What 2 Watch 4: Herta on pole, then title contenders mid-pack

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PORTLAND, Oregon — A 19-year-old rookie leads 23 cars separated in qualifying by less than half a second. Alongside in the front row is a seasoned champion with the perfect racing name. Right behind them is a five-time NTT IndyCar Series champion.

The field is so bunched, top title contenders Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud and Alexander Rossi will roll off farther back in the pack for today’s Grand Prix of Portland in what shapes up to be an unpredictable and eventful 105-lap race on the 12-turn, 1.964-mile road course.

That Harding Steinbrenner Racing’s Colton Herta edged Team Penske’s Will Power for the pole in the No. 88 Capstone Turbine Honda shouldn’t be considered a surprise. Herta became the series’ youngest winner at 18 years, 11 months and 25 days old with an INDYCAR Classic victory in his second start this season at Circuit of The Americas (COTA) and later added to his impressive resume as the youngest pole winner in series history at Road America.

Power hasn’t forgotten COTA. The 2014 series champion won the pole but finished last out of 24 cars when the drive shaft broke on his No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet.

“Colton owes me a win from COTA so maybe he will let me go,” Power said Saturday.

Don’t count on that.

“Super excited, super honored. I think happy right now, but I know that the real task kind of starts (today),” Herta said. “It's 105 laps, going to be difficult, and we've got the best starting spot and the best view going into Turn 1.”

Scott Dixon’s No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda is the only title-contending car in the Firestone Fast Six in third position. The defending series champion is 70 points behind the points leader, Newgarden of Team Penske, who starts 13th.

“Yeah, it’s so easy to mess up one or two laps and really the window is quite small so you know I was in that category last year where we kind of got some traffic on the lap we need to get it nailed and I ended up starting 11th, so we’ll see,” Dixon said.

The New Zealander pulled off “The Great Escape” in the Pacific Northwest last year after being involved in a five-car incident in Turn 3 of the opening lap. Dixon miraculously emerged from the dirt with minor damage to salvage a fifth place that dramatically helped propel him to a fifth series championship.

That Andretti Autosport’s Rossi starts seventh and Team Penske’s Pagenaud rolls off from 18th raises eyebrows. They know they must close the gap on Newgarden before the season-ending, double-points Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca. Pagenaud is second in the points, 38 behind, while Rossi has to make up a 46-point margin.

“I think missing out on advancing (to the Fast Six) is an indication to how close the NTT IndyCar Series is,” Rossi said, “and you have got to nail it every lap of every session.”

Newgarden, the 2017 series champion, lamented making a couple of mistakes on his final lap in failing to advance past the first round of qualifying by one one-hundredth of a second.

“It was going to be close, and you just can’t afford a tenth (of a second),” he said. “That’s Portland — that’s how it was last year. I knew it was going to be the same way this year, but our Hitachi Chevy is good … We’ve just got to race hard.”

Jack Harvey of Meyer Shank Racing with Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports delivered a promising run to start fourth. The part-time team looking to go full time in 2020 is understandably optimistic about the No. 60 AutoNation/Sirius XM Honda’s chances for a strong finish. Harvey has made eight starts this season with a career-best and lone-podium result of third in May’s INDYCAR Grand Prix on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.

“We obviously want to go and get a good result,” Harvey said. “The nice thing is the guys have shown they can do it. I’ve shown I can do it. We just need to maximize when it counts.”

Today's action includes live race coverage on NBC begins at 3 p.m. ET (noon PT local) with the green flag at approximately 3:45 p.m. Live radio broadcasts will be available on the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network and SiriusXM Satellite Radio (XM 205, Sirius 98, Internet/App 970).

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