Palou is a “Sunday driver” according to Franchitti/Ganassi, a look at how he’s turned the 10 team around, if he’s looking at points yet and how he manages the final 6 races

After the Indianapolis 500, Alex Palou wasn’t interested in talking about the points standings. While he had taken over the points lead as we were nearing the midway mark of the 2021 season, the second year driver didn’t feel like it was time yet to look at points. He felt like if you run well enough from there on out, the points will take care of itself.

Well, he’s proven that to be true. Palou, is one of just two drivers to win multiple times on the season as he’s rattled off five podiums in his last six starts on the season in his No. 10 Honda. That dates back to the GMR Grand Prix on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course back on May 15. His seven top five finishes in 10 starts this season have also propelled him to a 39 point lead in the standings as we have two more weeks off during this four week break before returning to action on Aug. 8 on the streets of Nashville.

Is it time yet to start points racing? I mean we have six races remaining in the season and at some point, you have to look at the bigger picture.

“I don’t know. Like, yeah, I don’t know. I think it’s easier when you have a good team around you and you can just focus on every session, each session, doing the best you can, focusing on obviously getting as many points as possible,” Palou said on Tuesday morning.

“Yeah, I think at the end of the day if you’re having good races and you are able to fight for them, score podiums, then score wins, you know you’re going to fight for the championship and you really don’t have to think about anything else. You don’t have to think about the points or positions. Just because you’re doing so good, you don’t have to think about that.

“If you’re not having the opportunity to fight for the race, you don’t even have to think about points because, yeah, if you’re not scoring points, you don’t have to think about the championship.

“I think it’s quite easy to have a good mindset when everything’s going good, like we have now. We’re going to the weekends, we’re trying the best we can. Mid-Ohio was a weekend that was not a super weekend for us, but we still managed to get a podium, which was good for the championship.

“We were not thinking about the championship, we were thinking about maximizing the results on the races, and then it help for the championship.

“We keep doing what we doing and hopefully we can still score some more wins and more podiums.”

Part of the larger picture is that his teammate Scott Dixon is third in points. O’Ward mentioned to me just last month that in order to beat the master (Dixon), then you have to beat him at his own game. What Dixon’s game is, is the fact that he turns non race winning cars into top 10’s and even top fives.

The defending series champion has reached victory lane just once this year. He’s also had just two podiums all season too. While saying that, he’s still third in points on the heels of six top five finishes in 10 starts including a top 10 in all but one race at that. The one race he didn’t nab a top 10 result was a double points event in the Indy 500 to where a fluke caution at the wrong time caught him out. If that doesn’t happen, the margin between he and Palou is likely a lot smaller and it may be Dixon, not Palou, in the drivers seat for this year’s championship.

That’s why you can never count Dixon out. He has the capability of turning these top fives into a long run of consecutive podiums on a dime. Last year, he started 2020 off with six top two finishes in the first eight races.

Over the second half of the year, he didn’t have the car to necessarily win, but he put it in the top 10. He had six straight at that and that was enough to hold off a hard charging Josef Newgarden who ended 2020 with four top two finishes in his final six races of the season.

Dixon, is due to go on another run or at the very least minimize his mistakes and grab a top 10 the rest of the way. Newgarden, is on another hot streak himself with him leading 172 of the last 205 laps (84%) run including three straight poles and what should be three straight wins.

Next up on the schedule is Newgarden’s home town race in Nashville, then to Indy to where both Dixon and Newgarden combined to win two of three races at last year then to World Wide Technology Raceway to where the pair swept both wins in the doubleheader weekend last August.

See why I feel like Palou should be thinking points racing?

“I think in INDYCAR it’s always like that,” Palou said on the aggression other drivers may have against him now since the target is now on his back to win this year’s championship. “In Mid-Ohio, every race, we touch with other guys. All the overtakes are on the limit. Man, this guy has something on me. But, no, the racing in INDYCAR is like that. I think it’s the beauty of the championship as well and these cars that allows you to have some contact.

“Do I expect some drivers to be more aggressive on me? I don’t think so. Maybe the guys we are fighting more, like let’s say Pato, Josef, Scott, Marcus. Man, I think everybody fight super hard with each other here in INDYCAR.

“In Road America with Newgarden, we were not even knowing how we were on the championship, let’s say. We were fighting super hard, touching wheel-to-wheel. He was not being super hard on me, I wasn’t being super hard on him. I wouldn’t change my mindset on him now. Maybe he would be more aggressive on me now, but I don’t know.

“Yeah, I think here in INDYCAR for sure when you say that Hamilton went on that aggressive move, having only little bit of space, for sure it was because it was Verstappen. If it was another guy, that wouldn’t have happened just because you are fighting for the championship.

“I expect things like that to happen. What would I do if that were to happen? I don’t know. For sure I wouldn’t take it easy on Hamilton. If I was Hamilton, I would have gone for it.

“My opinion, they both did what I would do on their places. Maybe obviously now that you see the consequences, you are Verstappen, you say, Okay, let pass. But you cannot just let somebody pass on racing.”

On top of that, there’s not necessarily an advantage for anyone on the streets of Nashville then Palou has experience at both the Indy road course as well as in Gateway. After that, Palou has never raced on the final three tracks on the west coast swing in September to close out the year. Does the experience for Newgarden and Dixon pay off out there? If so, Palou needs to get as many points as he can over this three race August stretch and hope he can points race out west.

Also, we have three races on natural road courses left. That’s been his best circuits with both of his wins this season coming on them. Are these his strengths and if so, is it the one short oval or the two street courses left that concern him the most?

Nevertheless, the championship is Palou’s so long as he can keep this string going. He’s 56 points clear of Dixon and 69 of Newgarden. Three of the top five in points are under the same Ganassi umbrella. But saying that, how many more wins does he think he needs to really seal this up? Can he get by as a champion with just two wins?

“I think it’s good also that it’s a new track (Nashville) for me but it’s a new track for everybody,” he said. “This year I’ve been going to the new tracks for me, but it was, like, known tracks for everybody. I was like, Oh, man, I need another session.

“Here we’ll all be on even circumstances, and I think it’s going to be great.

“About defending the championship, yeah, as I said, we try to maximize results. If we can have a shot to win, we’ll try and get some more wins. We need to win some more. I don’t think nobody won a championship only winning two races, so we need to win some more races and score some more podiums.

“I’m looking forward to the races we have now. I think we have really good tracks with Nashville. I’m really looking forward to Laguna. I’ve been there on testing, but never race there. Long Beach, as well.

“Yeah, I’m looking forward to the end of the season.”

This is really the best the 10 car has been since Dario Franchitti was in it. Franchitti, is now in a advisory and coaching role with the team and sees first hand on how well Palou is doing.

“It’s great to see the 10 car having success again. It’s a lot of the same crew when we won our last championship in 2011, our last 500 in 2012. It’s nice to see them having that success again, the smile on their face.

“It was a tough time. A lot of the guys, whether Tony or Felix, it was tough to go up against Scott. Again, I know how difficult it is going up against Scott.

“I think Alex has done a tremendous job this year with that. Nice to see all the cars getting results.

“I think he’s worked so hard, him, the whole 10 car team,” Franchitti said. “They’ve just really worked hard from the first race. One of our first conversations, Alex and I, Listen now, you’re now in a team that in the pit stops and the strategy, they’re going to help you to win races so you don’t have to worry about driving 105%. If you get in position to win a race, et cetera, et cetera. He shows up in Barber and wins. I’m like, Hmm, okay, he got that message loud and clear straightaway. He’s a fast learner.

“We thought he was good when we signed him. He’s even better than that. He’s a hard worker. Behind that very nice, polite exterior, he’s just tough as anything, man. His recovery in Indy after the crash, the way he came back from that, he’s impressive.

“We, me, all of us at Chip Ganassi Racing, are delighted he’s driving the No. 10 car.”

Franchitti said though that the interest by Ganassi in Palou really started around this time last year in Indianapolis.

“Really it was Indy last year. I’d watched Alex in the early races, but at Indianapolis, it was the first race I’d been at in person last year. I watched what was going on, as I do in practice. I thought, Okay, he’s pretty good,” he said.

“I went up and said hello to Alex in the paddock. He was walking out of Gasoline Alley. I was walking in. Great job, keep it up. He said something like, I hope one day I do a good enough job that I can drive for Chip Ganassi Racing.

“I spoke to Mike Hull, I said, This kid’s really, really good, man.

“He said, I think so, too.

“The next day Alex said something to Chip, introduced himself to Chip.

“When the opportunity came up for somebody to go in the 10 car when Felix decided to go to McLaren, it was like, Oh, he’s our guy.

“Yeah, it was watching him at Indy, then watching what he did throughout the rest of the season that convinced me, but more importantly convinced Chip, Mike and the engineers.”

As to any advice Franchitti can give Palou in the fight for the championship.

“Honestly, you can’t teach that,” said Franchitti. “You can help with experience and what works for you. I can help, Okay, for me this worked. You have to have that mental toughness. Alex has got it.

“We’ll see every race what we need to do going into it. We’ve already had discussions about championships, how you run for them. But he’s got the mental toughness. That’s step one. I’m not sure you can really teach that either.

“As Chip calls it: You’re either a Sunday driver or your not. I think with Alex we have a Sunday driver.”

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