Sunday, September 19, 2021

Morning Warm-Up: Laguna Seca 2021

Colton Herta is still on top at Laguna Seca heading into race day

For the second consecutive Laguna Seca race, Colton Herta will start on pole position after a lap of 70.7994 seconds in the final round of qualifying. It is Herta's third pole position of the season, tying him with Josef Newgarden and Patricio O'Ward for most this year. Herta is the most recent Laguna Seca winner, and he can join his father Bryan as consecutive Laguna Seca winners. Half of Bryan Herta's four IndyCar victories came at Laguna Seca and both of Bryan's Laguna Seca victories were from pole position. Herta won from pole position at St. Petersburg back in April. Colton Herta is one victory away from surpassing his father Bryan in carer victories. Colton's average running position in the 2019 Laguna Seca race was 1.1222 after he led 83 laps and his lowest running position was fifth.

Alexander Rossi qualified second, 0.1957 seconds off his teammate Herta for pole position. Rossi is looking for his first victory in 35 starts. He is coming off a runner-up finish at Portland. The last time Rossi won a race it was following a runner-up finish. The Californian Rossi has started eight races in California. He has two victories, both at Long Beach, three top five finishes and five top ten finishes with an average finish of tenth.

Will Power was relegated to third on the grid after ignoring a local yellow when Patricio O'Ward spun late in the final round of qualifying. This is Power's eighth time starting inside the top five this season, but he has only four top five finishes this season, all of which are podium results. Only twice has a Laguna Seca winner started third: Bobby Rahal in 1987 and Gil de Ferran in 1996. This will be Power's 250th IndyCar start.

Championship lead Álex Palou will start fourth. Palou could clinch the championship if he exits Laguna Seca with a 54-point victory over second and if Palou exits with a 49-point lead or greater, all he would have to do is start at Laguna Seca to secure the Astor Cup. Palou won the most recent race at Portland. No driver has won consecutive races this season. The most recent driver to win consecutive races was Palou's teammate Scott Dixon, who won the first three races of 2020. There has been at least one instance of a consecutive race winner in each of the last five seasons. 

Oliver Askew made the Fast Six for the second time in his IndyCar career and Askew finished fifth on the grid. His other Fast Six appearance was in his second career start last year in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis when he qualified fifth. Askew was the top Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing qualifier and it is only the second time this season an RLLR car has started in the top five this season. 

Patricio O'Ward brought out a local yellow in the final round of qualifying and lost his fastest lap. This relegated O'Ward to sixth on the grid. It is O'Ward's fifth consecutive top ten starting position, and his average finish is 8.5 over the last four races. O'Ward has led a lap in the last three races. 

Marcus Ericsson leads an all-Ganassi row four. Ericsson was 0.2361 seconds off advancing to the Fast Six. This is the third consecutive race Ericsson has started in the top ten, the first time he has qualified in the top ten for three consecutive races in his IndyCar career. Ericsson has finished better than his starting position in ten of 14 races this season.

Scott Dixon will start eighth next to Ericsson. Dixon reached 400 laps led this season last week at Portland. It is the first time Dixon has led 400 laps in a season since he led 456 laps in 2012. It is the fifth time in 21 seasons he has led over 400 laps. This race marks the 350th start of Dixon's career. He joins Mario Andretti, Tony Kanaan, A.J. Foyt and Hélio Castroneves as the only drivers to reach that milestone. 

Simon Pagenaud is ninth in the championship and Pagenaud takes ninth on the grid. With only two races remaining, Pagenaud has only two top five this season. The fewest top five finishes he has had in a full season is four. This is the ninth time Pagenaud has started ninth in his career. His only top five finish from ninth on the grid was third at Baltimore in 2012.

For the second consecutive race, Max Chilton advanced to the second round of qualifying and will start tenth. It is the first time Chilton has advanced to the second round of qualifying multiple times in a season since 2017. After finishing outside the top twenty in four consecutive starts, Chilton has followed it up with five consecutive top twenty finishes, but only one of those is a top fifteen finish. 

James Hinchcliffe ended up 11th on the grid. Hinchcliffe has victories at Laguna Seca in Star Mazda and the Atlantic Championship. No driver has ever won at the same track in the top three series of the Road to Indy system. Hinchcliffe is one of four drivers have won in Star Mazda/Pro Mazda/Indy Pro 2000 and IndyCar. The others are Patricio O'Ward, Rinus VeeKay and Graham Rahal. Hinchcliffe won from 11th at Iowa in 2018.

Graham Rahal qualified 12th after having a spin on his final qualifying lap in round two. Rahal led 36 laps at Portland. It is the most laps he has led since he led 41 laps in the second Belle Isle race in 2017, Rahal's most recent victory. The most recent IndyCar race won from 12th on the grid was Tony Kanaan in the 2013 Indianapolis 500. 

Both Dale Coyne Racing drivers were seventh in their qualifying groups and will start on row seven. Romain Grosjean will be in 13th after falling 0.0027 seconds shy of advancing from group one. Dale Coyne Racing has only two top ten finishes at Laguna Seca, but those finishes have come in the last two Laguna Seca races. Oriol Servià was third in 2004 and Sébastien Bourdais was seventh in 2019.

Ed Jones ended up 0.0295 seconds off advancing from group two. Jones was 23rd in his only Laguna Seca IndyCar start in 2019 after a suspension failure ended his race after 51 laps. Jones led two laps last week at Portland. It was the third time he has led a race in his IndyCar career.

Felix Rosenqvist will start 15th. Rosenqvist went from 14th to fifth in the 2019 Laguna Seca race. It is the only time he has finished inside the top five after starting outside the top ten. Five of his 17 career top ten finishes have come from grid positions worse than tenth, but three of those results have been tenth-place finishes. 

Scott McLaughlin was fastest in the second practice session of the weekend on Saturday morning, but he wound up 16th on the grid, over 7/10th of a second off that practice time. To clinch rookie of the year honors this weekend, McLaughlin needs to outscore Romain Grosjean by 12 points. When the green flag waves, Grosjean will gain three points on McLaughlin just based on starting positions. McLaughlin would become the first Team Penske driver to win IndyCar rookie of the year if he were to close it out.

Josef Newgarden ended up 17th on the grid, his fourth time starting outside the top ten in the last five races. This is the first time Newgarden has been the worst Team Penske starter this season. Despite Newgarden's recent qualifying form, he has five consecutive top ten finishes and two consecutive top five finishes. Newgarden has not had three consecutive top five finishes yet this season. He has had a three-race top five finish streak in each of the previous two seasons. 

Conor Daly joins his former Indy lights teammate Newgarden on row nine. Daly is the top driver in the championship without a top ten finish in 18th. He has not had a top ten finish in his last 19 starts. His previous longest top ten drought was nine races. Daly won the 2010 Star Mazda race at Laguna Seca. 

Ryan Hunter-Reay will start 19th, his fourth consecutive race starting outside the top ten. Hunter-Reay's first Atlantic Championship victory came at Laguna Seca in 2002. He won that race from pole position and led an America sweep of the podium ahead of Rocky Moran, Jr. and Roger Yasukawa. Yasukawa is currently Álex Palou's agent. 

Jack Harvey started 20th and finished fourth at Portland, and Harvey will start 20th again this weekend. Portland was Harvey's second top five finish of the season. It is the first time Harvey has had multiple top five finishes in an IndyCar season. Meyer Shank Racing was also fourth last week in the IMSA race at Laguna Seca. The #60 Meyer Shank Racing Acura of Olivier Pla and Dane Cameron led 53 laps before needing to make its final pit stop, dropping the car to fourth.

Sébastien Bourdais will start 21st, his worst starting position on a road or street course this year. Bourdais started 27th in the Indianapolis 500. Bourdais is looking to give A.J. Foyt Racing its third top ten finish at Laguna Seca. The team was eighth in 1992 with Mike Groff and tenth in 1993 with Robby Gordon. 

Hélio Castroneves ended up 22nd in qualifying. Castroneves won last year at Laguna Seca in IMSA. Castroneves is one of two drivers with an IndyCar victory and an IMSA victory at Laguna Seca. The other is Castroneves' former teammate Gil de Ferran, whose first IndyCar came at Laguna Seca in 1995 and de Ferran won the American Le Mans Series race with another one of Castroneves' former teammates, Simon Pagenaud, in 2009.

Takuma Sato qualified 23rd, the third time in the last five races Sato has started outside the top twenty. Sato started 16th at Laguna Seca two years ago but dropped to 21st in the race and finished one lap down. He has 12 lead lap finishes this season, his most in a single season in his IndyCar career. Out of his 196 IndyCar starts, Sato has 99 lead lap finishes entering Laguna Seca. 

Rinus VeeKay wound up 24th on the grid, his third consecutive start outside the top twenty and fourth start outside the top twenty in the last five races. VeeKay swept the Indy Lights races at Laguna Seca in 2019. He is in the midst of his worst stretch of his IndyCar career with six consecutive finishes outside the top ten. 

Jimmie Johnson will be making his first IndyCar start in his home state of California and he will do it from 25th position. Johnson won his first NASCAR Cup Series start in California. It just so happened to be Johnson's first Cup victory as well at Fontana in 2002.

Callum Ilott is back for his second start of his IndyCar career and Ilott starts 26th. Juncos Hollinger Racing has won five of the last six Indy Lights races at Laguna Seca and the team has five Indy Pro 2000 victories at the track. 

Dalton Kellett starts dead last in 27th. Kellett has started outside the top twenty in 14 of 15 races this season. He made four starts at Laguna Seca in the Road to Indy series. He had a fifth-place finish in Pro Mazda and had three finishes of sixth. 

NBC's coverage of the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey begins at 3:00 p.m. ET with green flag scheduled for 3:30 p.m. ET. The race is scheduled for 95 laps.