Palou starts title defense with a runner-up finish Sunday in St. Pete, his thoughts

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla — We wondered how’d Alex Palou would bounce back from a championship winning season of a year ago. He said all the right things. He quickly put the Astor Cup championship away in a display case and turned his focus last Fall to a wedding of his longtime girlfriend and a title defense in 2022.

So far, that determination of greatness has led to a solid start to his third season in the sport. Palou, rebounded from being 17th in practice on Friday, to a crash on Saturday morning to 10th in qualifying a day ago.

That didn’t stop him from gaining nine spots to finish runner-up in the 2022 season opener on the streets of St. Pete for his 11th career top five finish and 13th top 10 in 31 starts. It was also his first top 10 of his career in St. Pete as his previous two finishes were 13th and 17th respectively.

“I think today was a really good day for the No. 10 car,” said the Spaniard. “Since I started I was able to get some guys at the start and then on Turn 3 or Turn 4, as well. I was pretty happy. The crew did an amazing job during the pit stops, so that’s luck, as well. I’m not doing anything there. The boys did a really good job during the preseason to try and be good as they were and ready today.

“Yeah, the rest of the race, yeah, it was a good race. It was a great day. We didn’t have anything — well, yeah, we didn’t have any data, so I don’t think that the team was able to see the fuel we had. I was not able to see the fuel I was hitting, so that makes it a bit hard, but anyway, I think we have enough.”

Palou would pit for the final time on Lap 65 and third place finisher Will Power a lap later on Lap 66. It would be Scott McLaughlin ahead of Palou, Rinus VeeKay, Power and Colton Herta among their strategy.

Pato O’Ward peeled off on Lap 73. It left Scott Dixon ahead of that five car grouping but Dixon having to stop one more time. He’d do just that on Lap 79 giving way to McLaughlin for the final 20 lap sprint to the finish.

McLaughlin had a fierce battle with Alex Palou in the end – Photo Credit INDYCAR Media Site

On Lap 85, McLaughlin led Palou by 2.3264-seconds. But, he had Jimmie Johnson ahead. Johnson, is Palou’s teammate. He wasn’t going to make life easy for McLaughlin. Five laps later, the lead was down to .7843-seconds.

“Really struggled those last couple laps just to keep my head and then save the fuel and all that sort of stuff,” McLaughlin said.

It was still below a second at .7905-seconds on Lap 95. Two laps later, it was down again to .3815-seconds. At the white, it was up to .3176-seconds.

Palou, was there but couldn’t pull it off.

“It was close. It was really, really close, but I don’t think we had the pace he had today,” Palou said. “Like he was on rails, and he knew where to go fast and where to obviously save some fuel at the end.

“I was just there trying to make some pressure so hopefully he made a mistake or anything, but no, he was all good. There was one time where he just pulled a gap of like three seconds and I was like, oh, man, I’m pushing, and I didn’t have anything. But I was saving fuel, he was not at that moment, and at the end, yeah, I was trying, and I was able to stay there.

“But the places where he and the car was good, it was the places that avoided him to have any issues on overtaking spots. Yeah, a bit frustrating to be that close, but still, solid result.

“Congrats to him. I’m super happy that he got his first win. Yeah, I’m happier that we got our first podium of the year.”

Palou, would admit, that street courses were his Achilles Heel in this series. To come away with a podium on one already this season makes him thrilled at the future.

“I’m really, really happy about that,” he said of his recent street course results. “Street courses, I think when I first joined INDYCAR, I just did like three races on street courses before joining INDYCAR, so I think it’s just experience and confidence. Yeah, getting more confidence every time, and hopefully we can keep on scoring good results on street courses.”

In six prior starts on them, his finishes were 13th, 17th, 15th, 3rd, 7th and 4th respectively. Now, he’s second and as you can see, he’s improving greatly in going from no top 10’s in his first three to three top four’s in his next four.

“I think everybody saw how we started the weekend,” Palou said of Ganassi’s street course program. “We started struggling, but I think everybody saw, as well, how we were able to come back and just improve our car and our performance overall.

“I still think that our qualifying pace is not there yet, like suddenly today in the warmup we were up there where we thought we would have been on qualifying. But yeah, we struggled to get one lap, especially on street courses, but we’re getting there. I think last year we got 17th here as a result and had no real pace, so today we had pace and also scored a podium.

“Pretty happy. We’re making steps in the right direction, but obviously we cannot make a huge change from one day to the other that’s going to completely change their performance. But yeah, we’re moving forward, and we’re proving that it’s working.”

Now, with a podium behind him, his sights are set on a repeat. He notes that a good strat to the year is imperative for a strong points finish later.

 “I think it’s always good to start with a great result,” he said. “If it doesn’t come, it’s okay. There’s a lot of races. But obviously it helps if you can get a good result and a podium is an awesome result to start the season.

“Yeah, we have three weeks now to prepare and get ready for Texas, so yeah, should be a good season now.”

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