INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Colton Herta arrives in Indianapolis with big goals every May.

He hopes to win two poles, dreams of sipping the milk and believes a win at the series’ marquee race just might catapult him to that elusive series title.

But this is not just another May. For the first time in his IndyCar career, the 24-year-old American comes to town sitting atop the crowded standings by the narrowest possible margin, one point, and barely ahead of three multi-time series champs. And yet, Herta refuses to allow the pressure to taint his chase.

“It’s cool, I’ve never experienced it,” Herta said. “It’s doesn’t really make a difference. It’s still so early. I think (Alex) Palou basically won the championship (last year) with a race to go. It was such a big gap, it didn’t really affect you. So you can change the championship later.”

Herta would like to keep things this way through the Sept. 15 season finale at Nashville.

He won at Indy once while competing in this series, on the speedway’s 14-turn, 2.439-mile road course on a wet day in 2022, when rain forced the 85-lap race to be shortened to a timed two-hour event.

But in five career Indianapolis 500 starts, he has qualified in the top five only twice and has never finished better than eighth.

This time the stakes couldn’t be higher for the Andretti Global with Curb-Agajanian driver.

The standings are as tight — and as worldly — as they could be heading into IndyCar’s biggest month.

—Two-time series winner Will Power, of Australia, remains second after being docked 10 points in the Team Penske cheating scandal.

—Spaniard Alex Palou, who has won two of the last three series crowns, trails Herta by only three points.

—Six-time IndyCar champ Scott Dixon, of New Zealand, is fourth after winning at Long Beach as he chases A.J. Foyt’s career records for overall race wins (67) and series titles (seven).

Felix Rosenqvist, of Sweden, sits 14 points behind Herta, and two-time points runner-up Pato O’Ward, of Mexico, is sixth with a 30-point deficit.

“As Will says, it’s just so tight every weekend,” said Rosenqvist, who has consistently qualified well in Meyer Shank Racing’s No. 60 Honda. “I’ve been gelling well with the car setup, which has allowed me to be confident when it matters. But I think the race is a different story. I think if we do what we do, we will probably have a shot (to win) at some point. I think a podium is probably more realistic target.”

The question heading into this weekend, of course, is who will be fast when practice and qualifying begin Friday?

Power will be working in the No. 12 Chevrolet with a new strategist and a new engineer after Ron Ruzewski and Robbie Atkinson were suspended by Penske’s team for their role in the scandal. Josef Newgarden, who finally won his first Indianapolis 500 last year, also will be working with new players this month because of the two-race suspensions for his race strategist, Tim Cindric, and engineer, Luke Mason, too.

“It will be different, yeah, he’s not used to counting me down to the box or sending me, so there will be a few things we have to really, I guess, practice as much as we can,” Power said when asked about having David Faustino on the radio. “But we’ve raced so long together, and I’ve been at it so long, I can almost do strategy from the car, and he’s the one that basically does the strategy anyway, and Ron sort of calls the races.”

Newgarden was not available to discuss how he’s adapted to the changes on his No. 2 team.

Palou, like Herta, is still seeking his first Indy 500 win and despite Dixon’s monumental successes, he has only won the 500 once, in 2008.

But those quests are temporarily on hold, with qualifying for the 500 set for May 18-19 and race day scheduled for May 26.

First, everyone will be trying to find momentum for Saturday’s race.

“We’re still there in the points, it’s pretty tight,” Dixon said, reflecting on his 15th-place finish at Barber. “Obviously, I think everybody is excited to kick off the month of May, and it is actually fun to kick it off with the road course, so looking forward to that.”

And while the standings could face a major reset following Saturday’s race, Herta’s not worried.

“If I scored zero points this whole month, you can still turn it around,” Herta said. “Well, you probably can’t turn at around, but you know you can turn it around by having a big series of good finishes.”


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