LEEDS, Ala — Alex Palou on Sunday became 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. By doing so, he became only the third different driver to win in his first career start at CGR joining Michael Andretti (1994) and Dan Wheldon (2006) as the other two.
Furthermore, this was just 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?
Well, before we look too far ahead, lets rewind to even see how this deal became a thing because just seven months ago, Palou thought his Indy Car days were numbered.
Palou, was a rookie in 2020 and on a one-year deal with Dale Coyne Racing. As the season went on, the prospects of him being in the series past last season were quickly diminishing by the week. Then came a stretch of races that in turn led him to where he is at today.
Palou, didn’t know it then, but the speed he showed at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in August and then to qualify up front at Mid-Ohio sealed his fate. Unfortunately, both resulted in crashes which left him down at the time.
Still, it was his Fast Nine qualifying effort at Indy to which drew the eye of Mike Hull. He and Ganassi took notice of the young Spaniard. Palou even talked to both and introduced himself in Indy. But, while the folks at Ganassi were keeping an eye out on Palou, the talks really never went anywhere…yet.
So, with a great opportunity at hand a few weeks later in Mid-Ohio to where Palou was starting up front, it was a great chance for the rookie to show everyone what he can do. Then the opening lap crash occurred.
“I didn’t really have strong talks with Chip at the moment, so that was completely — I was devastated by Mid-Ohio because we had a good chance to stay up front and we crashed on the first lap, so that was not good, and that’s not what I needed,” Palou said.
I then talked to him a month later at Indy and he said it was looking bleak that he’d be back at all for 2021 in fact.
“It’s been tough,” Palou said of this season last October to me. “2020 has been tough for everybody not only for me. It’s been hard because we showed almost every weekend that we had speed. The speed was there. Even on ovals. But, we didn’t really get the results. If you look at the results, I think we’re 17th but if you look at the results on the races and qualifying and free practices, we’ve never been 17th except for now. It’s been tough but it is what it is. We have to take it. We have to learn from it.
“But, it’s tough to say to somebody when you’re like that far back as I am. It’s a good thing to have pace everywhere but it’s hard to go to a guy and say give me a chance when he may say ‘oh man I don’t know if I can give you a chance.’ Hopefully we can have another chance. That would be a dream. I don’t think that we did enough. We tried but I don’t think we have the results to deserve another year.
“It’s looking bad. It’s a bad year for everybody to commit. It’s hard to commit without the sponsors with the results that we’re having. It’s going to be tough but we’re still pushing.”
Then, Felix Rosenqvist gave Palou an unexpected yet indirect lifeline. Rosenqvist, would move from Ganassi to drive the second car at Arrow McLaren SP for 2021. The seat in the No. 10 Honda was open. Ganassi then knew just the guy that he wanted in it.
Ganassi, worked out a deal with Palou between the Harvest Grand Prix and the season finale later that month at St. Pete and the rest was history.
“But Chip — and not only Chip, but all the team trusted in me, believed in me, and they gave me this opportunity, which is amazing,” Palou said of Ganassi. “Like going from not knowing if you’re going to be around next year or not and then suddenly they give you the champion car, it’s like, wow, amazing.”
With that said, working out this deal should come with some new pressure. Being a rookie is tough enough, but doing so during COVID was ridiculously hard. Then to do so in IndyCar with such steep competition, you weren’t going to be judged as harshly.
But, to come back in a second year in a car as good as the one that he’s in, well the pressure and expectations rise higher.
“I don’t think it’s the expectations,” Palou said last month during the INDYCAR Media Day. “I don’t think that in the sport world we have to have expectations. I don’t like to have expectations. I like to have targets. I think it’s better to have the target to be winning and not to have the expectation to be winning because we are like 25 drivers. Everybody wants to be winning and everybody would expect to be winning.
“Yeah, the target is to win some races, to fight for the championship. We know we have the resources. We know that we have all the engineers, all the mechanics, the crew chief. We know we have the car. We know we have the sponsors. And we know we have everything to win. Now it’s all up to us.
“I think this year there’s, like, 12 drivers that are in the same position, with really good cars, some experience and with the hunger to win. It’s not going to be easy, but we’ll try to make it.”
Palou, says that the move to CGR is all that he’s ever wanted. He’s just wanted to be in a position to be part of a winning team, a historical team, and to be in the No. 10 is just amazing to him. He cites that the car has so much history behind it, so many like races and championships. It’s amazing to be a part of us.
“I thought that it was 50 percent of my dream,” he said. “One of the dreams was to come here to the U.S. once you are in the U.S. you want to be more and you want to be competitive, and to be competitive I wanted to be part of Chip.
“I actually introduced myself to Chip at the Indy 500 because I wanted to be part of that team. I saw the spirit of the team, just because of the years I was following. And yeah, to be part of Chip Ganassi is 50 percent of another dream, which is to become a champion.
“But it’s just 50 percent. I have to do the job now.”
With that then comes pressure. Now that you have a top ride, it’s time to win. Remember, he’s just in his second season. He says that having the rookie season behind him in learning the tracks was big, but the time is to win now.
Does the pressure get to him? He says it’s actually the opposite. He showed that in his win on Sunday at the Barber Motorsports Park.
“That pressure has been with me since I was six years old and I started racing in go-karts. That pressure of winning, you have it every year. It’s not changing now. I feel less pressure now. I have the car to do it. I have the people to do it. It’s not the pressure of doing something crazy.
“The guy I’m going to race with, Scott Dixon, he won four races last year. They are giving me the resources to do it, so it’s up to me.
“The pressure of winning, that’s racing, and you have to win to be able to race another year. That’s been always with me, and it doesn’t change this year. If so, it makes it a bit easier just because it’s the first time in my life that I am in a big team.
“I think it’s the opportunity that you search since you start on karting,” said the Spaniard. “But then when you move up, that’s the dream. That’s the biggest dream. It’s amazing to have the opportunity this early.
“I think having a rookie year, that’s going to help a lot personally, mainly because I don’t have to worry like the basic things about how is the weekend schedule, like what do we have to do during a weekend, what’s the new tracks I have to be. I’m still going to have some new tracks to learn, but there’s going to be less than in 2020 for sure.
“I just think I’m a bit more prepared for sure. I have a better car. I have better data because now I have three teammates. Last year I had only one, so I have more information. One of them is a six-time INDYCAR champion, the other is a seven-time NASCAR champion, and then there’s Marcus and Tony, as well, depending on the race.
“Yeah, I think I have everything ready and set to have a good year.”
So far, he’s off to a good start. Did Ganassi just land the next great driver in the 10 car?