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Colton Herta dominates again in Laguna Seca victory as Alex Palou closes on IndyCar title

Race strategist and father Bryan Herta says his son Colton "feels like a veteran when you work with him now" after his win in the Grand Prix of Monterey and Alfonso Ribeiro jumps into the celebration from the pit box.

Colton Herta cruised to his second consecutive IndyCar victory from the pole position at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, while runner-up Alex Palou put a hammerlock on the championship race.

Herta led 91 of 95 laps -- the other four laps were led by Romain Grosjean, who made a spirited charge from 13th to finish third while overcoming a wild collision with Jimmie Johnson in the Corkscrew for the third podium of his rookie season.

Heading into the Sept. 26 season finale at the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach, Palou has a 35-point lead over Pato O’Ward (who finished fifth) as he attempts to win his first championship in his first season with Chip Ganassi Racing and his second year in the NTT IndyCar Series.

RESULTS AND POINTS: Stats package from Laguna Seca

“It was amazing,” Palou, who started third, told NBC Sports reporter Kelli Stavast. “I was surprised that we were really competitive in comparison to qualifying. We didn’t have it today for the win, but we did the most we could. It was a bit exciting with Grosjean catching us at the end. I think it was an awesome race; the guys did amazing pit stops with really good strategy.

“It was Herta’s day and Andretti’s day today, so I’m happy with a P2 today.”

Palou can clinch the championship with an 11th or better in the season finale with only O’Ward and Josef Newgarden remaining mathematically eligible to challenge for the title (Ganassi drivers Marcus Ericsson and Scott Dixon were eliminated Sunday).

“All weekend we didn’t have it,” O’Ward, who started sixth Sunday, told Lee. “I truly feel like we absolutely juiced every single ounce of energy and pace this car had. We pulled off a near miracle in qualifying to start in the first three rows. Then in the race, honestly, that was as much as I had. I fought for life for those last few positions.

“I’m disappointed, but I’m happy that we honestly really maximized what we had. Obviously disappointed the guy we’re trying to catch outscored us again. All we can do at Long Beach is win and let everything else fall. I’ve got faith in myself. I know I’m pretty handy on a street course. Let’s see what we can pull off next week.”

Newgarden recovered for a seventh Sunday after qualifying a disappointing 17th.

“Just hard to do much more than we did starting 17th,” Newgarden told Stavast. “We can’t start back there. We know that. Just a punch to the gut (Saturday) with the way that went two weekends in a row. Still a little bit hard to digest.

“Not sure what’s caused that but proud of my team. Gavin Ward, my engineer, has been doing a stellar job. We’ve had excellent prep coming into the weekends. I’ve felt more confident than ever showing up and certainly gotten everything from my team. I think we had a fast day and executed pretty well on a four-stop strategy. Just not going to make up much more ground without some yellow help. ... We’ll go to Long Beach and try to get at least second in this championship.”

As Palou made a championship in his first year at Chip Ganassi Racing seem even more of a certainty, Herta removed virtually all doubt about Sunday’s race from the drop of the green flag.

With his second victory of the season and fifth of his career, Herta matched the Indy victory total by his father, Bryan (who calls strategy on the No. 26 Dallara-Honda), at the 11-turn, 2.38-mile road course.

“I enjoy racing here so much,” Herta told NBC Sports reporter Kevin Lee. “It’s an amazing track for me and my family. It’s been so good to us. We were fast all weekend, and I was happy we could pull it off and win the race.

“I’m just happy to have done it. This place is so awesome. It’s my favorite track in North America by far and to win here means so much.”

The lone caution flag flew early for an Alexander Rossi spin in Turn 5 on Lap 2. After starting second, Rossi was challenging Herta, his Andretti Autosport teammate, for the lead when their cars made contact.

Aside from that incident, the most memorable contact occurred with seven laps remaining between Johnson and Grosjean, who suffered right sidepod damage after his No. 51 Dallara-Honda briefly went airborne in capping an eventful ride.

“The last stint was very fun because we were on new tires, fresher than everyone else, so that was exciting,” Grosjean said. “It was a bit less funny and a bit hairy at some stages, but it’s been a great day. Sorry to Jimmie for the contact. He was trying to protect Alex (his Ganassi teammate), and I wanted to go chase Alex.

“P3 today is a pretty good day. Laguna Seca, I love you. It’s all I can say.”

Johnson finished a career-best 17th.