Palou’s win much needed, the championship now back in his grasps to lose, why Laguna Seca is a must for his hopes

PORTLAND, Ore — Alex Palou’s rough month of August opened the door up for the NTT IndyCar Series championship to someone else. See, most of the season he looked like the one to beat for the Astor Cup championship trophy and if anyone else was going to be hoisting it down in Long Beach at the end of the month, they were going to have to wrestle it away from him.

Instead, he gave it away.

The blown engine in the preseason test at Barber would come back to haunt them. They’d change an engine before Nashville and be forced to a six spot grid penalty. Instead of starting third, he’d come from ninth. He’d only make it up to seventh at the end.

A week later on the Indy road course, he’d run fourth before blowing another engine late in the closing laps. That put him 27th when it was all said and done and forced to have another grid penalty for the next race at World Wide Technology Raceway. This time though, with this being an oval, it was nine spots instead of six.

While he was coming through the field, he was caught up in a crash and saw his night ended early. It prompted a 20th place finish and saw his lead go from 40+ to 10 points arrears.

7th, 27th and 20th. Not good. Especially for a series like this one. He says he was down after this stretch, but with the help from teammates and their championship level advice in house at Ganassi with three titles from Dario Franchitti, six from Scott Dixon and seven from Jimmie Johnson, conversations with them helped calm his nerves and recalibrate his brain into thinking he really can fight for this title.

Then, he comes out of the gates in practice on Saturday this weekend in Portland with the quickest lap. He backed that up with his first career pole. He went from the highest of highs to lowest of lows in going from the top spot to out of the top 20 in one lap.

Was the championship really going to slip fully out of his grasps now?

Then, the Lap 51 caution came, the field flipped and Palou was back in the catbirds seat. He went from likely being over 40 points behind before that yellow to 25 points up. O’Ward decided to pit before that yellow and it hurt him where it helped Palou. O’Ward, entered 10 points up but finished 14th due to that decision.

“I think when they were taking a long time to penalize us,” he said when he felt like the race was going to maybe play out in his favor. “It was counting laps, and I was like, okay, this is a good thing. I know we can make the fuel mileage to make it in two only stops. And at that moment, I said, even if we were P5, I knew they were going to penalize us, but I knew that we had another option, that was to — we knew we had a really fast car. Even if we were on the same strategy as everybody, maybe we were not able to win, but I think today we were able to be in the top five, top six without a different strategy.

“You never know. Like at the end with that yellow, that put a lot of people on the same strategy as us. I said, oh, man, maybe that’s not good for us. And then that last yellow, that made us restart on blacks while everybody was on reds didn’t really help us.

“But anyway, we made it.”

Palou’s win now puts him in a great position of earning the championship as he can points race from now forward. Does he think of the championship yet though? Does he points race? How aggressive can he be?

“Yeah, you always and you never think about the championship,” said Palou. “Yeah, I knew I had to be in front of Pato, Dixon and Newgarden to be happy tonight. But I needed to win, so I was fighting really hard with Rossi. He was like pushing me a lot, and I knew that those — I don’t know what’s the difference, eight points or five points between P1 and P2, they were really valuable, so I was fighting. I was not thinking at all the championship, and I think that gave us the win today, otherwise Rossi would have passed us.

“We think about the race, and I think until the last pit stop at Long Beach, we’re not going to think about what do I really need to do to win this championship.”

The other factor is, he’s never raced at the final two tracks on the schedule. He’s a true rookie there. He was also a true rookie in Barber for the season opener. He won there. He was a true rookie today in Portland. He won there.

Why is he getting up to speed so quickly?

“Yeah, it’s a team,” he told me. “Like they gave us a really good car. Got my first pole in INDYCAR. Scott finished third, as well. So having two cars on the podium shows that we had a good car today.

“I don’t know; I think we do a really good job at the simulator at HPD together with Honda, and we work really hard. Yeah, it’s working out, and it’s paying off on track, so we’ll keep on doing what we’re doing.”

Long Beach he says is the most scary. Street races aren’t necessarily fun for him for a first time. We saw it Belle Isle in his first start there. He finished 15th. A day later, he was on the podium. Is Long Beach a worry for him?

“We need to try and take some advantage of Laguna,” he said. “We know we have a good car there, and I say that because I tested there, that car. I know the track, and I know we can be strong there. So we’ll try and take it a session at a time and try and score really big points at Laguna.

“Laguna Seca next week, it’s going to be good for us. It’s a road course. I think we’ve been fighting for all the road course races this year, so feeling pretty strong about that.

“Hopefully we get another win, and then we’ll see what happens at Long Beach.

“Long Beach, that’s going to be interesting and exciting, but nothing I can do about it. Never been there, all my competitors been there and won races there, so it’s a bit scary, but hopefully I can do a good job at Laguna so I can be a bit more comfortable at Long Beach.

“This year I think we struggled a bit on the first couple of races on street courses, but we got a podium at Detroit. We qualified P3 at Nashville. Yeah, we are fast on street courses, too.”

Palou, doesn’t have long to think about it. 14 days from now, a championship will be won. Will it be him?

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