Fresh from first win, Herta off to good start in Alabama

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — Colton Herta hasn’t won since he was 18, so he’s eager for another taste of success.

OK, it’s only been two weeks since the IndyCar rookie became the youngest driver to win in series history, but that victory lap was packed with appearances, media interviews and the New York Yankees‘ opening day game.

Six days after turning 19, Herta got the follow-up race weekend off to a good start at Barber Motorsports Park on Friday. James Hinchcliffe turned in the fastest practice lap at the 2.3-mile, 17-turn road course, finishing in 1:08.9994. But Herta’s time of 1:09.0084 was second, followed by fellow rookie Santino Ferrucci (1:09.0461).

Herta was happy to be back in his greatest comfort zone after all the attention: Behind the wheel.

“I couldn’t believe it when it happened, and it’s still kind of hard to believe,” said Herta, who won the inaugural race in Austin, Texas.

“And it was a blessing, but it was also terrible because now I just want to win every race now that I have that feeling of winning an IndyCar race, and it’s pretty incredible. It’s hard to describe. But yeah, I definitely have a little bit more of a fire in my belly to go out there and get it done this weekend.”

Hinchcliffe had to smile listening to the younger driver talk about his first win. He’s been there, even if it took him a little longer.

“I was like six years older than him when I did it, so I was a very different person, I think, than an 18-year-old kid,” he said. “But what he did was phenomenal. He’s proven since the first time he strapped in he’s got maturity far beyond his years. He’s handled himself incredibly well.”

Herta had success at Barber in Indy Lights, winning once, claiming the pole position twice and finishing on the podium three times. He drives for 22-year-old owner George Steinbrenner IV , grandson of the late Yankees owner, and Harding Steinbrenner Racing.

“You can never drive a perfect lap here,” Herta said. “It’s so different. You could have a great setup and feel like you did a killer lap time and come in and be a half a second off. It’s just that type of place. It’s probably the toughest track that we go to. It’s definitely the most technical for the driving style, and quite a bit different from (Circuit of the Americas).”

Two-time defending champion Josef Newgarden didn’t get off to such a good start in practice, posting the 18th-fastest lap. Newgarden has won three of the last four at Barber, including last year’s rain-delayed victory that was completed on Monday.

Four of the event’s five winners — Newgarden, Will Power, Simon Pagenaud and Ryan Hunter-Reay — are back for the 10th running at the Alabama track in the heart of NASCAR country.

It has been dominated by Team Penske, which has won six times.

This week, racing legend Mario Andretti finally got to take some laps, albeit in a two-seater. It left him impressed with a track he had heard plenty about from grandson Marco Andretti and others over the years.

“We all for some reason love elevations and love areas where there are blind corners that present drivers with a challenge,” said Andretti, who will serve as grand marshal Sunday. “This has got everything. This is a phenomenal facility.”