LONG BEACH, Calif. — Southern California kid Colton Herta as the fastest driver in Friday’s 45-minute practice session for Sunday’s Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach.
The Andretti/Curb-Agajanian driver who won last weekend’s Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey lapped the 1.968-mile, 11-turn temporary street course at 1:09.2680 in the No. 26 Gainbridge Honda.
“I felt really good,” Herta said. “It seems like at all of the street courses we have a really good balance off the truck. We’ve been really good at every single street course so far. I’m happy. We’re surprised with the grip level and how fast we got up to speed.”
Team Penske’s Simon Pagenaud, who is presumably driving in his final race for the team, was second at 1:09.4334 in the No. 22 Chevrolet. Championship leader Alex Palou of Chip Ganassi Racing was third at 1:09.4554 in the No. 10 NTT DATA Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing.
“That was a good session, I like the track,” Palou said. “I’m really happy with the Firestone Reds. I’m comfortable and ready for qualifying tomorrow. It’s always tough here on the street courses when it takes a couple of laps to get the tire up to temperature. It was good. We were just practicing for qualifying.
“I don’t know how many hours I spent on iRacing to get ready for this race. Big day is on Sunday.”
Palou takes a 35-point lead into Sunday’s final race of the season over Pato O’Ward of Arrow McLaren SP. O’Ward was 16th in practice at 1:10.2451 in the No. 5 Chevrolet.
“That’s where we’re at. We need to work,” O’Ward said. “We need to sort something out and find time. I guess we Yard Sale the car and see where we can go.
“It was messy for us. I didn’t really get a read. It’s hard to tell where we are truly at. That’s as much as I have on this. It’s hard to say where we are at. We need to find what is wrong with it and go into a direction that is good for qualifying. It was really messy. The car was all over the place.
O’Ward’s teammate, Felix Rosenqvist, was fourth at 1:09.4870 in the No. 7 Chevrolet.
Departing Andretti Autosport driver Ryan Hunter-Reay, a former Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach winner, rounded out the top five at 1:09.5154 in the No. 28 DHL Honda.
“It’s one of my favorite race tracks,” Hunter-Reay said. “It seems like everybody had a hard time today. There is potential in the car, and we’ll go from there. I was pretty happy with how it all happened.”
Josef Newgarden, who remains mathematically alive at 48 points behind Palou, was 10th in practice at 1:09.8557 in the No. 2 Chevrolet.
“Pretty short for us,” Newgarden said. “We rolled off with a couple gremlins and didn’t make much work for the session. But we have a pretty good feel for the car and what it needs. Hopefully, on Saturday, we’ll hit it pretty good.”
With 30 minutes left in the session, Newgarden spun in his No. 2 Chevrolet and stopped in turn three to bring out the Red Flag.
With 21:14 to go, Jimmie Johnson looped his No. 48 Honda in the Turn 8 section of the race course on cold tires. A few minutes later, Oliver Askew hit the wall, breaking the rear wishbone on the suspension, and bringing out the Red Flag.
The green flag came out with 17 minutes left in the session. At that time, the duo of Alexander Rossi and Herta were the two fastest drivers. Rossi’s fast time was 1:09.7940 in the No. 27 NAPA Honda and Herta’s time was 1:09.8160 in the No. 26 Gainbridge Honda.
Johnson spun again and came to a stop on Shoreline Boulevard. Once his Honda engine was refired, he was back on track avoiding a red flag.
Herta took over the No. 1 spot at 1:09.2680 just before Simon Pagenaud’s Chevrolet drove off the track into the runoff area.
One lap later, Herta’s Honda got squirrely, and he was able to keep it in control just off the wall.
James Hinchcliffe drove down the runoff as another driver that found the course tricky. Scott Dixon also spun his No. 9 Honda.
With 8 minutes left, Andretti Autosport had the four top spots on the timing list was Herta, Ryan Hunter-Reay (1:09.5154), Rossi and Hinchcliffe (1:09.8369).
Ironically, a driver that will compete for Andretti Autosport in 2022, Romain Grosjean, was fifth at 1:09.8807 in the No. 51 Honda for Dale Coyne Racing with RWR.