Story By: CURT CAVIN / INDYCAR – LEXINGTON, OH – One second-generation NTT INDYCAR SERIES driver edged another Saturday in qualifying at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, and both had Honda behind them.
In fact, all six drivers in the Firestone Fast Six round were powered by Honda, the first time that one manufacturer has swept the final qualifying group since 2016 when Chevrolet did at Watkins Glen International. It was Honda’s first such sweep since the format was implemented more than a decade ago.
Andretti Autosport’s Colton Herta, the son of four-time race winner Bryan Herta, scored the NTT P1 Award in dramatic fashion, turning a lap tantalizingly quicker than Graham Rahal, whose father, Bobby Rahal, was a three-time INDYCAR SERIES champion. Their best laps were distinguished by just .0432 seconds, with Herta’s pole-winning time 1 minute, 6.3096 seconds. It was the second-closest battle for the pole on a road course or street circuit this season.
For Herta, it was the 11th pole of his still-young career and second in as many races as he also earned the top starting position for last month’s Sonsio Grand Prix at Road America presented by AMR. He will seek his first race win of the season Sunday in The Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio Presented by the 2023 Accord Hybrid.
“Really happy to get two in a row,” Herta said, smiling.
For Rahal, it was a mixed emotional bag. Being second in qualifying was his best effort in four-plus years – since early in the 2019 season — and he reached the Firestone Fast Six for the first time since late in 2021. But he very much wanted the pole at his home track.
“I’m not going to lie — it was a good lap, and I knew it was solid,” Rahal said. “I was bummed to not get a pole.”
Rahal was born an hour south of the 13-turn, 2.258-mile permanent road course, attended many races here with his father, and scored the signature win of his career in the INDYCAR SERIES race in 2015.
Herta is also a former INDYCAR SERIES race winner at Mid-Ohio, reaching victory lane in 2020. He will be driving for his eighth career series win, which would give him five consecutive winning seasons.
Also working in the favor of Herta and Rahal, along with Honda, is that seven of the past series races at this track have been won by drivers starting on the front row. Rahal hasn’t won anywhere since sweeping the Detroit weekend midway through the 2017 season.
Unique to this Firestone Fast Six were the decisions to use different tire compounds. Herta and series leader Alex Palou (No. 10 The American Legion Honda) of Chip Ganassi Racing opted to finish the session with new primary tires while Rahal and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing teammate Christian Lundgaard (No. 45 Vivid Clear Rx Honda) went with used alternate tires.
Herta’s teammate, Kyle Kirkwood (No. 27 AutoNation Honda), wasn’t even sure Herta made the right choice as Kirkwood earned the No. 3 starting position with used alternates.
“I think it was the right call to split the strategy a little bit,” Kirkwood said. “But honestly, I don’t think that (Herta) made the right call. He still put it on pole and drove super well.”
Said Herta: “It was a tough call. Reds and blacks were pretty close on the second run and new, so it wasn’t an easy (decision). But (the team) gave me a car that was good on both tire compounds, so we had the option to run (either).”
While it was difficult to discern which tire choice was preferred, qualifying proved that both compounds should be close in performance in Sunday’s 80-lap race. Airtime for the 40th such event in Mid-Ohio history is 1:30 p.m. ET on USA Network, Peacock and the INDYCAR Radio Network.
Not only did Rahal and Lundgaard reach the Firestone Fast Six for the first time this year, teammate Jack Harvey (No. 30 Permco Honda) qualified 11th, which meant all three team cars got to the second round of qualifying. That made Rahal happy.
As the season reaches its halfway point this weekend, Palou, a winner of three of the past four races, holds a 74-point lead over Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Marcus Ericsson, who drives the No. 8 Huski Ice Spritz Honda. Palou will start fourth Sunday with Ericsson ninth and teammate Scott Dixon (No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda) sixth.
Team Penske did not place a driver in the Firestone Fast Six, and the remarkable aspect is Will Power has yet to qualify in the top group this season. Roger Penske’s organization still does not have a pole this season in nine attempts.
Power, who had the fastest car in the morning practice and finished third in last year’s Mid-Ohio race, will start seventh in the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet. Defending race winner Scott McLaughlin will line up eighth in the No. 3 Good Ranchers Team Penske Chevrolet and Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge winner Josef Newgarden will be 15th in the No. 2 PPG Team Penske Chevrolet.
“The car felt very good, but it’s ultra, ultra tight,” Power said of the field.
Pato O’Ward led 28 laps from the pole in last year’s race but dropped out early due to a mechanical failure with the No. 5 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet. Saturday, he created his own issue, spinning off Turn 2 in the first qualifying group to necessitate a 25th-place starting position.
“It was all on me on that one,” O’Ward said. “I lost the rear and (the car) got to an angle where I couldn’t save it, and then I stalled it as soon as I got in the grass. It frickin’ (stinks).”
Meyer Shank Racing’s Simon Pagenaud was held out of qualifying as a precaution following his Turn 4 incident early in Saturday morning’s practice that saw the No. 60 AutoNation/SiriusXM Honda roll through the gravel trip nearly seven times. The one-time series champion was evaluated and released by the INDYCAR Medical team, although per protocol he was not cleared to return to action Saturday. He will be evaluated Sunday morning. The team has asked series veteran Conor Daly to be on standby in the event Pagenaud can’t drive in the race.