LONG BEACH, Calif. (AP) — The best drive of Colton Herta's life, according to his boss, wasn't even a win.
Herta finished fourth in the IndyCar season-opener, a race Andretti said his young driver easily would have won if not for a fueling error made by his team. Instead, Herta was forced to conserve gas around the streets of downtown St. Petersburg to salvage his day.
“I don't know how he even finished the race,” Andretti said Friday. “The mileage he had to make, and still hold on to fourth, that had to be one of the best drives ever for him. Oh, my God. He would have won that race, easy.”
And its been mistakes, Andretti said, that sent Andretti Autosport into the Long Beach Grand Prix winless through the first two races of the season. Team Penske swept the first two races while the Andretti group attempted to address the hiccups that have slowed them at the start of this season.
It will take an error-free run Sunday for an Andretti driver to win Long Beach for a fourth consecutive year. Herta, who is from nearby Valencia and considers Long Beach his home race, won last year while Alexander Rossi won in 2018 and 2019.
“I'm frustrated because we've had competitive cars but we're shooting ourselves in the foot, which is exactly what we said we can't do,” Andretti said. “We can't be making mistakes if we want to win the championship. Believe me, we're on it, but how do you tell somebody not to make a mistake? Some guys you need to push, and some guys you don't need to worry about, it's such a weird thing to try to manage.”
Herta spun off course in Friday's only practice session, which was led by Simon Pagenaud. Pato O'Ward, Jimmie Johnson and Rinus VeeKay hit the wall, Scott McLaughlin and Scott Dixon both spun and Tatiana Calderon and Dalton Kellett both went off course.
Johnson injured his wrist in his crash and his status for Sunday's race was uncertain.
The weekend opened on a sour note for Andretti when the team learned Friday morning that rookie Devlin DeFrancesco had been penalized for his role in a crash last month at Texas. DeFrancesco will drop six spots on the starting grid Sunday because of the penalty, which the rookie said “I expected to receive the penalty, we'll do our best to overcome it."
But the team owner was furious with the penalty, which he found “harsh” and wasn't sure was even warranted. Drivers were critical of DeFrancesco after the penalty was announced as a rookie who has been too aggressive on track.
Graham Rahal, who was collected in a three-car crash with Helio Castroneves and DeFrancesco, said he told the young driver to calm down.
“I had a sponsor dinner the night before the race and they said ‘Is there anybody you’re worried about?' and I said ‘Devlin,’” Rahal said. “Because he's crazy. You can just tell, some people have blinders and they are just super aggressive. Aggressive is fine at some places, but aggressive is not OK at Texas.”
Andretti bristled at the notion DeFrancesco needs to back it down a bit on the track — especially after only two races.
“He's fine. I don't want him to not be aggressive,” Andretti said. “I want him to keep doing what he's doing. He's doing a good job in my opinion.”
Andretti also said he's still evaluating Rossi, who is in the final year of his contract with the team. He holds an exclusive negotiating window with Rossi but said the driver is also evaluating the team and may not even want a new contract with Andretti.
He's had a rough start with a poor strategy call at St. Pete and then a mechanical problem knocked him out at Texas after only 11 laps.
“We've really let him down the last two races,” Andretti said. “I still think he can win a bunch of races. We're evaluating and nobody can talk to him right now, so we just need to wait it out and both of us need to see. He might not want to be here anymore, and we have to see how he continues to go.”
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