Road America race start

A race can’t be won in the first corner, but Sunday was another example of it being lost there.

Impacted by the first-lap trouble in the XPEL Grand Prix of Road America presented by AMR were top-three starters Linus Lundqvist, Colton Herta and Marcus Armstrong.

Lundqvist was starting on the pole for the first time in his young NTT INDYCAR SERIES career in the No. 8 American Legion Chip Ganassi Racing Honda, and Herta was considered a pre-race favorite as a front-row starter in the No. 26 Gainbridge Honda. Armstrong rolled off third in the 55-lap race in the No. 11 Ridgeline Lubricants Chip Ganassi Racing Honda.

None of them got through that first corner unscathed.

Lundqvist took contact from Armstrong, and Josef Newgarden ran into the back of Herta. Those top three cars spun, dropping them to the rear of the 27-car field. Herta was furious.

“I just got punted by Josef,” Herta said on the NBC broadcast. “I don’t understand how it’s a penalty for Armstrong right in front (of me) when he takes out Lundqvist, but I get the same thing done to me.

“It wasn’t even close. You see me slowing down; (Newgarden) doesn’t even attempt to slow down – just dumps me. How that isn’t a penalty is beyond me. I don’t understand it.”

Newgarden went on to join fellow Team Penske drivers Will Power and Scott McLaughlin in an all-Penske sweep of the podium, a first for Roger Penske’s organization since 2017. The Penske trio also swept the top three qualifying positions for last month’s Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge.

Power earned the 42nd victory of his career, tying Michael Andretti for fourth place on the sport’s all-time list.

Following the incident, Lundqvist, Herta and Armstrong retreated to pit road at the end of the first lap for repairs. Once the race went green, Armstrong had to return to pit road to serve a drive-through penalty for the contact on Lundqvist.

Poor Lundqvist. His pole-winning glory was short-lived, and he never again sniffed at the top 10. He settled for a 12th-place finish.

Armstrong’s day lasted only 35 laps before the Chip Ganassi Racing crew retired him with mechanical failure. His “500” only lasted six laps. In between those quick endings was the first podium finish of his career: A third-place finish in the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix presented by Lear on June 2.

Said Armstrong on his team’s radio Sunday: “I’m massively slow. What is my last lap time? I think my dash is broken.” He pitted, and that was that.

Even Pato O’Ward was impacted by the first-lap incident. Driving in the inside lane in the No. 5 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet, the 11th-place starter had to escape through the grass to avoid the spinning cars of Herta and Armstrong. He emerged unscathed but lost a half-dozen positions. After pitting, he was 21st. He finished eighth.

“Man, I just want a clean start (to a race),” O’Ward said. “I want to get through Turn 1 without any issues. I’m just playing a survival game in every start … I guess that’s what we get for qualifying in the middle.”

Herta had the better remainder of the race among those in trouble early. Although he fell as far as 26th place, he kept pushing, getting back to sixth place at the checkered flag. He even got within 3.5 seconds and one position of Andretti Global teammate Kyle Kirkwood, who went from fourth to the lead amid the first-corner scramble and ended up fifth in the No. 27 AutoNation Honda.

Still, Herta took no solace in a remarkable comeback on the 14-turn, 4.014-mile permanent road course.

“It’s disappointing because it’s the third week in a row – whether it was self-inflicted or not – that I thought we should win and we didn’t,” he said. “The third week in week in a row the Gainbridge Honda has been so fast, and we have relatively nothing to show for it. I’m not happy with sixth place with the car that we had today and the pace that we had in the car.

“I don’t know; I don’t know what to say.”

Herta crashed out of the “500” and saw his Detroit race effectively end when he overshot the Turn 5 apex trying to get back positions he lost through the pit exchanges when rain fell. Those finishes were 23rd and 19th, respectively.

“The last three weeks have just been terrible for me,” he said. “I hope to turn it around, and I hope to have some sort of luck. This car’s been fast, the crew’s been good on the stops and strategy every single place we’ve gone so far.

“To not have a win and only have a handful of podiums is disappointing in my book.”

A chance at redemption must wait a bit. The next race is the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca on Sunday, June 23.