MONTEREY (AP) -- Colton Herta routed the field — and ran over a rabbit while doing so — in another dominating performance at Laguna Seca as Alex Palou moved one race away from the IndyCar championship.
Herta won Sunday from the pole, same as he did in 2019 when IndyCar last raced the sprawling permanent road course, for his second win of the season. He tied his father, Bryan, with a pair of wins at Laguna Seca but, more important, his fifth career victory moved him one past his dad's tally.
"This place is so awesome, it's my favorite track in North America," the Andretti Autosport driver said.
Palou, meanwhile, drove a smooth and steady race for a second-place finish to widen his lead in the IndyCar standings from 25 points to 35 points over Pato O'Ward headed into next week's finale. The 24-year-old Spaniard needed the breathing room because he's never before seen the street course in Long Beach where the title will be decided.
Romain Grosjean put on a spectacular show late in the race when he picked his way through traffic on the 11-turn, 2.258-mile course. The Frenchman made a race-high 27 passes and appeared to have a shot to potentially catch the leaders until he struggled to get past the lapped car of Jimmie Johnson.
Johnson was told over his radio to make Grosjean work for the position to protect his Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Palou. Grosjean, in his first season from Formula One, and Johnson, his first year after seven NASCAR championships, banged cars through the turn as both drivers refused to relent.
Johnson briefly went off course but recovered, while Grosjean cleared him and set his sights on finishing higher than third. He couldn't make up any more ground, though, but was thrilled with his third podium of the season.
"It's been a great day, amazing," said Grosjean, who apologized for the contact with the Johnson. "Laguna Seca, I love you, that's all I can say."
Johnson, meanwhile, had his best IndyCar race of the season. He finished 17th — his previous best finish was 19th — but made some quality passes with four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves among those he chased down. Johnson also posted comparable lap times.
O'Ward did all he could and ran third behind Palou for much of the race, but he struggled on his black tires and settled for fifth.
"All weekend we didn't have it and I truly feel like we absolutely used every ounce of pace," O'Ward said. "At the end of the race, that was as much as I had. All we can do is win Long Beach and let the chips fall. Let's see what we can pull off."
The victory by Herta gave Honda its 10th manufacturer's championship, fourth in a row, and came on the 25th anniversary of its first title — also clinched at Laguna Seca.
IndyCar concludes its season next Sunday on the temporary street course through downtown Long Beach. The race was canceled last year at the start of the pandemic and moved from April to the finale this year to ensure IndyCar could make the stop.
Kyle Kirkwood swept the Indy Lights doubleheader at Laguna Seca to build a championship points lead of 15 points with two races remaining.
Those final two races are next month at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, where Kirkwood already won twice this season. He's been locked into an intense battle with David Malukas all season and the rivals came to Laguna Seca tied with seven wins each.
Now Kirkwood has nine wins and moved a step closer to sweeping the Road to Indy ladder system. The Andretti Autosport driver won the USF2000 championship in 2018 and the Indy Pro 2000 championship in 2019. Kirkwood has 30 wins in 48 Road to Indy starts and the Indy Lights title would earn him a $1.3 million scholarship good for at least three IndyCar races, including the Indianapolis 500.
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