One race into this NTT INDYCAR SERIES season, Colton Herta is already at the doorstep of what could begin to define his 2022.
The second-generation star driving the No. 26 Gainbridge Honda of Andretti Autosport w/Curb-Agajanian has more than proven himself on the road courses and street circuits of this series, winning six such races in his still-short career. But results on oval tracks have been more difficult to come by, and one of the biggies is next on INDYCAR’s schedule.
The XPEL 375 at Texas Motor Speedway is the second of 17 races this season, set for Sunday, March 20 with live coverage at 12:30 p.m. (ET) on NBC and the INDYCAR Radio Network. It’s the first of five oval races on the 2022 calendar.
How important are oval-track events in determining the series champion? Consider that last year Herta fell 94 points short of winning his first INDYCAR title, and series champion Alex Palou outscored him by 67 on those tracks, including by 48 points in the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge.
Winning isn’t everything in a season-long points pursuit, but the markers that come with it are significant, especially in the “500,” where double the usual number of points are distributed. Those points, along with the prestige of being a race winner in this competitive series, is what drives Herta.
“I really want to win a race on an oval,” he said. “We’ve had so much speed on some different ovals at different times, but I’ve never been able to close (one) out. I don’t even think I’ve finished on the podium on an oval yet.
“We’ve been close (to winning) … that’s something that I really want to work on this season.”
History supports the challenge of winning any race in this series. Herta has competed in 15 oval races since joining INDYCAR in 2019, and indeed he has yet to finish in the top three of any of them. In fact, he has only two top-five finishes on circle tracks – a fourth-place finish at World Wide Technology Raceway in 2020 and a fifth-place finish at Texas last year.
Herta started on the front row for last year’s “500,” and he repeated that qualifying effort at the ensuing oval race, at World Wide Technology Raceway. But the car’s driveshaft broke at the Gateway track on Lap 185 (of 260), ending a valiant run that saw Herta lead 101 laps. Thus, he finished 18th after finishing 16th at Indy, contributing to his 14.6 average finish on ovals in his NTT INDYCAR SERIES career.
Herta has won on an oval in Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires, capturing the Freedom 100 in 2018 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He finished second at Iowa later that year and was second at IMS in 2017. So, he knows he’s capable and only a matter of time before all the stars align.
For now, Herta is confident that first win is coming because he has qualified so well in recent oval races. He has started in the top four for three of INDYCAR’s past four oval events, including the “500” when he rolled off from the second position and led the opening lap. And leading 101 laps at Gateway added to the confidence boost he received last year.
“I think at some of the ovals we’ve proven we’re good at, like at Gateway we were strong at (last year) and at Iowa I think I was good at (in 2020),” he said.
Ironically, Herta identified Texas as an oval track where he has struggled more than others, although statistics don’t reflect difficulties. He finished fifth in last year’s second race and was seventh in 2020.
“(In) 2019 I was fast there, but ever since then with the aeroscreen we’ve just struggled there as a team,” he said. “So, (we’re) working on that and obviously we’ll focus on Iowa now (with a doubleheader scheduled for July 23-24).
“We have a test at Iowa later in the year, so that will be interesting.”
Experience matters, he said, and he’s gaining that with each season, too.
“I think if you don’t have the experience, it’s tough to really do good on the ovals consistently because it is a huge ‘feel’ thing and how you feel the car and how the setup is and what you kind of need going forward,” he said. “I think experience does a whole lot of that for that.”