How the early race cautions helped Palou and others land on the right strategy, a deeper look on how Palou won the season opener in Barber

LEEDS, Ala — If Sunday’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama didn’t have those early race cautions, it’s hard telling who would have been victorious in the 2021 NTT INDYCAR Series season opener at the Barber Motorsports Park.

Pato O’Ward looked to be the fastest but the early race cautions forced some drivers’ hands.

The top two finishers both admitted in fact that they were going to do a three stop strategy in the 90 Lap race. That was their initial plan before the drop of the green flag.

Then, we got two quick cautions in the first nine laps of the event and several drivers altered their approach. Alex Palou and Will Power were two of the drivers who changed their strategy from that point forward. With so many caution laps that early in the race, why not stretch this to a two stop strategy moving forward?

“No, the first plan was to do a three-stop,” race winner, Palou, admitted. “I think to do a two-stop you had to go really, really slow just because of fuel mileage, but as we got two yellows, it was clear. Like as soon as the first yellow came I was already thinking on two stops. I was trying to save as much fuel as possible there.

“To be honest, I saw that Rossi and Pato, they were not saving that much fuel. I was like wondering are they going to just not even try to do it or do they just know how to do it and not me. I was surprised that they didn’t go for a two-stop because I think it was fairly easy after the two yellows.

“But hey, I didn’t call a two-stop. It was the team that they just told me, Now it’s a time to push. Do 15 more laps and this is the target for fuel mileage that you have to do.

“So that’s what I did, and that’s — and it worked.”

Power admitted the same.

“Yeah, obviously went from a three stopper to a two stopper with all those yellows at the beginning, which I didn’t mind,” said Power. “I know we’re very good at getting fuel and lap time, but Alex pulled away extremely fast.

“I was surprised. I actually thought he was on a three stopper. But I think he had a very good middle stint saving fuel, and we came out close to him.

“I still had to save a bit of fuel at the end there, so in the last few laps I could use Push-to-Pass. Made a little mistake which made the gap not possible to close.

“Very happy with the day, though. Really, really just wanted a solid start to the season, and that’s what we got here so far.”

That proved to be the winning move.

It didn’t work for Pato O’Ward or Alexander Rossi. O’Ward was trying to blanket Rossi and pit on Lap 17. Rossi, was trying to stay on strategy with O’Ward and followed him down pit lane on the same lap.

That essentially handed the win to Palou and the podium to him, Power and Scott Dixon.

O’Ward had the pace. He led 25 laps from the pole. If a caution would come out at the right time, it could work. But, without any more yellows, it was going to be difficult.

O’Ward took over the lead again on Lap 37, but pit a few laps later on Lap 42. He got the lead back on Lap 64, but pit again two laps later for the final time. He just wasn’t close enough to make the 3 stopper work.

He came out of the pits in fourth and was passed by Marcus Ericsson for that spot immediately after. O’Ward would get Ericsson back with 17 to go but just couldn’t gain any more ground on the cars in front to get by them so he’d have to settle for his seventh career top five result and 13th top 10 of his career with a fourth place run in his No. 5 Chevrolet.

While it’s a solid start to the season to win the pole and have a car capable of winning, O’Ward has to be wondering what he has to do to win an Indy Car race.

For Rossi, the move was a bad one too as he faded to finish ninth in his No. 27 Honda.

The 3 stop strategy did work for Sebastien Bourdais who went from 16th to 5th, Rinus VeeKay from 14th to 6th and Graham Rahal from 18th to 7th.

That set up and end of the race battle between Palou and Power. See, Power leapfrogged his way up to second following the final stops and set his eyes on a win.

Dixon, wanted to be a player in things, but he said despite having what he felt like was a faster car than Power, that he couldn’t do anything with it.

“Track position was everything today,” he said. “I feel we executed on things strategy-wise, but it was the wrong one. We were the fastest car all weekend. Got great points here, and would have loved to win. I’m 100 percent sure when St. Pete comes in a couple of days, we’ll be ready.”

By virtue of that, Dixon said this was more of a ho-hum race that he just rode around for most of it as a result.

“It was just very tough once you were kind of in traffic and we even felt that once Will and I caught some lap traffic I think that middle stint we could have extended by probably another three laps, but because we caught that I think we just had to pit anyway to try and cover the 8 that was maybe trying to short pit us and jump on that situation,” said the six-time series champion.

“Yeah, just, I don’t know, it was kind of a bit of a blah day for us. We kind of sat there, tried to make some moments on the 12 car and with Will, but we just couldn’t get close enough to pull it off and the speeds were so similar.”

So, Palou vs. Power. Ganassi vs. Penske.

Power went from 2.7902-seconds back with 15 to go, to 2.3 seconds back with 12 to go, to 2.1 seconds back with 10 to go, to 1.8 back with seven to go and 1.5 with five to go. With more push to passes at his disposal, Power was a real threat to Palou.

The thing is, it was tough to pass, so Power knew that even with an advantage, he may not be able to get by.

“Yeah, it’s pretty tough once you get close to them to pass,” Power said. “He would have had to have made a mistake or got caught behind someone slow that made a mistake.”

Still, Power had enough left to make a charge with a couple laps left, but he made a rare mistake and opened the gap too far to do anything with it.

“I had saved enough fuel to use Push-to-Pass for the last two laps, then I made a mistake in Turn 9 and that opened the gap up too much,” Power continued. “I closed right up to him at the end.”

Power, finished .4016-seconds back but said that once he got the white flag, he wasn’t going to do anything dumb to ruin a much needed finish to start the year off with.

“Obviously it’s the last lap and he’s not going to take any risks, but yeah, he was solid all day. It’s very, very tough to even — when he was pushing, it was so tough to close the gap. Yeah, I was happy just to have a good start to the year. Obviously it’s only race one, but you know, obviously a win is always great. But compared to the way we started last season, this is nice.”

Palou, said that while he saw Power closing and a lot of that was due to lapped traffic, he felt like it would be hard for him to get passed too.

“Yeah, it was not easy, especially because I had some guys in front,” he said. “I had lap cars, and I was trying not to get to think too much and go over the radio like, Come on, go away.

“I know INDYCAR is like that. I think it’s good for the show. When you are leading it’s not fun, but when you are P2 or you are P3 it’s super fun. So I think it was fun, but I was like, Oh, man, please, go away.

“The good thing is that I was not able to pass a lap car, so I think even if Will was just behind me, two tenths close to me, he was not able to pass me, either.

“So yeah, I was trying to stay calm and the team was trying to keep me calm on the radio.”

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