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Andretti-Bound Herta Celebrates at Laguna Seca

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, September 22 2019
Colton Herta will begin the final IndyCar Series race of the season from the pole. (Photo courtesy of INDYCAR)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

Mercurial rookie Colton Herta celebrated his newly-secured future at Andretti Autosport Saturday with a salute to his father while upstaging the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series championship contenders during qualifying for the season-ending Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey.

Twenty years after Bryan Herta won the third of his three consecutive INDYCAR poles on WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca’s 2.238-mile/11-turn permanent road-course, 19-year-old Colton claimed his first  P1 at the scenic California facility. Bryan Herta qualified on-pole at Laguna Seca for the Champ Car World Series events in 1997, 1998 and 1999 en route to winning the races in 1998-99.

“Yeah, it obviously means a lot with the family history, and 50 percent of his INDYCAR wins coming from here,” said Colton, who lives with his family in Valencia, Calif. “Obviously, it means a lot to kind of keep on the family tradition.” 

Herta, who also remains eligible to win the series Rookie of the Year award, earned his third pole of the season and second in a row.

“Obviously, it means I’m doing something right, the team is doing something right,” said Herta, driver of the No. 88 Honda fielded by Harding Steinbrenner Racing. “We had a great car this whole weekend…it just shows the charisma of the team and everything we’re doing has been in the right directions.”

Herta’s pole-winning lap during the Firestone Fast Six of 1-minute, 10.1405-seconds/114.867 mph earned a bonus point that could be important in deciding a pair of season winners. Herta might need it to win the rookie award, while one of the four championship contenders might wish he had it to claim the Astor Challenge Cup.

Open-wheel has returned to historic Laguna Seca under INDYCAR sanction for the first time since Champ Car in 2004. Fourteen of the 22 series races contested on the layout along the Monterey Peninsula have been won from pole position.

Herta scored his pole shortly after he was confirmed to join re-badged Andretti Harding Steinbrenner Autosport for 2020 under terms of a “multi-year agreement.” The organization fronted by former Championship Auto Racing Teams star Michael Andretti , the winner of 42 CART races, has joined with Harding Steinbrenner via a partnership that will see Andretti field a fifth entry for the 2020 schedule.

HSR team principals Mike Harding, an Indianapolis-based businessman, and George Michael Steinbrenner IV, grandson of former New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, will join Andretti as leadership partners of the No. 88 team. The partnership is the byproduct of a successful technical alliance between Andretti Technologies and Harding Steinbrenner Racing, which provided engineering support throughout the 2019 season.

Herta officially will join Andretti’s current lineup of Alexander Rossi, 2012 series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti and Zach Veach.

“It’s big. I’m very fortunate to get a deal with (one of) the top three teams in the series, obviously,” Herta said during a news conference Saturday. “Everybody says Penske, Ganassi and Andretti are the top three teams in the series right now, so honored to be in that. Like I’ve said through this whole process of choosing a team, it had to make more sense than the situation I’m in, and a lot of them maybe didn’t.

“I had the opportunity with Michael and to also bring Harding and Steinbrenner with me, which was important because they gave me my start in INDYCAR and truly believed in me, and I didn’t have a full season ride from anyone except for them. It meant a lot to stay with them and bring them with me, and hopefully we can continue our progress.

“It’s important to kind of feel the water of what everybody is thinking about me and who wanted me, and you know, meanwhile it was important that my dad was able to do this so I could stay focused on my job of performing with Harding Steinbrenner. Like I said, I wanted to stay with them because we’re working so well together.”

In addition to his three poles, Herta became the youngest winner in series history on March 24 at Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas.

“it’s been a rollercoaster (season) and a lot of questions about the team and the financial stability, and no, they worked hard,” Herta said. “Mike hard worked. George worked hard, the whole team, all the PR department to find the money to keep the team going. And honestly, yeah, there’s a point in the season around Mid-Ohio (late July) that we weren’t going to show up at Gateway. We weren’t sure. And then everybody stuck it up and put in the money that we needed to and we signed some good deals _ obviously Capstone being the most important _ to bring from Mid-Ohio onward or Toronto onwards to the rest of the season. Very grateful for them, and they’re the whole reason that I was able to finish-out the season.”

Starting alongside Herta on the 24-car grid is championship contender Scott Dixon of Chip Ganassi Racing in the No. 9 Honda. The five-time/reigning IndyCar Series champion will have only a slight advantage on the title challengers _ Rossi in the No. 27 Honda, Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden in the No. 2 Chevrolet and Simon Pagenaud in the No. 22 Chevrolet. They will start third, fourth and sixth, respectively.

Newgarden holds a 41-point lead over Rossi and a 42-point advantage on Pagenaud. Dixon is 85 points in arrears. Newgarden will secure the title by finishing fourth or better, regardless of what the other three drivers do, in the 90-lap/203.22-miler that will award double finishing position points (100 to the winner).

“We’re all there, we’re all there ready to go,” said Newgarden, the 2017 series champion. “It’s funny how that works out. They all made it (to the Firestone Fast Six), right? That’s what we’re supposed to do. Yeah, it’ll make it interesting.”

Rossi said having Newgarden close to him at the start “is not good for me, but, yeah, I guess it’s good for the show. It’s what probably should happen.”

Newgarden and Frenchman Pagenaud, the 2016 series champ, are chasing their second series titles. Rossi, who won the 100th edition of the Indianapolis 500 as a rookie in 2016, is seeking his first series championship.

Battling Herta for top rookie honors are Dale Coyne Racing’s Santino Ferrucci in the No. 19 Honda and Chip Ganassi Racing’s Felix Rosenqvist in the No. 10 Honda. Both Ferrucci and Rosenqvist experienced adventurous qualifying sessions.

Ferrucci advanced to the second round of the knockout format, but his car drifted into the dirt on its final run and he couldn’t improve from 12th. Rosenqvist had visions of winning the NTT P1 Award, but his car went wide in Turn 6, spun and was penalized for qualifying interference. He impeded the run by James Hinchcliffe in the No. 5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda, who was trailing Rosenqvist and lost seven-tenths of a second in that segment. As per rules, Rosenqvist was stripped of his two fastest laps and was not permitted to advance to the second round. He will start 14th.

Rosenqvist, a native of Sweden, nevertheless will take a 26-point lead over Ferrucci into Sunday’s race. Herta now is 48 points back after collecting the bonus point for pole.

Sunday’s conclusion to the 17-race season will be televised live on NBC beginning with the pre-race show at 2:30 p.m. (EDT), with the green flag scheduled for 3:15 p.m. The race also will be broadcast on the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network and SiriusXM Satellite Radio (XM 205, Sirius 98).

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Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing has exercised its option on driver Takuma Sato for 2020. Sato first joined the team in 2012 and returned in 2018. He has earned five wins in the series to- date, including three with RLLR. The 2020 season will be Sato’s third consecutive with RLLR, and fourth overall.

Sato earned his second win of the season in the Bommarito 500 at World Wide Technology Raceway in Madison, Ill., on Aug. 24. Other season highlights include a win from pole in the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park; pole for the DXC Technology 600 at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth and third-place podium finishes at the Indianapolis 500 and Race 1 on Belle Isle in Detroit. However, Sato also was heavily criticized for his part in triggering a five-car crash moments into the ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway on Aug. 18.

“We have been very pleased with the results and level of competition Takuma has shown this season,” said Bobby Rahal, a three-time CART champion and winner of the 1986 Indy 500. Rahal’s co-owners are former late-night talk show host David Letterman and Chicago business executive Mike Lanigan.

 “Takuma’s two wins and two poles don’t fully indicate how competitive he has been overall this season and the fact that he was a contender at many other races,” Rahal said. “He is an integral part of our team. This decision allows us to keep the continuity and continue to build upon our program for 2020.”

A 42-year-old native of Tokyo, Japan, “Taku” has made 168 starts in the IndyCar Series since his rookie season in 2010.

“I am very happy to continue our path together again after this season,” said Sato, whose career highlight is a victory in the 2017 Indianapolis 500. “Every single member of the team is extremely loyal and have given me unbelievable support. I truly feel at home here and I am so proud of the team. We have had another great season this year and even had some tough times but it only made our relationship stronger. I can’t thank Bobby, Mike, David and the entire team enough and I am looking forward to finishing the season strong and also looking forward to 2020.”

Prior to joining the IndyCar Series, Sato competed in 90 Formula One races between 2002-2008 with his highest finish of third at the 2004 United States Grand Prix at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

In addition, RLL has extended its partnership with Honda Performance Development, which will continue to power its entries in 2020 and beyond for Sato and Graham Rahal under a multi-year deal. The 2019 season marked the 25th for the engine manufacturer in the sport. HPD made its INDYCAR debut in 1994 with what was then-named Rahal Hogan Racing. The partnership returned in 2003 and resulted in the first Indianapolis 500 pole and win for the manufacturer in 2004. To-date, the team has earned 12 wins, 13 poles and 81 top-five finishes with Honda power.

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Rookie Oliver Askew of Andretti Autosport has clinched the 2019 Indy Lights championship. The American rookie has scored seven wins, seven poles and 14 podiums with one race remaining. Askew joined Andretti Autosport this year after competing in the Indy Pro 2000 Championship, in which he finished third in the championship with one win. In 2017, Askew won the USF2000 Championship with seven wins and 11 podiums.

The organization fields three full-time entries in Indy Lights with Askew, Robert Megennis (No. 27 Dallara) and Ryan Norman (No. 48 Dallara).

Since 2005, Andretti Autosport has earned four driver titles (2008 Raphael Matos, 2009 JR Hildebrand, 2019 Patricio O’Ward and 2019 Askew) and team Indy Lights Championships in 2018-2019.

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Qualifying results for Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey NTT IndyCar Series event on the 2.238-mile/11-turn WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, with qualifying position, car number in parentheses, driver, engine, time and speed in parentheses:

1. (88) Colton Herta-(R), Honda, 1:10.1405 (114.867 mph)

2. (9) Scott Dixon, Honda, 1:10.1831 (114.797)

3. (27) Alexander Rossi, Honda, 1:10.2105 (114.752)

4. (2) Josef Newgarden, Chevrolet, 1:10.6719 (114.003)

5. (5) James Hinchcliffe, Honda, 1:10.8003 (113.796)

6. (22) Simon Pagenaud, Chevrolet, 1:10.8616 (113.698)

7. (12) Will Power, Chevrolet, 1:10.6086 (114.105)

8. (15) Graham Rahal, Honda, 1:10.6296 (114.071)

9. (28) Ryan Hunter-Reay, Honda, 1:10.6919 (113.971)

10. (59) Max Chilton, Chevrolet, 1:10.7257 (113.916)

11. (7) Marcus Ericsson, Honda, 1:11.1666 (113.210)

12. (19) Santino Ferrucci-(R), Honda, 1:12.4137 (111.261)

13. (25) Conor Daly, Honda, 1:10.7787 (113.831)

14. (10) Felix Rosenqvist-(R), Honda, 1:10.5649 (114.176)

15. (21) Spencer Pigot, Chevrolet, 1:10.8275 (113.752)

16. (30) Takuma Sato, Honda, 1:10.8393 (113.733)

17. (26) Zach Veach, Honda, 1:10.8407 (113.731)

18. (20) Ed Jones, Chevrolet, 1:10.9806 (113.507)

19. (18) Sebastien Bourdais, Honda, 1:11.0095 (113.461)

20. (23) Charlie Kimball, Chevrolet, 1:10.9865 (113.498)

21. (14) Tony Kanaan, Chevrolet, 1:11.2454 (113.085)

22. (98) Marco Andretti, Honda, 1:11.0527 (113.392)

23. (4) Matheus Leist, Chevrolet, 1:11.5180 (112.654)

24. (60) Jack Harvey, Honda, 1:11.2710 (113.045)

Note _ (R) denotes series rookie contender

NTT IndyCar Series point standings _1, Joseph Newgarden, Team Penske, 593; 2, Alexander Rossi, Andretti Autosport, 552; 3, Simon Pagenaud, Team Penske, 551; 4, Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing, 508; 5, Will Power, Team Penske, 469; 6, Takuma Sato, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, 397; 7, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Andretti Autosport, 380; 8, Felix Rosenqvist, Chip Ganassi Racing, 365; 9, Graham Rahal, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, 353; 10, Santino Ferrucci, Dale Coyne Racing, 339.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, September 22 2019
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