The Andretti Autosport-Honda driver led both practice sessions, and proved so fast that he was able to run hard primary Firestones in the first segment of qualifying, leaving him a fresh set of the softer ‘reds’ for the Firestone Fast Six shootout. That enabled him to land his sixth pole position by over half a second.
Come the race, despite a couple of the nine cautions working against his strategy, he was able to carve through to second place and was on the tail of eventual winner Marcus Ericsson, who had made his final stop seven laps earlier than him and was therefore having to save fuel and was running older tires.
But the Swede stymied Herta’s huge pace through Turns 3 and 8 – the two corners leading onto the Korean War Veterans Memorial Bridge – by backing off, then briefly hitting his push-to-pass boost and using his red tires (Herta was on primaries) to gain better traction. That gave him enough breathing room to coast into Turns 4 and 9, to save fuel, while Herta tried to regain the deficit by staying on the power longer and braking later.
With 12 laps to go, Herta came an inch away from understeering into the wall on the exit of Turn 9, but was recovering the lost ground when on Lap 75 of the 80-lap race, at the same turn he locked up his left-front wheel and hit the wall hard.
“Tunnel vision, man,” said the devastated 21-year-old to NBC Sports. “I feel terrible. We had the car all weekend to win, and man, I just threw it away, so I feel really bad.
“I’m OK, though. I know that I didn’t get my hands off the wheel, but they’re OK, so I don’t really have anything to say. This place is brutal. I think we saw that.”
He later added: “I just feel terrible for the team and for Gainbridge and Honda. It was terrible on my part.”
Despite his huge disappointment, Herta graciously acknowledged Ericsson’s accomplished defense in the circumstances.
“Congrats to Marcus, he drove a hell of a race there at the end,” said Herta. “I didn’t think he was going to make it [on fuel] and he just kept pulling away from me. Good job to him…
“I knew he had to make fuel, I didn’t know how close it was going to be. I thought he was going to make it, but I wasn’t sure if he’d have to make a big fuel number or keep going how he was. But I was just pushing to try to get ahead of him as soon as I could, and overdid it. It’s tough.”
He also acknowledged the enthusiasm of the crowd that attended a race that started at 4.45pm local time but didn’t finish until 7.25pm, due to seven full-course cautions and two red-flag periods.
“Thanks to everybody for showing up,” he said. “It was amazing. Even with the COVID restrictions the place sold out so quickly. Everyone did such a fantastic job putting on this race. I couldn’t be more proud of the city for showing up for it and everybody watching at home for sticking with us through all those yellows.
“Next weekend will be a lot cleaner hopefully, and I’ll get my redemption there.”