Colton Herta, Jimmie Johnson on Opposite Ends of IndyCar Learning Curve at St. Peteresburg

Here’s what we learned from Colton Herta’s win at the NTT IndyCar Series Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on Sunday:

HERTA IS THE REAL DEAL

Colton Herta looks like the typical 21-year-old you may or may not let your daughter date, but there’s no denying that faced with the tall, narrow walls of the Streets of St. Petersburg circuit, he is as fearless as they come, qualifying first, leading the last practice, then driving to the win virtually flag-to-flag, leading 97 of the 100 laps. Last week’s winner Alex Palou led two laps, Simon Pagenaud led one.

It proved that somebody besides Josef Newgarden can win the race, as the Tennessee driver took the last two St. Pete races and finished Sunday in second, 2.5 seconds behind Herta, who was driving away on the black tires, while Newgarden and third-place Pageneaud, on the stickier red tires.

The solid finishes were something Herta and Newgarden needed, considering Newgarden spun on the first lap of the season-opening race at Barber Motorsports Park, and collected Herta. “Now we’ve got the momentum going for a championship run,” Herta said. It was his fourth victory in 34 starts, tying his father, Bryan Herta, for wins. “He’s level-headed,” Newgarden said. “And he’s got a great team around him.”

“Coming into the weekend, we needed to win,” Herta said. “We needed to hit the reset button. I don’t want to say we were cruising, but we just had that momentum going. I never really doubted myself because we had such a great car.”

Bryan was on the radio with his son, “Something most people thought wouldn’t work,” Colton said. “But if he wasn’t such a great strategist, I wouldn’t want him on the radio.” Like Newgarden, Colton described himself and his dad as “level-headed.” He also described himself as profoundly stubborn when it came to his dad, until age 14 or so, “when I realized he actually knew what he was talking about.”

JIMMIE JOHNSON STILL GETTING THE HANG OF IT ALL

Unlike Herta, NASCAR star Jimmie Johnson, in only his second IndyCar race, did not seem to enjoy the walled circuit, spinning twice and bringing out the caution flag both times. Johnson finished 22nd out of the 24 cars, five laps down but running at the end.

IT’S NOT THE HEAT, BUT THE HUMIDITY

Weather was expected to be a factor in the race, with a forecast of rain around the noon starting time of the race, but it never materialized. Winds were brisk, humidity was high, but this is the Florida coastline, so none of that comes as a surprise. The weather is something Herta needs to get used to: He moved from California to Belleair, Fla., last year. St. Petersburg is already the home of Sebastien Bourdais, who finished 10th . “The heat wasn’t that bad,” said Newgarden. “But add 90 percent humidity to that it changes things.” Florida “has been amazing to me,” Herta said, “but California is still my real home.”

“I was tired,” Herta admitted, and his hands were blistered through the gloves due to the “kick back o the steering wheel,” he said.

NEWGARDEN’S NOT-SO-FRENCH CONNECTION

A French correspondent asked Pagenaud, in French, how the race went. Pagenaud threw the question to Newgarden. “It was rapido,” Newgarden said.

FULL SLATE OF RACING

The weekend included a full roster of racing – the IMSA Idemitsu Mazda MX-5 Cup ran two races, and there was USF2000, Indy Pro 2000, Indy Lights and Robby Gordon’s SST stadium trucks. Kyle Kirkwood won the first Indy Lights race, and David Malukas won the second. Gordon’s son Max finished seventh in the second SST race.

THINGS GET BIG NEXT WEEK

Next up: A quick turnaround to Texas Motor Speedway for the first of only three oval tracks on the IndyCar schedule. The Genesys 300 airs on NBC at 7 p.m. May 1.


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