Colton Herta on track St. Petersburg

ST. PETERSBURG, Florida – Minutes after he finished eighth in his second NTT IndyCar Series race, Colton Herta found his dad for a chat.

The theme of the chat? That was pretty impressive.

Herta, who failed to make it to the Firestone Fast Six during qualifying Saturday because he was penalized for impeding the run of another driver, recovered Sunday with a capable effort in the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, the series’ 2019 season opener.

He moved up three places from his 11th-place starting position in the No. 88 Harding Steinbrenner Racing Honda to record the best finish of his brief, two-race career. While he noted some mistakes, he also acknowledged the overall picture.

“It was pretty darned good,” he said in the pits after talking to his dad, former driver Bryan Herta, now co-owner of the No. 98 Andretti Herta Autosport with Marco & Curb-Agajanian driven by Marco Andretti.

Colton Herta“It was a tough one. … If we didn’t go back to 17th or 18th in the first 20 laps, we would’ve done a lot better. It’s a little unfortunate, but that’s how it is.”

Herta brushed the wall shortly after the first restart on Lap 23 and dropped further back into the field, but recovered once his Firestone tires regained grip.

“I thought it was over because I was sliding all over the place,” he said. “But that was just the tires heating up. Once they heated up, we were fine.”

Inexperience with restarting on the hard-compound, black-sidewall primary Firestone tires led to the dicey restart, Herta said.

“I’ve never restarted on black tires, and they’re (difficult) on restarts,” he said. “There’s just no grip. It does make it fun, and it does make overtaking opportunistic. I slapped the wall pretty hard coming out of Turn 3 on the first restart.”

After dropping to 17th place following his brush with the wall, Herta climbed steadily back to 11th before making his second pit stop of the race on Lap 42. The 18-year-old cracked the top 10 for the first time on Lap 70 and peaked in eighth position, the spot he held for the final 25 circuits of the 110-lap race on the 1.8-mile St. Pete temporary street course.

Herta first drove for Harding Steinbrenner Racing at the 2018 season finale at Sonoma Raceway, two weeks after he finished runner-up for the Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires championship. At Sonoma, he started 19th and finished 20th. Sunday’s second start, especially considering the physical nature of the race, was impressive.

“I’m tired. I’m really tired,” Herta said. “It was a tough one. It’s the longest street course race, and then with the heat and humidity, it’s just deadly. And just two safety cars? That’s not really normal here, kind of unheard of.”

Herta now gets to look ahead to the next NTT IndyCar Series event, the INDYCAR Classic at Circuit of The Americas from March 22-24. It will be the first Indy car race at the popular road course in Austin, Texas, but Herta was fastest of all drivers in two days of testing at the track last month.

Practices will stream live on INDYCAR Pass on NBC Sports Gold. Qualifying airs live at 3 p.m. Saturday, March 23 on NBCSN and INDYCAR Pass. The race from the 3.41-mile permanent road course airs live at 1 p.m. Sunday, March 24 on NBCSN.