HOUSTON — At 4:50 p.m. CT, Columbian Carlos Huertas completed a monumental day in sports for his native country.
The 23-year-old Verizon IndyCar Series rookie won Race 1 of the Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston presented by the Greater Houston Honda Dealers under caution for his first victory. Juan Pablo Montoya finished second and rookie Carlos Munoz placed third for the podium sweep, and earlier in the day Colombia won its FIFA World Cup knockout match.
Huertas’ previous best finish was eighth in the opening round of the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit a month ago. He is the seventh different winner in nine races. Marco Andretti in 2006 at Sonoma Raceway was the last driver to win in his first season.
“The kid has been getting better all year and he showed a lot today,” said team owner Dale Coyne, who picked up his first victory since June 2013 at Belle Isle with driver Mike Conway. “He’s been very steady and fast, and he performs. We used a good strategy to get him to the front, and when he got there he knew what to do.”
Huertas, who led the final seven laps (his first of the season) after his teammate Justin Wilson had to pit for fuel, started 19th in the race that was scheduled for 90 laps but was ruled a timed race (1 hour, 50 minutes) because of rain that delayed the standing start. A one-lap shootout on a restart was set up following a caution on Lap 78, but the car of Graham Rahal clipped the rear of Tony Kanaan’s Target Chip Ganassi Racing car heading to the restart zone and a “no start” call came from Race Control.
“The races are so long, you always have a chance to win if you do the right things at the right time,” said Huertas, who went a field-high 39 laps on one set of Firestone tires and 18.5 gallons of E85 fuel to close out the 80 laps. “Today was really tough. I was really struggling. I had no pace in the first half of the race. But I reminded myself just to stay calm and do what you have to do and I did that.
“The team called it perfectly with the fuel, and it’s a great day.”
Sebastien Bourdais, who won on the temporary street circuit in 2006 and ’07, placed a season-best fourth and James Hinchcliffe, who led 32 laps early, earned his second top-five finish of the season. Rookie Jack Hawksworth, whose No. 98 car made contact in practice June 27 and started 21st, earned a season-best sixth place.
Championship leader Will Power, who started 18th in the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske car, slid into the Turn 9 tires on Lap 58 to bring out the caution flag. He finished 14th and, combined with teammate Helio Castroneves’ ninth place, takes a 33-point lead in the team championship into Race 2 on June 29.
Montoya, who is competing in his first Indy car season since 2000, posted his best finish of the season and follows a third place finish at Texas Motor Speedway on June 7. Munoz, who started 23rd, earned his third career podium and fourth top-five finish (in 12 races).
“We were forced to do something different (fuel strategy) and it paid off,” said Montoya, who also won in his first Indy car season (1999). “We did a timed race and with 35 minutes to go, I’m counting laps and I’m thinking, ‘We can make it. Why are they not stopping?’ Our Verizon Chevy was very good. I thought we had a chance to win, but at the end the tires went off.”