So much of the focus of this weekend’s Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach centers on settling the NTT INDYCAR SERIES championship, but it is difficult not to put some spotlight on Andretti Autosport.
Friday, the Indianapolis-based team confirmed that Romain Grosjean will replace Ryan Hunter-Reay in the No. 28 DHL Honda, and then Colton Herta delivered the first practice’s fastest lap with the team’s three other cars also in the top nine.
And don’t forget that Alexander Rossi has won the past two INDYCAR races on this 11-turn, 1.968-mile temporary street circuit.
At one point late in the 45-minute practice, Michael Andretti-owned cars were the four quickest, with Herta leading Rossi, Hunter-Reay and James Hinchcliffe. Herta finished on top, showing the speed he has routinely unleashed in the street course races this season. He led 97 of 100 laps of the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg in April, was strong in the two Chevrolet Duals at Detroit races in June and won the NTT P1 Award in qualifying for the inaugural Big Machine Music City Grand Prix in August at Nashville.
Even Herta’s mistakes went right for him Friday. Video replays showed his No. 26 Gainbridge Honda of Andretti Autosport w/Curb-Agajanian bottoming out after bouncing over a curb, then nearly hitting the wall. Quick hands and some good fortune allowed him to avoid it.
Initially, Herta thought the car was going to escape damage “until (the rear) came around and snapped back.”
“Then I thought I was going to hit the wall but luckily – and I don’t know what happened -- but it didn’t,” he said. “It’s kind of one of those things. Big front tires, and sometimes the car saves itself. That’s kind of what happened there. I was just along for the ride.”
Herta’s confidence in the car’s speed was evident. He thinks he can win the pole as he did on street circuits in St. Petersburg and Nashville.
“Oh yeah, yeah, for sure,” he said of having a pole-worthy car. “Kind of this whole year we’ve had really good street course cars. I think we’ve had really the best street course cars this year.”
If Herta wins Sunday’s 85-lap race, he will join a list of Andretti Autosport drivers who have gone to victory lane in this event. Hunter-Reay won in 2010, Mike Conway in 2011 and Rossi in 2018 and ’19. Hinchcliffe won the 2017 race with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports.
Hunter-Reay also is optimistic that he can end his 12-year association with Andretti Autosport with a strong run. He will leave with an INDYCAR championship in 2012 and an Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge victory in 2014, plus many other wonderful moments.
“I’m all smiles, absolutely,” he said. “Racing at one of my favorite tracks in an Indy car, you can either go through it with a big smile on your face or you can just be mad. I’ve always enjoyed it and gone forward with a positive attitude. That’s what I’m doing, for sure.”
Hunter-Reay said he and Andretti decided last November that this would be the driver’s last season with the team, although Hunter-Reay acknowledged holding out hope.
“We were third in that last pit stop at Indy when Alex (Palou) and Helio (Castroneves) were running in front of us,” Hunter-Reay said. “Who knows? If we would have had a chance to fight that out and win the Indy 500 or something like that, that tends to change your season. Look what happened to Helio, right? He goes in with a one-off, and now he’s going into a full program (with Meyer Shank Racing).
“If you hit a stride, never say never. Things can be reworked.”
Hunter-Reay, who turns 41 in December, acknowledged it’s time to move on for all parties.
“I’ve been with same engineer (Ray Gosselin) longer than I’ve been married, and I’ve got three kids so go figure that one out,” he said. “I’ve definitely been here a long time. In sports, in business, everything evolves. It always does, and change is inevitable, and it’s a good thing usually.
“I think it’s definitely a good time to shake things up, and I wish Andretti Autosport, Romain and DHL the best.”
Hunter-Reay has not confirmed his driving plans for 2022.
Saturday’s schedule includes a 45-minute practice at noon (ET) followed by NTT P1 Award qualifying at 3 p.m. Sunday’s 85-lap race airs live on NBCSN at 3 p.m. (ET).