Fuel-Saving Herta Comes Up Just Short at Laguna Seca

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Colton Herta

Colton Herta has to be wondering what it takes to win another NTT INDYCAR SERIES race.

The driver of the No. 26 Gainbridge Honda of Andretti Global with Curb-Agajanian again had a car poised to win the race – that’s four such races in succession where that’s been the case – only to see another victory slip away.

Sunday at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, a track where he has dominated in the past, the chance to win ultimately turned on a decision to pit on Lap 37. Herta and half the field thought they were on the smart side by taking that opportunity to stop for fuel and tires under caution, but Chip Ganassi Racing’s Alex Palou and others went a different way. Palou made that strategy work.

Herta looked a bit dazed in defeat. He has raced too well, particularly of late, to have a 37-race winless streak.

Still, it was a productive day for the youngest race winner in series history. Herta’s second-place finish allowed him to gain three positions in the standings – he fourth, 68 points behind Palou -- as he chases his first series championship.

“Yeah, it’s a good result for us today, something to build off of,” Herta said. “Obviously, it’s frustrating not to win here.”

Herta won the 2019 and 2021 series races here just as his father, Bryan, did in his career. Not only does the family have a history of wins, the track represents something of a home for the Californians.

But Herta wanted more on this picturesque afternoon, and he thought he was going to get more.

Herta and Arrow McLaren’s Alexander Rossi were the lead cars in the group that came to pit road on Lap 37, just 12 laps after they had done so for the first time. Palou led the group that stayed on the track. While it was clear Palou would need an additional pit stop to reach the finish, it wasn’t initially clear how much fuel saving Herta, Rossi and the others would have to do in the last half of the 95-lap race. It turned out to be significant if not game-changing.

Herta said he supported the decision, although he, like Rossi, said he needed to watch and digest the race to know if it was the right one.

“I was happy when we made that decision in the race, and we ran to the end of it,” Herta said. “It’s still unclear if that was the right call or not.

“Either way, (the chance to win) was going to be right there. You’re going to finish first or second.”

Herta’s last race win came in May 2022 when he captured the GMR Grand Prix on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course. This was his third runner-up finish since that victorious day and fourth top-three finish. He’s certainly past due to take the top step on the podium.

Sunday’s disappointment comes on the heels of a difficult stretch of race endings. Herta was a pre-race favorite to win the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge only to crash in Turn 2 on Lap 86. In the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix presented by Lear, the pole winner led 33 of the first 45 laps before rain flipped his script. Running mid-pack, Herta overshot a corner, landing his car in the run-off.

In the recent XPEL Grand Prix at Road America presented by AMR, a front-row starting position resulted in a sixth-place finish. In the past four races, Herta has led a combined 50 laps, just never the last one.

Besides the pit strategy, Herta said the difference was his inability to keep pace with Palou on restarts. He had two late chances to overtake the reigning series champion, and he had a particularly good one beginning on Lap 85 when Palou spun his rear tires coming to the green. Herta tried to go around Palou on the outside approaching Turn 1, but he couldn’t make the move stick.

Palou got a much better jump on the final restart with five laps to go and scooted away from there as Herta did the best he could with the fuel left onboard.

“I wasn’t fast enough on the restarts,” Herta said. “I wasn’t as quick as him on the restarts, so I never got a good run at (the lead).”

So, Herta must wait for another chance at winning. At least he knows he won one of the series’ 2020 races at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, site of The Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio Presented by the 2025 Civic Hybrid on Sunday, July 7.