Colton Herta scored his second win of 2021 in dominating fashion.
Scott Dixon and Marcus Ericsson were eliminated from the championship hunt.
Jimmie Johnson earned his best finish of his rookie season.
And then there were only three.
Just three drivers now remain eligible to win the 2021 NTT IndyCar Series championship following Sunday’s penultimate race of the season, the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey at central California’s Weathertech Raceway Laguna Seca.
Although non-championship contender Colton Herta dominated the race to earn his second win of the season, the bigger picture was how the championship battle played out. Points leader Alex Palou maintained his edge, finishing second, while Pato O’Ward finished fifth and Josef Newgarden finished seventh.
They are the only drivers still remaining in the hunt for the title, with the championship-deciding and season-ending race next Sunday in the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach, on the temporary street course near downtown Long Beach, California.
Palou leads O’Ward by 35 points, while Newgarden is a distant 48 points back.
Defending series champion winner Scott Dixon and Marcus Ericsson were eliminated at Laguna Seca.
It was a great run for the 21-year-old Herta, who started from the pole to earn his second career win at Laguna Seca, matching the two wins his father won at the same track during his own racing career. The younger Herta won in his first-ever career race at Laguna two years ago.
“I enjoy racing here so much,” Herta told NBC Sports. “It’s an amazing track for me and my family. This track has been so good for my family.
“There was pressure from Alex behind me. I’m just happy to have done it. This is so awesome. It’s my favorite track in America.”
While Palou was hoping to win, he didn’t lose any ground in the championship battle.
“We didn’t have it today for the win but we did the most we could,” Palou told NBC. “I couldn’t push (Herta) anymore. I was trying, but he was tough. It was Herta’s day and Andretti’s (Andretti Autosport) day today. But yeah, I’m happy (with his runner-up finish).”
O’Ward looked like he’d end up with a podium finish, but drifted back slightly late in the race to finish fifth, behind Herta, Palou, Romain Grosjean and Graham Rahal.
“All weekend we didn’t have it,” a dejected Grosjean said. “I truly feel like we absolutely used every ounce of energy and pace that this car had. We pulled off a near miracle by qualifying by starting in the first three rows.
“In the race, that was as much as I had. I’m disappointed but I’m happy: happy that we maximized what we had, but obviously disappointed that the guy we’re trying to catch outscored us again. All we can do at Long Beach is win and then let everything else fall.
“I’ve got faith in myself. I know I’m pretty handy around the street course, so let’s see what we can pull off next week.”
Newgarden is 48 points back. While he’s still mathematically eligible, he’d have to win at Long Beach and both Palou and O’Ward would have to falter. In fact, when interviewed by NBC, Newgarden all but conceded the championship to the two guys ahead of him.
“It’s just hard to do much more than what we did today, starting 17th,” Newgarden told NBC. “We can’t start back there, we know that. It’s just a punch to the gut yesterday, two weekends in a row. Not sure what’s caused that.
“Now we go to Long Beach and at least try to get second in this championship.”
Next to Herta’s win, arguably the other big star of the day in terms of performance was third-place finisher Grosjean, who had a spectacular late-race run, coming from 13th place to earn his third podium finish in his rookie season in the IndyCar Series. Grosjean is rumored to be joining Andretti Autosport next season, replacing either Ryan Hunter-Reay or James Hinchcliffe.
“It was a great day, amazing,” Grosjean told NBC Sports. “To be P3 today is a pretty good day. Laguna Seca I love you, that’s all I can say.”
One other finish of note was the ninth-place finish for Oliver Askew, appearing in the second of a consecutive three-race stint for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, which potentially may be an audition for next season, as RLL is expected to increase from a two- to three-car operation.
IT’S ALL OVER IN 2021 FOR DIXON AND ERICSSON:
Dixon came into Sunday’s race 49 points behind Palou, still hoping to have a chance to tie A.J. Foyt for the most championships in IndyCar history – seven. While Dixon struggled with handling for much of the first half of the race, the final setback that essentially ended Dixon’s title hopes came on Lap 41.
Takuma Sato spun coming out of the corkscrew and started rolling backward on the track, rather than holding his brakes to stop the car. Dixon was trailing and as he crested the hill, he suddenly saw Sato, leaving him with virtually nowhere to go. Dixon made contact with the right rear of Sato’s Honda, but was able to continue on, for what it’s worth, finishing a dismal 13th.
Sato, meanwhile, returned to the garage for repairs and essentially hobbled around the track for the remainder of the race, finishing last in the 27-driver field, ending up 12 laps off the lead lap.
Dixon leaves Laguna Seca 78 points behind Palou, meaning that even if he wins at Long Beach, he’ll still have to wait until next season now for yet another bid to win his seventh championship.
As for Ericsson, he came into Sunday’s race in a must-win situation, 75 points behind points leader Alex Palou. But with his sixth-place finish at Laguna Seca, Ericsson drops out of contention, 87 points behind Palou, thus ending his title hopes.
“Today, with the degradation of the tires on this track, it was just tough for us to keep the pace,” Ericsson said. “Still, P6 was a good result, but I had hoped for a little more.”
LOTS OF EARLY ACTION – STARTING EVEN BEFORE THE GREEN FLAG:
Laguna Seca is one of the more challenging tracks on the IndyCar circuit, as several drivers quickly found out early on Sunday.
* The earliest incident actually happened roughly two hours before the race even began when Juncos Racing’s Callum Ilott ran off the track and into a tire fence during pre-race warmups. His team managed to make repairs, but Ilott finished 22nd.
It was Ilott’s second career start in the IndyCar Series, having finishing 25th in his debut last week at Portland.
* Then, shortly after the green flag fell, Alexander Rossi was running second on Lap 2 when he made contact on Turn 5 with Herta, his Andretti Autosport teammate. Herta was able to continue on, but Rossi went off-track.
Rossi was able to get the car restarted, but his Honda had little to nothing for the rest of the field, ultimately finishing 25th, two laps behind the winning Herta.
* Then on Lap 10, even though he’s no longer in contention for the championship, Will Power’s hopes for a good day quickly evaporated with an engine issue. Repairs were made but he returned to the track two laps down, ultimately finishing 26th.
Last but not least, Felix Rosenqvist suffered two spins in the first half of the race. He finished 19th, one lap down.
JIMMIE JOHNSON EARNS A CAREER-BEST
Seven-time NASCAR Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, a rookie in IndyCar this season, gave himself a belated birthday present Sunday. Two days after turning 46 years old, Johnson finished a career-best 17th at Laguna Seca.
“It was a lot of fun,” Johnson told NBC.
He was involved in a rather exciting incident with six laps to go. As Grosjean was closing in on the two race leaders, Herta and Palou, he made contact with Johnson while attempting to pass. Johnson tried to hold his line, Grosjean bounced off and went sailing through the air with just two tires on-track, but came away no worse for the wear and continued on.
Johnson, meanwhile, lost a few seconds after going off-track but was able to reel his car back in.
“I thought our day was over,” Johnson told NBC. “I couldn’t believe (Grosjean) threw it in there that late. Luckily, we both saved it. I was worried about a penalty, but thankfully I didn’t get it and wound up with a career-best finish.”
Johnson is racing only permanent road courses and temporary street courses this season. His last race for 2021 will be next Sunday’s season finale at Long Beach. Johnson considers Long Beach his home track, having grown up in suburban San Diego, roughly 100 miles away.
Earlier in the day, IndyCar officials revealed the 2022 season schedule, which will feature 17 races. Johnson has not announced whether he’ll compete in the schedule next year, or whether he’ll once again compete only in just road and street course races.
He is expected to make the decision shortly after next month’s big off-season test for all teams at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Follow Autoweek correspondent Jerry Bonkowski on Twitter @JerryBonkowski