The NTT IndyCar Series crowned a champion Sunday at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, and a family added to its legacy too.
With an eighth-place finish, Josef Newgarden notched the second championship of his career. The day belonged to Colton Herta, though, who finished a spectacular rookie run with his third pole and second win of the season.
The 19-year-old Herta took the lead from the green flag and paced the field for 83 of the 90 laps Sunday, holding off separate challenges from Scott Dixon and later Will Power to win the race by 0.5878 seconds. He adds this win to his victory at Circuit of The Americas back in March and is now the winningest teenager in series history.
Power, the most recent winner at Portland, finished second, while Dixon, Simon Pagenaud and Felix Rosenqvist rounded out the top five.
The 11-turn, 2.238-mile layout on the Monterey Peninsula has been very good to the Herta family, as they now have three wins and four poles here. Herta’s dad, Bryan, was a two-time winner (1998-99) and three-time pole sitter (1997-99).
“It was a perfect race,” Herta said. “Whenever you win an IndyCar race, it has to be a perfect race. You can’t really make mistakes and get away with it, just because there’s always two or three other guys on that day that can win. For sure there was a few guys that could win today, and we just outdid them. We had the pace on them, and we were definitely the best today, so we definitely deserved to win.”
Herta was the class of the field all weekend, but credits lessons learned from the Portland race three weeks ago when it came to tire management. He won the pole at Portland and 36 laps, but a failure to keep his tires under him left him in fourth place at the finish.
“I was happy to kind of put together what we had in Portland and learn from our mistakes of the tire wear issues and go forward with it,” Herta said. “It seemed like our tire wear was a lot better than a lot of people’s. That last two or three laps (of a tire stint) I would gap by like a second a lap and have a nice margin coming into the pits if anything were to go wrong or if I had a slow out-lap or in-lap.”
Herta didn’t win Rookie of the Year, that went to Felix Rosenqvist, but he certainly had one of the best rookie seasons in quite some time. He’s ready to look forward to 2020, though, as he officially moves into a seat under the Andretti umbrella with Andretti Harding Steinbrenner Autosport.
“I’m thinking about looking forward,” Herta said. “I’m really proud of what I did this year and what the team has been able to do and given me the car to do it. I like to take a month off and not really do much and then kind of look into focal points of what I lacked, and for sure I’d say going into the off-season it was going to be mostly about tire wear and maintaining the tires. I think I did that very well today, and most of the time I was doing it better than the other guys. I think now I can focus on other things.”
Newgarden’s task was a little easier — so long as Alexander Rossi or Simon Pagenaud didn’t win the race, he pretty much just needed to finish in the Top 10 to win his second championship. If only it were that easy. Newgarden, who had three weeks to sit on his lead, ran a conservative but very smart race, finishing in eighth place to capture the title by 25 points (641-616) over his teammate Pagenaud, and 33 points over Rossi.
Newgarden admitted that in the closing laps of the race he was doing a lot of “scoreboard watching” and knew exactly where he stood as the laps clicked down. Only a late yellow would’ve messed up those plans, but that didn’t materialize, and when Newgarden crossed the finish line, a wave of emotion left him a sobbing mess after the race.
” I’m just happy it’s done with, to be honest with you,” Newgarden said while wearing his new championship ring. “I’ve been dreading the last couple weeks because I don’t think it really hits you until you get finally to Laguna or after Portland I should say, two weeks to go, because then you really realize the points situation.
“It’s just such a stressful deal with double points. I hated it. I hated thinking about it, and I know we didn’t build up enough of a gap to make it super easy on ourselves, and I was just kind of dreading it, to be honest with you. I knew the points in my head, I can tell you that. I knew exactly where it was, especially at the end. I’m watching the monitors five laps to go, so I was very aware of what was going on.”
With the win and the championship, Newgarden continues to move towards the rarefied air of IndyCar legends. In posting the 15th victory of his career, he ties Juan Pablo Montoya and Alex Zanardi on the wins list, and names like Zanardi, Gil de Ferran, Tom Sneva and Bobby Unser with his two titles.
Many may believe that with his youth (he’s 28), American heritage and recent success that he should be considered the “Face of IndyCar”. Newgarden downplays that theory, believing that the success of IndyCar moving forward isn’t contingent on one driver — it’s on everyone.
“I guess that’s your role as a champion is to push that message and just to be a positive light for that,” Newgarden said. “That’s really all I can do. I don’t know if I can move the ball further by doing anything else significant. I mean, it’s going to take all of us pushing in this common direction to try and push the sport forward. You know, it’ll take me, it’ll take guys like Rossi and Simon and Will, and it will take all of us I think to keep pushing the sport forward, and that’s what we will plan on doing.”
Photo credit: Joe Skibinski/IndyCar Media