Laguna Seca big for Palou, is this the weekend he wins the championship?

Following a disastrous month of August to where Alex Palou saw his points lead evaporate from over 40 points to now in a deficit, he got what he needed last weekend at the Portland International Raceway. Palou, 24, scored his first career NTT IndyCar Series pole on Saturday afternoon and around 24 hours later, he won his third career race on Sunday. The path to the win wasn’t easy, but a win is a win and the Spaniard will move onto Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey (3 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network) with a 25 point advantage in the standings.

This weekend though, despite not ever having ever raced at Laguna Seca before, could this be the place that wins or loses Palou the championship? The driver to lead the championship at this part of the season has won the title in 5 straight years and 6 of the last 7. That’s great news for Palou. But, a week prior, the same can be said about that points leader. The thing is, Palou wasn’t in the lead of the points heading into Portland. Pato O’Ward was.

So, one of these trucks gets bucked. Which one?

“Yeah, you always and you never think about the championship,” said Palou following his win last week. “Yeah, I knew I had to be in front of Pato, Dixon and Newgarden to be happy. 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 thing is, while he’s never raced here, it’s not like he’s never been here either. Palou tested in Monterey in a Chip Ganassi Racing test. That went well. He tested at Portland too as well as Barber in the preseason. While he had no starts at any of those three tracks before, he’s undefeated in 2-0 on them. Can he go a perfect 3-0 on Sunday?

“Yeah, it’s a team,” he told me on why he gets up to speed on these tracks so quickly. “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.”

2 of Palous 3 wins came on rookie starts at tracks. Can he pick up a 3rd on Sunday? Photo Credit INDYCAR Media

In terms of the tests, Palou said it makes life easier by seeing the tracks first then showing up on a condensed race weekend having already knowing the lay of the land and what lines/setups work around there.

“For sure that made our life easier,” Palou said of the test at Portland. “Especially only having one practice with the schedules we have nowadays with COVID, it’s pretty hard for a guy that doesn’t know a track to learn it in one practice.”

Palou said that the test in Portland gave them the pole and the win.

“But yeah, that test gave us the pole and the win I would say,” he noted. “At some point we were on blacks, the last 10 we were on blacks and everybody was on reds, and we were still a tiny bit faster than Rossi. Yeah, we were really strong, and that’s because of the test we did for sure.”

Last weeks second place finisher in Alexander Rossi agreed. He said that by them not testing here, it was the difference in the end.

“We didn’t test here like Ganassi did, so I think to get two cars in the Fast Six against them was pretty good,” he said. “I think when you have a two-day event for really no reason and you only have one practice session and an hour and a half between practice and qualifying, it makes it hard for the guys that didn’t test here.”

Ganassi and Andretti both tested at Laguna Seca already this year. They each feel like this track could look a lot like Portland and if so, look for Palou, Scott Dixon, Marcus Ericsson, Alexander Rossi and Colton Herta to be the ones to beat.

Rossi, says that he hopes that the testing advantage does help this week in the sense that they did test at Laguna and it went well for them there.

“Hopefully the advantage kind of comes back to us in Laguna and we can have a little bit of upper hand coming out of the box there,” Rossi continued. “But ultimately I think the team has been doing a good job as of late, and we’ve just got to keep pushing forward.”

Following Laguna is Long Beach, a place to where he’s won in each of the last two stops to the scenic street course. He led 71 laps in 2018 and 80 in 2019.

“We’ve got two good shots at it,” he said on the final two races to end his two year winless drought. “I think we came out of the summer break with some solutions and identified some issues, and I think that’s been a positive and kind of carried forward, and yeah, we’ll do everything we can. We’ve got nothing to lose in these last two, so we’ll try our best to take some points away from those guys and see what we can get.”

Rossi and Herta can go for broke in trying to win. Herta won the last time out in Laguna Seca while Rossi dominated in each of the last two Long Beach races. They’re in a position to just go for wins now.

“I think every — it’s the same every race. You’re just trying to win, and then depending on what happens in the beginning or the middle, you adapt from there,” Rossi said. “For Alex and Scott, they have a championship to look at, and they’re probably counting points a little bit, whereas for me we’re just trying to get results.

“At the end of the day everyone is here to try and win, and that doesn’t change kind of at any point throughout the whole weekend.”

Dixon has overcame 48+ point deficits twice. What’s a third? Photo Credit INDYCAR Media

Dixon may be in the same boat. The max points anyone can score on one single race weekend is 54. You get 50 points for a race win. You get one point for the pole. Another point for a lap led and two bonus points for most laps led.

Dixon, sits 49 points out at the moment. If Palou finishes ahead of him on Sunday, his championship hopes are essentially dashed. Same for Marcus Ericsson who’s 75 points out. He has to make up at the very minimum 21 points on Palou or he’s mathematically eliminated. But, with five points being scored by Palou even if he finishes last in Long Beach, Ericsson needs to really gain at least 26 in order to have any shot in the season finale.

So, is this race basically a championship type race for both Dixon and Ericsson and if things start to go awry, wouldn’t they rather help Palou out?

“It’s definitely been a trying season for us, but ultimately if it comes down to we need to help Alex, that’s fine, too,” he said. “I think for us it’s about keeping the championship at home and at the team.”

That means this may be down to Palou vs. Pato O’Ward and Josef Newgarden. They’ve scored the seventh (Newgarden) and eighth (O’Ward) most points on natural road courses this season. On street courses though, that’s their best shots.

Newgarden almost made up 117 points last year, can he overcome 88 this? Photo Credit INDYCAR Media

Newgarden, has six top two finishes in his last nine street course starts including both he and O’Ward going 1-2 in the race at Belle Isle. The problem is, they may be too far out to make any difference at Long Beach depending on how Laguna Seca goes.

“We need to try and take some advantage of Laguna,” Palou 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.”

Palou, says street course races make him the most nervous. He was 15th in his debut at Belle Isle. After a race there, he was third a day later. In St. Pete back in April, he was only 17th.

“Long Beach, that’s going to be interesting and exciting, but nothing I can do about it,” he said. “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.”


Of Note

Jack Harvey is coming on strong. While he knows his destination for 2022, he can’t say it yet. He’d still like to end his Meyer Shank Racing chapter on a high note and he’s doing just that. He has three straight top 10 finishes entering this weekend including a fourth place run last Sunday.


Leaders Circle

Felix Rosenqvist credited the Portland test for them too that turned their season around. The first race after, he had a season best qualifying effort on the streets of Nashville in fifth. He had 3 top 10 starting spots in the last four races including two of which in the top five. He’s also scored a pair of top 10’s which has moved his No. 7 Chevrolet for Arrow McLaren SP from outside of the leaders circle money to now inside of it.

Can they sustain it?

Depending on who you talk to, some say so long as you finish in the top 22 in points this season and will run full time next, you’re leaders circle eligible. Others say you have to be full time this year and next. So, which is it?

Right now it’s a moot point.

The two cars in question, the No. 45 Honda for Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan Racing as well as the No. 06 Honda for Meyer Shank Racing are on the outside looking in. The No. 48 Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing holds the 22nd and final spot by seven points over the 45 at RLL. Carlin is next up but 34 points back. The 06 at MSR is 37 arrears.

So, if Johnson can keep the 45 and 06 at bay, this isn’t a big topic since it wouldn’t matter. But, should the 45 fight its way back in from Oliver Askew over the final two weeks, the topic will get brought up. If Ganassi is going to potentially expand next season to a fifth car, rest assured scoring that $1 million bonus money is critical to that. Last Sunday was the first time all season the 48 outscored the 45 in their seven races against one another.

The No. 7 for Arrow McLaren SP has moved up to 21st (+11) while the No. 29 for Andretti Autosport is +16. The No. 18 for Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser Sullivan is +17. The next is 18th for Sebastien Bourdais’ No. 14 for AJ Foyt Enterprises, but he’s 40 points up.

It’s going to come down to the wire and a lot of controversy until this is officially handled.


ECR’s Woes

Can Rinus VeeKay turn his season around. In the first seven races, he had six top 10’s including a win at Indy and runner-up in Belle Isle 1. Then, he got injured and missed the race at Road America. In the six races since, he’s had no top 15’s. Meanwhile, Conor Daly’s best finish in the first seven races was 13th. He’s outfinished VeeKay in all six races against each other including last Sunday in Portland. Still, neither have had a top 10 since Belle Isle and both are looking to end their season on high notes.


Stats To Watch

Alexander Rossi has 3 top five finishes in his last 5 starts including four top seven’s in the last six. He had two in the first eight. His teammate, Colton Herta, has one top five in the last five though. Andretti Autosport has seen Herta lead 257 laps himself but the other three have six combined.

Marcus Ericsson has 11 top 10’s in 14 races this year. He had 12 in his 1st 30 INDYCAR starts.

The next time Graham Rahal sees a checkered flag, it will be his 200th time running at the finish. He’s made 239 starts so that’s a rate of 83%.

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