LEEDS, Ala — Alex Palou is off to a good start to his sophomore Indy Car season. Palou, becomes just the 14th different driver to take a Chip Ganassi Racing Indy Car to victory lane. The Spaniard won his first career NTT IndyCar Series race in just his 15th start as he crossed the finish line first in Sunday’s 2021 season opener at the Barber Motorsports Park.
It shouldn’t come as a shock though. Chip Ganassi said that he knew Palou was fast, but when he saw what he could do in the offseason testing, he knew he found a gem. Palou, led the way in the opening practice session on Saturday morning and backed that up with a third place qualifying effort in his No. 10 Honda.
He’d have the right strategy in the race and became the third different driver to win in his first career start at CGR. Michael Andretti (1994) and Dan Wheldon (2006) are the other two. Furthermore, this was the ninth time that CGR had won a season opener in the series. 5 of the previous 8 times, the driver ended up earning the championship at seasons end too. That’s a great omen in the sense that the last two years in the series, the winner of the first race of the season ended up winning the championship at seasons end too.
Can Palou do the same?
Palou was on two stop strategy and it paid off. When front row starters Pato O’Ward and Alexander Rossi peeled the track and onto pit road for their first time on Lap 17, it essentially handed Palou the win. See, O’Ward was battling a loose race car early on and Rossi followed him down pit road. Palou, turned his fastest laps of the race when he got clean air and the lead from that point forward and the rest was history.
Without a caution to throw a wrench into the strategy plays the rest of the way, it was a battle between the 2 stoppers and the ones on 3.
Palou was leading the 2 stop group and O’Ward the 3 stoppers.
Palou pit for the final time on Lap 61 where O’Ward did the same on Lap 66. Palou had such a large lead over O’Ward that the strategy play was the winning move.
O’Ward exited pit lane in fourth but was quickly passed by Marcus Ericsson. He’d get Ericsson back with 17 to go but could never catch anyone else in front and would come home fourth in his No. 5 Chevrolet. It was O’Ward’s seventh top five result in his young career.
Palou, then had to hold off Will Power from then on. Power, leap frogged Scott Dixon to end up in second over the final stint and was coming hard. He 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.
But, he could never close the gap any more as Palou bested Power by .4016-seconds.
It was Power’s first podium at Barber since 2012 but his 24th runner-up of his career. That’s one shy of Gordon Johncock for 11th all-time and five shy of Dario Franchitti for 10th ever. It was also Power’s 82nd career podium which breaks a tie with Bobby Unser for 10th in series history.
Power is just happy to get off to a great start to the year. He’s not had that luxury over the last several seasons.
Defending series champion Scott Dixon finished third in his No. 9 Honda for his 124th career podium which is only 20 shy of Mario Andretti for most ever. The top five was also his 175th of his career too.
Dixon, is 0-for-11 now at Barber, but what’s wild is, he’s had nine podiums in those 11 tries. Six of those nine were runner-ups at that.
Sebastien Bourdais rounded out the top five in his No. 14 Chevrolet for an impressive run. He improved 11 positions to earn his 80th career series top five and fourth straight top eight result at Barber including five of his last six tries.
Much Needed Finish For Power
Will Power admitted during the preseason media day that he’s in a contract year with Team Penske. It’s no secret, neither Roger Penske nor Tim Cindric are big fans of having a four car team on a full time basis. With Josef Newgarden being a superstar and Scott McLaughlin coming over as a rookie this year, I don’t see these two going anywhere anytime soon.
Rumor is Simon Pagenaud is also a free agent at seasons end too. Is this a battle between Power and Pagenaud for that third seat in 2022 and eliminating the fourth one in the process?
Power knows that he needs to improve these finishes and the rest will take care of itself. That includes getting off to a better start to the season. He’s consistently ended the years strong, it’s just the beginning of them that have been his Achilles heel.
Well, Power got the finish that he needed. While it wasn’t a win, a runner-up was just what the doctor ordered. It was Power’s first podium at the Barber Motorsports Park since his win in 2012 as he had two wins in his first three Barber starts, but none in his last seven. To get a podium in the first race of the season is rare for him lately.
“Yeah, it’s just obviously satisfying to get a good start,” Power said. “Obviously it was a very calm day for me, and I’m calm about the season, to be honest. I’ve been around long enough to know how this ebbs and flows, and I think I’ve got a very good group of guys on my car this year.
“I’m very happy with it. I think our stops are going to be really good all year. I think we’ve got the right combination to win another championship.
“Yeah, just been calm, honestly, about the whole thing, and just trying to get the most out of every weekend and every situation we find ourselves in.”
It was just his second in the last six seasons. In fact, if you combine the first two races over the last six years (12 starts), he’s had just two top fives and three top 10’s.
To get a podium this early is saying something.
Power has finished in the top two in the first race four previous times. He came home in the top three in the championship all four times including a title (2014) and second place (2010, 2011).
If you go back to last year, Power now has six top seven results over his last seven races. He had just two in his previous eight.
On Sunday, he had a shot to win in the end. He leapfrogged himself to second place following the final pit stop. He was then cutting into Alex Palou’s advantage each lap and went from 2.7 seconds back with 15 laps-to-go to 1.5 seconds arrears 10 laps later. With so much more push to pass at his disposal, could Power amount a charge to the lead?
He said that even with more horsepower boosts and a faster car at that point, it was going to be difficult for him to make a move to the lead.
“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.”
What Will It Take For Dixon To Win At Barber?
It’s remarkable that Scott Dixon hasn’t won a pole since the 2017 Indianapolis 500. What’s even more amazing is that he’s finished on the podium in 9 of his 11 starts at the Barber Motorsports Park but has yet to win in any of them.
Dixon, brought his No. 9 Honda home in third place during Sunday’s 2021 NTT IndyCar Series season opener to score his 124th career podium. That’s 20 shy of tying Mario Andretti for most ever in the series. It was also his 175th career Indy Car top five as well which is 19 shy of Andretti for most ever too.
The thing is, what does he have to do to win at Barber?
He’s finished in the top 6 in 10 of those 11 tries with a worst result being of 10th in 2016. He’s always there in the end to win on the 2.3-mile Alabama facility, he’s just not made the trek to the top step of the podium yet.
Dixon, said though that he felt like he had a car capable of a runner-up finish but he just couldn’t get past Will Power in the final stint. He said it was more of a track position race and despite having a faster car, 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.”
He’s not finished on the podium in three straight season openers including 4 of the last 5 years at that.
What Will It Take For O’Ward To Win An Indy Car Race? He and Rossi On Wrong End Of Pit Strategy
The top two finishers in Sunday’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama both admitted 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 on the 2021 NTT IndyCar Series season opener.
Then, we got two quick cautions in the first nine laps of the event. Alex Palou and Will Power altered their strategy from that point forward. With so many caution laps early, why not stretch this to a two stop strategy?
“No, the first plan was to do a three-stop,” 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. 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.
Rookies Have A Solid Debut
Most of the attention all weekend was on the talented three man rookie class. It was a solid debut for all three too with Romain Grosjean leading the group in qualifying seventh and finishing 10th in his No. 51 Honda.
Scott McLaughlin qualified 12th in his No. 3 Chevrolet to finish 14th while Jimmie Johnson accomplished his main goals to finish 19th.
Johnson, who was making his Indy Car debut didn’t want to start last. He didn’t. He qualified 21st. He wanted to complete the race. He did that too in seeing the checkered flag in the end. While he was a couple of laps down, he at least finished the event and got some valuable seat time.
“I couldn’t think of anything more difficult than what he’s trying to accomplish,” Dixon said of Johnson’s endeavors this year. “So I think some people said, Oh, you know, wait for judging anything until midway through the season, but I think you’ve got to wait until next season. I hope and I think the deal goes through next year.
“But you know, as we see from my rookies, even from Alex last year, he didn’t get a win. It takes time to progress, and once you get some laps, and even this year with limited schedules that we have on track time and tires, it just becomes very hard.
“You want to push, but then you also don’t want to crash the car. So it’s a very fine balance.
“I don’t know, I think he finished in 18th or 19th. I saw he had a spin there. Without the spin I think he would have been a lot better off. You know, he beat five or six cars; that’s awesome.”
Now, all three go to St. Pete next week where McLaughlin actually has race experience. He made his Indy Car debut there last October.
Ganassi Shows Strength This Weekend
What a weekend it was for CGR. Alex Palou was fastest out of the gates in the opening practice session of the weekend and turned it into a win a day later. He’s not the only one on the team who showed up ready to play this weekend.
3 of the 4 cars for Ganassi made the Fast 6 in qualifying while 2 of them would take the 3 podiums spots available. In fact, in session 1 Ganassi cars went 1-4-9-24. In session 2 they were 2-3-4-24. In qualifying, they were 3-5-6-21.
“Yeah, a hundred percent, a hundred percent,” Palou said on Ganassi’s pace on how much it translates over to like tracks. “I think everybody could see from free practice that Chip Ganassi did an amazing job over the winter, especially on qualifying. Like qualifying we struggled — they struggled a lot last year, and suddenly first race and you put three cars in the Fast Six.
“I think it’s going to be good also when we go back to Indy road course, to Mid-Ohio, to Road America, but you never know if you’re going to have such a good day yesterday. But we’ll try and we’ll work for that.”
This was the 9th time in the last 10 overall Indy Car races that a top 3 starter won outright. Also, there’s been 13 of the last 15 coming from the top 10 too. In regards to Barber, all 11 years the winner came from the top 10 including 9 of the 11 from a top 5 starter.