Herta wins pole in dominant outing through Nashville

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Colton Herta stamped himself as the driver to beat in the inaugural IndyCar Music City Grand Prix, winning the pole Saturday after he was fastest in both practice sessions.

The 21-year-old Herta was more than a half-second faster than six-time series champion Scott Dixon in second. The Andretti Autosport driver won his sixth career pole.

“We’re really in a league of our own,” Herta said. “This is huge for me.”

Herta was fastest in Friday’s first session and posted the top lap again Saturday hours before qualifying. He’ll make his fourth straight front-row start.

The two Honda drivers on the front row will lead the field to green in one of the more anticipated races outside the Indianapolis 500 in years for IndyCar. The 2.17-mile, 11-turn track includes a 3,500-foot straightway that spans over the Korean War Veterans Memorial Bridge.

“It’s wild but I really enjoy it,” said third-place starter Alexander Rossi.

IndyCar points leader Alex Palou actually qualified third but was forced to start ninth after he was hit this week with a six-position starting grid penalty for an unapproved engine change following a team test at Portland International Raceway.

Jimmie Johnson starts last after he damaged his car when he hit the wall moments into the first round of qualifying. Josef Newgarden, the Tennessee native who served as the unofficial race host, lost his chance at a fourth straight pole when his front right wing smashed into the wall and sent debris onto the track.

“This is the city where IndyCar needs to be,” Newgarden said. “This is crazy cool. I’m pretty pumped for (Sunday). I just wish we were higher up.”

The field boasts 27 entries, IndyCar’s largest non-Indy field since the 2013 race at Long Beach.

The pole trophy was named in honor of Bryan Clauson as part of the event’s partnership with Tennessee Donor Services to raise awareness for organ and tissue donation. Saturday was the five-year mark of Clauson’s death. The 27-year-old racer died from injuries suffered in a crash at the Belleville Nationals midget race in Nebraska.

Chris Parker, President of the Music City Grand Prix, said this week at the Country Music Hall of Fame the series was prepared for any potential setbacks.

“We feel good about everything,” he said. “There are going to be so many things that we thought would be amazing, and maybe they will, but there are going to be things that ultimately we missed and we go that’s something we have to improve.”

It didn’t take long to find a problem.

One of the grandstands on the first turn of the track wasn’t ready for the start of Friday’s session, was incomplete Saturday and construction was set to continue overnight to try and have it completed by Sunday. Grand Prix promoters planned refunds for all days lost and inconvenienced fans were relocated to open seats. The fans will be able to return to their original grandstand seats if construction is finished by Sunday.

The Grand Prix blamed “continued construction and logistical delays experienced by our vendor.”

IndyCar has a noon local time warm-up Sunday and the 80-lap race starts nearly five hours later.

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