For the final time in 2021, the NTT IndyCar Series took to the streets of Long Beach where the series looked to crown a champion and a race winner. Colton Herta, starting deep in the field in 14th after being the fastest in both practice sessions took over the lead on Lap 34 after Helio Castroneves made his scheduled stop and held off Newgarden to win at home for the first time in his career.
“I’ve been coming here since I was a baby when my dad was racing in the 2000s,” Herta said about the victory. “It (Long Beach) was the only race I could come to because I couldn’t fly, and it was so close. This one means so much, being my hometown race. I can’t believe I won it on my second try – this was a big one. It’s been mostly a perfect weekend, aside from qualifying, but it was fun to come from further back. I can’t thank Gainbridge, Dan, Cassidy and the entire Andretti Autosport 26 team enough for such a strong weekend. We started the season with a win and got to end the season with a win. I wish we had a few more in between, but this win was big.”
Meanwhile, as Herta grabbed the checkered flag, Alex Palou needed to finish 12th or better entering the final race of the season to capture the championship. Josef Newgarden, who won the pole, needed to win the race and gain the maximum points. Newgarden was close to doing so after leading through the first 18 laps, but with how the cautions fell and varying strategies, Newgarden had to fight his way back up to the top.
Following Lap 18, Newgarden was unable to lead another lap hurting his championship chances. As Herta clinched the most laps led late in the race, the championship was guaranteed for Palou as the Spaniard finished fourth in the overall result to win his first-ever NTT IndyCar Series Championship.
Yeah, man, what a season,” Palou said in regards to winning the championship. “What a season. I cannot really believe it. I’m super happy. We worked so, so hard. Getting into the season finale, this place, didn’t know the track, but the guys gave me a really good car. They gave me good strategies. Today we went from P10 to P4, right? Just amazing, super happy. I think all the season we were super consistent. Feels amazing to be a champion. I want to do it again now.”
When the green flag flew for the 85-Lap race, the race lead was all Newgarden who led early on. Unfortunately, troubles found another championship contender as Pato O’Ward was clipped from behind by the No. 18 of Ed Jones to bring out the first yellow. Ultimately, O’Ward’s chances would be over on Lap 17 due to a broken half shaft. O’Ward was relegated to a 27th place finish after being unable to finish the race.
Prior to the yellow, Newgarden and Palou were already on pit road for service but 12 cars had stayed out with Newgarden restarting in the 13th position. Unfortunately for Newgarden, another yellow fell on Lap 25 for the No. 8 of Marcus Ericsson who plowed into the Turn 9 tire barrier.
After the two early yellows, the green flag came back out on Lap 30 with Newgarden third and Palou seventh. Colton Herta passed Newgarden for third two laps later and eventually took the lead on Lap 34.
For the majority of the race, Herta had a tremendous race pace and kept a sizeable gap over Newgarden. At one point, the California native Herta had an eight-second gap ahead of Newgarden. But, the last yellow bunched the field one more time on Lap 61 due to an incident with Oliver Askew and Conor Daly in Turn 9.
With the help of the caution, Newgarden had one more chance to overpower Herta while Palou was lurking behind in fourth. Herta’s lead, however, was one second through the final 20 laps. Newgarden did close in with eight laps to go and was only half a second behind, but the win eventually went to Herta for the third time this season.
Palou finished fourth to become the first Spanish champion and gave Chip Ganassi his 14th different title joining Jimmy Vasser, Alex Zenardi, Juan Pablo Montoya, Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti.
“It’s (winning the championship) as big as it gets,” Ganassi said. “Just to see this young man come along, it’s been a few dry years in the 10 car. I go back to think of Dario and Dan Wheldon in the 10, all the successes they had. Unfortunately for one reason or another, we haven’t found that right combination for a few years. You have to work just as hard. Sometimes you’re probably working harder than the guys on the 10 car and the 8 and the 48. They have to work harder sometimes than the champion.
“Like last year with Dixon, I’m really, really happy for the team. Championships are won by a lot of hard work, by a lot of people making a lot of sacrifices that aren’t obvious to the naked eye or get lost and they never get the press or the coverage of the late nights over the winter in Indianapolis, cold and dark and blowing snow. Guys are in there toiling away on their computers or on their cars, making them just a little better, getting ready for the start of the season or getting ready for the Indianapolis 500. That’s where the championships are won.
“There’s a whole slew of people back in Indianapolis that I’m sure right now have a big smile on their face. They’re in our race shop, family members that aren’t able to be here with their spouses, boyfriends or girlfriends. It’s a pleasure to represent those people. So that’s what makes this championship special.”
There were four cautions for 13 laps and seven lead changes among seven different leaders.
Official Results following the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach.
- Colton Herta, led 43 laps
- Josef Newgarden, led 18 laps
- Scott Dixon, led one lap
- Alex Palou, 2021 NTT IndyCar Champion
- Simon Pagenaud
- Alexander Rossi
- Jack Harvey
- Sebastien Bourdais
- Takuma Sato
- Will Power
- Scott McLaughlin, 2021 IndyCar Rookie of the Year
- Ed Jones
- Felix Rosenqvist
- James Hinchcliffe
- Max Chilton
- Graham Rahal, led four laps
- Jimmie Johnson
- Dalton Kellett
- Helio Castroneves, led 15 laps
- Conor Daly, 1 lap down
- Oliver Askew, 2 laps down, led three laps
- Ryan Hunter-Reay, 2 laps down
- Romain Grosjean, OUT, Contact
- Rinus VeeKay, OUT, Mechanical
- Callum Ilott, OUT, Mechanical
- Pato O’Ward, OUT, Contact
- Marcus Ericsson, OUT, Contact
Up Next: The NTT IndyCar Series will head into the offseason before opening up the 2022 season Sunday, Feb. 27 at the Streets of St. Petersburg live on NBC.