By MICHAEL MAROT
AP Sports Writer
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Colton Herta stopped an early slide, overcame two late pit stops and eventually pulled away from Simon Pagenaud on Saturday to win the wild, wacky and wet IndyCar Grand Prix.
Herta beat the three-time race winner by 3.0983 seconds amid rooster tails coming from the saturated road course. The 22-year-old California driver won for the first time this season and seventh time overall.
“This is awesome,” he said. “That’s the hardest race I think I’ve ever done — wet to dry, dry back to wet.”
Rain and the threat of rain forced race strategists to constantly change their plans. Nobody made better calls than Herta, who also gave Honda its first victory of the season.
He and two-time Indy 500 winner Takuma Sato were the first to switch from wet tires to dry just three laps into the race. One lap later as he fought to keep the Andretti Autosport car straight on cold tires and a damp track, the No. 26 was sideways in the 10th turn on Indy’s 14-turn, 2.439-mile road course.
Somehow he hung on, quickly moved to the front and stayed there most of the race. Herta led 50 of 75 laps.
Even when it appeared Herta made the wrong choice — like running on dry tires after Alexander Rossi and made an early switch back to rain tires — his team didn’t fret.
“I’m not sure we did the right thing but if we were wrong, we’re all wrong,” said Herta’s father and race strategist, Bryan, after the first of the two pit stops.
But Herta’s perfectly timed second stop set him up to make the winning pass of Pato O’Ward on Lap 66 with O’Ward still on dry tires. Herta took the inside line in the first turn, slipped past O’Ward and drove away.
“I just couldn’t see so I was looking for mates on the side for breaking points,” Pagenaud said. “It was tricky, it was really tricky.”
Race organizers moved the start time in hopes of avoiding a wet track.
Instead, they had to delay the start anyway — first because of lightning in the area, then because of a steady light rain. Eventually, drivers started on rain tires, switched to dry tires and then some switched back to rain tires as more rain moved into the area.
A dramatically cooler and wetter track changed everything. There were spins and crashes, even cars struggling to stay on the track under caution even for some of the series’ biggest names.
Team Penske scrambled to put two-time series champ Josef Newgarden back in the race after his car was damaged in a crash on Lap 17. His pole-winning teammate, Will Power of Australia, lost three spots on the first lap and wound up third though he took over the points lead. Scott McLaughlin, Penske’s third driver, lost the lead under caution because of a spin.
Six-time series champ Scott Dixon, the New Zealander who drives for Chip Ganassi Racing, ran out of fuel on pit lane and his teammate, defending series champ Alex Palou of Spain, also fell out of contention after switching to rain tires too early.
O’Ward finished second despite getting tangled up with Arrow McLaren SP teammate Felix Rosenqvist in the first turn of Lap 42.
Indianapolis Motor Speedway officials opened the first on-site betting lounge in track history Saturday.
The Caesars Sportsbook Lounge at Pagoda Plaza will remain throughout Indianapolis 500 practices, two days of qualifying and the May 29 race. Caesars Sportsbook also will sponsor the speedway’s remaining races this year.
“We’re extremely excited about this partnership with Caesars and believe their on-site presence, which is a first for our storied facility, will give fans a new opportunity to engage with the on-track action at the Racing Capital of the World,” speedway president Doug Boles said.
Indiana Pacers guard Tyrese Haliburton’s first trip to a race track, any race track, came with a special appearance — sitting behind racing icon Mario Andretti in IndyCar’s two-seater. And until he started talking with some friends, he didn’t realize what a privilege it was.
“Not much,” he said when asked if he knew about Andretti’s legacy. “I told some people that I was going to ride with Andretti and they were like ‘Oh my God.’ So I started to look it up.”
And in Indy, which bills itself as the racing capitol of the world, Haliburton expects to be making more regular trips to the track.
“It’s a different kind of fan,” he said. “But it’s an experience you have to appreciate to say you live in Indiana.”
Teams and drivers aren’t going anywhere. Next up is the series marquee race, the Indianapolis 500 on May 29. Everyone gets a two-day break while the track is converted from a road course to the more traditional oval. Practice starts Tuesday and two days of qualifying are set for next weekend.
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