Colton Herta on track at Mid-Ohio

Colton Herta continued his strong stretch run form, leading an eventful practice today for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

Herta topped the time sheets with his best lap of 1 minute, 1.1306 seconds in the No. 88 Capstone Turbine #ShiftToGreen Honda during the 90-minute session on the 14-turn, 1.8-mile street circuit. Herta entered this event with results of first, fourth and second in his last three races, helping him climb to third in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES standings.

Andretti Harding Steinbrenner Autosport driver Herta will be one of the favorites to win the NTT P1 Award for pole position when qualifying starts at 3:05 p.m. (ET) today (Live, INDYCAR Pass on NBC Sports Gold and Pennzoil INDYCAR Radio Network).

CLICK IT: Practice 1 Results | Qualifying Groups 

While Herta zoomed to P1, many eyes were focused on three other athletes in the 24-driver field – championship contenders Scott Dixon and Josef Newgarden and rookie Scott McLaughlin.

Dixon leads Newgarden by 32 points in the quest for his sixth championship and needs to finish ninth or better in the 100-lap race that starts at 2:30 p.m. Sunday.

Reigning series champion and St. Pete race winner Newgarden ended up eighth in practice at 1:01.6200 in the No. 1 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet. Like many drivers, Newgarden’s session was choppy due to traffic, and yellow and red flags.

“That’s street-course racing,” Newgarden said. “You’re going to get it; you’ve got to deal with it. I think we’ve got something to work with, without a doubt.”

Dixon was 16th at 1:01.8459 in the No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda, but that end result may have been a bit deceptive. Dixon never was able to turn a valid hot lap on the faster Firestone alternate “red” tires due to incidents late in practice. He produced one late, quick lap on the “reds” that would have placed him in the top 10, but that lap was nullified by a red flag triggered by a spin by teammate Felix Rosenqvist. Dixon also was slowed earlier in the session for repairs after brushing the wall with his right rear tire in Turn 10.

“We put a time in that put us sixth, and then they took it away because of the red (flag),” Dixon said. “That was only Lap 2, so I think we definitely have some speed for the top three. Hopefully we can continue that in qualifying.”

Three-time Virgin Australia Supercars champion McLaughlin was 10th overall at 1:01.6770 in his first official NTT INDYCAR SERIES on-track session in the No. 3 Shell V-Power Nitro+ Chevrolet but was among the top three until late in the session, when he overshot two braking zones. He ended up within five-hundredths of a second of his title-winning teammates Newgarden and Will Power, with his best lap coming on the slower Firestone primary “black” tires.

Team Penske named McLaughlin on Friday as a fourth full-time driver in its INDYCAR stable for 2021.

“It’s awesome to just have a crack and see what’s going on,” McLaughlin said. “It’s everything I’ve dreamed of. The boys at Team Penske have been amazing at getting me sorted and comfortable. There’s still a lot more to learn.”

Behind Herta in the top five of practice was Andretti teammate James Hinchcliffe, second at 1:01.2279 in the No. 26 Gainbridge Honda. Rookie Alex Palou was third at 1:01.4319 in the No. 55 Guaranteed Rate Honda.

2020 Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge winner Takuma Sato celebrated signing a contract extension with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing by ending up fourth at 1:01.4824 in the No. 30 Panasonic/Mi-Jack Honda. Four-time series champion Sebastien Bourdais, a St. Petersburg resident, rounded out the top five on familiar streets at 1:01.5153 in the No. 14 AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet.