Josef Newgarden capitalizes on Colton Herta’s mistake to win Long Beach Grand Prix


Don’t offend Josef Newgarden. The Team Penske driver and two-time NTT INDYCAR Series champion wasn’t keen on the idea that Colton Herta was going to check out from pole position and leave the field in his wake on Sunday at the 47th Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach.

“My job is to not let him check out,” Newgarden said on Saturday after qualifying second, “I’m going to make sure he doesn’t.”

He made good on his word, keeping Herta close in the first half of the race, then fending off blistering challenges from Alex Palou and Romain Grosjean in the final third to give owner Roger Penske and Chevrolet three consecutive victories to open the season. For a race that ended under caution, it was a great race.

Newgarden gave the media an assist on national television. After praising Herta in a post-qualifying news conference on Saturday, he misunderstood a one-on-one question from The Times afterward when a reporter asked “When will you know that Colton Herta has checked out?” Newgarden heard “At what point does Colton Herta check out?”

“Oh, that’s a different question,” Newgarden said after meeting with the reporter after the race.

But he acknowledged he was offended by the idea that Herta would dust the field. Turns out that Newgarden is pretty good with a chip on his shoulder.

“I went to bed last night and I go, ‘That kid is NOT checking out tomorrow, there’s no way.’’ Newgarden recalled.

Newgarden led 32 laps, including the last 31. He finished ahead of the Andretti Autosport Honda of Grosjean and the third-place Chip Ganassi Racing Honda of Palou,

Josef Newgarden leads the field during the Long Beach Grand Prix on Sunday.

(Matt Randall / For The Times)

Herta, 22, won the last three races in California, including Long Beach and Laguna Seca to end the 2021 season. He set a track record in qualifying and led a team of Andretti Autosport Hondas that appeared to be the class of the field throughout the weekend.

Herta led the first 28 laps and bolted to a 2.3-second lead when the first caution fell on Lap 6. Herta fell to third place behind Palou and Newgarden after the first round of pit stops after amassing a 1.93-second lead, but Palou’s 7.5-second pit stop and his in and out laps more than made up the difference. The turn of events shocked Herta, and the second — and last — round of pit stops is where the race took on a more thrilling attitude. Palou was the first of the leaders to pit, and second-place Herta was on his in lap when he hit the wall in Turn 9 at the end of the back straight. He limped into the pits without causing a caution and it was game over.

“I broke a little bit too late,” the Valencia native said. “It’s just a stupid mistake. We were definitely in that thing.”

When Newgarden emerged from the pits a lap later on cold tires, he was directly in front of Palou, whose Firestones were already up to optimal temperature. Newgarden somehow managed to stave off the 2021 series champion as they touched tires — Palou’s left front to Newgarden’s right rear — heading to Turn 5. Palou even pulled ahead of Newgarden approaching Turn 6 but Newgarden’s inside position allowed him to win the corner.

“Alex Palou was super fast today,” Newgarden said. “I thought he was a very deserving winner if it would have played out that way.”

As the only frontrunner on softer compound tires, Grosjean passed Palou for second on a Lap 66 restart after Simon Pagenaud touched with Takuma Sato and ended up facing traffic in the garden that surrounds the dolphin fountain in Turns 2-3.

Another caution came out on Lap 76 after seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson hit the wall for the third day in a row and collected rookie David Malukas. When racing began on Lap 80, Newgarden bolted to a 1.5-second lead. Grosjean cut it to 0.4 seconds a lap later, but he never got closer. Sato hit the wall on Lap 84 and the caution fell with about a half lap to go on Lap 85.

The victory was the second in a row for Newgarden, who made a last-lap pass of McLaughlin in Turn 4 to win on the oval at Texas Motor Speedway. Even though he led the final 31 laps, he said it was more difficult than the Texas victory.

Three-day attendance was over 187,000. With his victory, Newgarden took the championship lead over St. Petersbur winner McLaughlin by five points, Palou by 15, and a third Penske driver, Will Power, by 16.

“This place is a hard nut to crack,” Newgarden said. “It’s a lot of pressure like the Indy 500. Everyone looks at this place as the crown jewel of our sport, and it would be an honor to win here, and you feel it within the team.

“The team was so pumped up to be able to win around this place.”

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