IndyCar, meet your newest and youngest super star. Colton Herta drove like a 10-year veteran on the way to a breakthrough victory for the underfunded Harding Steinbrenner Racing team while making his third NTT IndyCar Series start.

“Oh my God, this doesn’t feel real,” he said from the cockpit on the cooldown lap.

“It’s amazing. Really super proud of him,” said his father, Bryan Herta. “Colton won the race — feels like Christmas to me.”

Swarming pack behind polewinner Power’s Penske-Chevy at the start. Image by LePage/LAT

Starting 4th, the 18-year-old motored to the front of the field, holding second behind Team Penske polesitter Will Power, and then maintaining a strong third when Andretti Autosport’s Alexander Rossi got by. Timing was everything for Herta as the fateful call to stop before Power and Rossi meant everything in how the race played out.

Power was on cruise control for the first 44 laps of the INDYCAR Classic at Circuit of The Americas. Leading from pole, the Penske driver was in total command until a late crash in the 60-lap event, while he and second-place Rossi of Andretti were preparing for their final pit stop, changed the complexion of the event.

The problem for the leading duo was Herta, who stopped just prior to the caution, and with Power and Rossi needing to pit, the Harding Steinbrenner Racing rookie vaulted from third to first as the leaders pulled in for fuel and tires. Making matters worse for Power, his No. 12 car briefly accelerated from the pits then stopped abruptly. The Australian was left stationary owning a 23rd-place finish.

“It feels like an input shaft,” he said. “It felt like it snapped. Massively disappointed, man. If the yellow didn’t get us, the driveshaft did.”

Runnerup finish meant useful points for St. Pete winner Newgarden. Image by LePage/LAT

Restarting with 10 laps to go, Herta powered away in his No. 88 Honda with Team Penske’s St. Petersburg winner Josef Newgarden and Andretti’s Ryan Hunter-Reay in pursuit. Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Graham Rahal was fourth, Dale Coyne Racing’s Sebastien Bourdais was on the push-to-pass button in fifth ahead of Marco Andretti as a wild shootout began.

Herta drove out to a 2.7-second win over Newgarden. “I was surprised by the gap we pulled out,” Herta said. Considering the difference in teams and experience, Herta’s ability to control the restart and drive away from Penske’s 2017 series champion only added to the accomplishment.

“I thought we might have had a shot there at the end,” Newgarden added. “A lot of things played into the race today. We had a little luck and I thought that could play into our favor to race for another win. The PPG Chevrolet looked good and felt good, it just wasn’t enough there at the end. A second place is big for us. We talked about the fact that you need to have podium finishes if you aren’t winning races, and this goes a long way to our championship run.”

A fighting third in Texas helped ease Hunter-Reay’s Florida disappointment. Image by Abbott/LAT

Struck down by engine issues at St. Pete, Ryan Hunter-Reay rebounded with a strong third to get his season back on track. Rahal was another contender who was rewarded for hard driving and perfect race strategy on the run to fourth.

Bourdais felt like he won the lottery after improving 12 positions, largely due to the timing of the late yellow.

“It’s great to get a top-five finish after the weekend we were having,” he said. “Solid strategy and a good job in the pits.

“It was a very static race, not much going on. I didn’t really go anywhere. Then toward the end some guys decided to gamble, but I had to stop and then try and run fast. The guys ahead of me didn’t go anywhere. So we weren’t really very far from them. Then the yellow came out as we were in pit lane. That’s about as lucky as you are going to get. I feel bad for the leaders because they really didn’t deserve that, but we didn’t deserve the problem we had in St. Pete, so I guess things even out.”

Adding to Bryan Herta’s happiness, his driver Marco Andretti placed sixth on Sunday, and Takuma Sato boosted the RLLR team’s fortunes with a positive seventh.

O’Ward: “It was a pretty good race for us.” Image by Levitt/LAT

The passes of the race went to Carlin Racing’s Patricio O’Ward, who carved up a number of veterans on the way to eighth as he made his debut with the Chevy-powered team.

“I think it was a pretty good race for us,” he said. “We ended exactly where we started and didn’t go backwards, so I’d say that was a successful day. We ran a clean race and we were right on pace, but after that yellow came out, we needed one more lap under yellow to be able to push as hard as we wanted to. I was having to save a lot of fuel to make it to the end, so it was just impossible to keep Marco and Takuma behind me coming full power.

“Huge congrats to Colton,” O’Ward added. “I’m really happy for him — I know this means a lot to him.”

With his eighth, O’Ward moved ahead of Carlin teammate Max Chilton, who placed 16th at St. Pete and 21st at COTA, in the standings.

Rossi, who plummeted to 13th after pitting during the caution, drove an amazing race. Stuck in the middle of the pack with 10 to go, he passed his way to ninth at the checkered flag.

Farther back, it was a day of perseverance for Chip Ganassi Racing as Felix Rosenqvist and Scott Dixon went from third and fourth starting spots to 60 long laps of struggling to find a balance that kept both cars in the lead pack. Dixon, who was able to find a slightly happier place, was among the hardest workers on Sunday, soldiering home to 13th. A poor start for Rosenqvist, along with a mid-race spin, punctuated by a crash on Lap 45 (bringing out the fateful late caution when he was hit by James Hinchcliffe) left the Swedish rookie 24th and last at the finish.

All-American podium with a jubilant teenager on the top step. Image by Levitt/LAT

With his win in Round 1 and second at COTA, Newgarden maintains the Driver’s Championship points lead. Thanks to an eighth at St. Pete and the win in Round 2, Herta and HSR hold second in the standings ahead of Dixon, Rossi, and Rahal.

Poised, decisive, and smart, Herta — the latest second-generation IndyCar driver to win in the series — looked like he was opening an account that will include plenty of victories before he’s out of his teens.

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