we could. It was a bit exciting with Grosjean catching us at the end. I think it was an awesome race; the guys did amazing pit stops with really good strategy.

“It was Herta’s day and Andretti’s day today, so I’m happy with a P2 today.”

Palou can clinch the championship with an 11th or better in the season finale with only O’Ward and Josef Newgarden remaining mathematically eligible to challenge for the title (Ganassi drivers Marcus Ericsson and Scott Dixon were eliminated Sunday).

“All weekend we didn’t have it,” O’Ward, who started sixth Sunday, told Lee. “I truly feel like we absolutely juiced every single ounce of energy and pace this car had. We pulled off a near miracle in qualifying to start in the first three rows. Then in the race, honestly, that was as much as I had. I fought for life for those last few positions.

“I’m disappointed, but I’m happy that we honestly really maximized what we had. Obviously disappointed the guy we’re trying to catch outscored us again. All we can do at Long Beach is win and let everything else fall. I’ve got faith in myself. I know I’m pretty handy on a street course. Let’s see what we can pull off next week.”

Newgarden recovered for a seventh Sunday after qualifying a disappointing 17th.

“Just hard to do much more than we did starting 17th,” Newgarden told Stavast. “We can’t start back there. We know that. Just a punch to the gut (Saturday) with the way that went two weekends in a row. Still a little bit hard to digest.

“Not sure what’s caused that but proud of my team. Gavin Ward, my engineer, has been doing a stellar job. We’ve had excellent prep coming into the weekends. I’ve felt more confident than ever showing up and certainly gotten everything from my team. I think we had a fast day and executed pretty well on a four-stop strategy. Just not going to make up much more ground without some yellow help. … We’ll go to Long Beach and try to get at least second in this championship.”

As Palou made a championship in his first year at Chip Ganassi Racing seem even more of a certainty, Herta removed virtually all doubt about Sunday’s race from the drop of the green flag.

With his second victory of the season and fifth of his career, Herta matched the Indy victory total by his father, Bryan (who calls strategy on the No. 26 Dallara-Honda), at the 11-turn, 2.38-mile road course.

“I enjoy racing here so much,” Herta told NBC Sports reporter Kevin Lee. “It’s an amazing track for me and my family. It’s been so good to us. We were fast all weekend, and I was happy we could pull it off and win the race.

“I’m just happy to have done it. This place is so awesome. It’s my favorite track in North America by far and to win here means so much.”

The lone caution flag flew early for an Alexander Rossi spin in Turn 5 on Lap 2. After starting second, Rossi was challenging Herta, his Andretti Autosport teammate, for the lead when their cars made contact.

Aside from that incident, the most memorable contact occurred with seven laps remaining between Johnson and Grosjean, who suffered right sidepod damage after his No. 51 Dallara-Honda briefly went airborne in capping an eventful ride.

“The last stint was very fun because we were on new tires, fresher than everyone else, so that was exciting,” Grosjean said. “It was a bit less funny and a bit hairy at some stages, but it’s been a great day. Sorry to Jimmie for the contact. He was trying to protect Alex (his Ganassi teammate), and I wanted to go chase Alex.

“P3 today is a pretty good day. Laguna Seca, I love you. It’s all I can say.”

Johnson finished a career-best 17th.

New Chip Ganassi driver Marcus Armstrong will team with boyhood idol Scott Dixon

Marcus Armstrong Scott Dixon
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Marcus Armstrong was a Scott Dixon fan his entire life, and when he was 8, the aspiring young racer asked his fellow New Zealander to autograph a helmet visor that he hung on his bedroom wall.

Next year, Armstrong will be Dixon’s teammate.

Armstrong was named Friday as the fourth IndyCar driver in the Chip Ganassi Racing lineup and will pilot the No. 11 next season on road and street courses.

A driver for the five oval races on the 17-race schedule will be named later.

The No. 11 is essentially the No. 48 that seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson drove the last two seasons, with Chip Ganassi making the change to run four cars numbered in sequential order. Indianapolis 500 winner Marcus Ericsson drives the No. 8, six-time champion Dixon drives the No. 9, and 2020 IndyCar champion Alex Palou drives the No. 10.

So just who is the second Kiwi in the Ganassi lineup?

A 22-year-old who spent the past three seasons in Formula One feeder series F2, a Ferrari development driver in 2021, and former roommate of Callum Illot and former teammate of Christian Lundgaard – both of whom just completed their rookie IndyCar seasons.

“I’ve always been attracted to the IndyCar championship because it’s one of those championships that’s been really well televised in New Zealand since I was young, mainly because of Scott and his success,” Armstrong told The Associated Press. “As time progressed, as I got closer to F1 and single-seaters, the attraction to IndyCar grew just because of how competitive the championship is – I like to challenge myself and the level of competition in IndyCar is remarkably high.”

Armstrong, from Christchurch, New Zealand, was set to travel from his current home in London to Indianapolis this weekend to meet his new team. He won’t need an introduction to Dixon, the 42-year-old considered the best IndyCar driver of his generation and Armstrong’s unequivocal childhood hero.

Last season, Dixon earned his 53rd career victory to pass Mario Andretti for second on the all-time list. Dixon has driven for Ganassi in all but 23 of his 345 career starts.

“For a long time I’ve been a Scott Dixon fan. I don’t want to make him cringe with our age difference,” Armstrong told the AP.

Despite the two-decade age difference, Armstrong never considered someday racing with Dixon a fantasy.

He convinced his father after winning five national karting championships to allow him to leave New Zealand for Italy at age 14, where he moved by himself to pursue a racing career. Armstrong said as soon as he’d received parental permission, he’d never look back.

Armstrong was in Formula 4 two years after his move to Italy and won that title in his first season. He won four races and four poles in F3 in the 2018 and 2019 seasons, then collected four wins and eight podiums in three seasons of F2.

“Maybe it’s a strength, or maybe it’s a weakness, but I always thought I was capable of doing great in the sport,” Armstrong told the AP. “I think you probably have to succeed in the sport, you need to believe in yourself. I always pictured myself being in IndyCar.

“As Scott’s teammate? I can’t specifically say I saw that. It’s an extraordinary chain of events.”

Armstrong becomes just the latest driver to leave Europe, where F1 is the pinnacle but has only 20 seats each year. Alexander Rossi began the trend in 2016 when the American left F1 and won the Indianapolis 500 as a rookie. He’s been followed by Ericsson, last season’s Indy 500 winner, Romain Grosjean, Illot, Lundgaard, and on Thursday three-time W Series champion and Williams F1 reserve driver Jamie Chadwick was announced as driver for Andretti Autosport in IndyCar’s second-tier development series.

Armstrong said he could have remained in F2 for a fourth season, but he’d been watching IndyCar for so long, and after conversations with Illot and Lundgaard, he decided to make the move to what he believes is the most balanced racing series in the world. He tested for Dale Coyne Racing at Sebring in October.

He doesn’t know if European racing is done for good, just that he wants to be in IndyCar right now.

“I don’t want to think too far into the future, I’m just grateful for this opportunity that is standing right in front of me,” Armstrong said. “I want to perform as well as I can in the near future and just consolidate myself in the fantastic chance that is IndyCar and just do my best.

“I’m not looking at F1 as a landing spot – I am looking at IndyCar, and that’s exactly why I am here.”