LONG BEACH, Calif — Alex Palou had 1 podium in his 14 starts of his rookie NTT INDYCAR Series campaign with Dale Coyne Racing in 2020. Now, in his 19th start with Chip Ganassi Racing during Sunday’s Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach, Palou has scored his 10th podium already.
Palou, used the ultimate undercut that he didn’t feel would ever work on the first stint. He pit pit lane on Lap 27 from third. However, the sequence played out in his favor.
Colton Herta pit from the lead on Lap 29. Josef Newgarden did so a lap later. Palou, was ahead of them both at that point.
That’s what Herta was asking over his radio. But, Palou’s No. 10 Honda team had a 7.5-second pit stop. It was .6-seconds quicker than Palou and 1.861-seconds faster than Herta’s. Combine that with Palou getting on pit road 1.029-seconds faster than Herta and you can see why the undercut worked so well.
“Yeah, you are always happy but I was not surprised,” Palou said of earning the lead at that point of the race. “That was what we were aiming for. That was the strategy. I knew we had a good stop. We had a really fast out lap, so I knew we were going to be in a really good position. Yeah, I was not surprised. I was obviously super happy that everything worked out and the strategy side went really well.”
Now, it was becoming his race to lose.
“Yeah, obviously when you’re in the lead, you always feel in control of the race,” he continued. “I think it’s obviously better to be in the lead with zero Push-to-Pass than be second wite 50 Push-to-Pass. You never know what’s going to happen, so I was trying my best to keep the lead on a different strategy.”
The thing is, Newgarden pulled off the overcut on him back. Palou, pit for the final time on Lap 55. Newgarden, pit on Lap 57 and it put Newgarden just barely ahead of Palou when he exited pit lane. While Palou furiously tried to get by Newgarden, he couldn’t. It was the deciding moment of the race.
Newgarden, would pull away from Palou and with two lap fresher tires, it set his winning move. Then, Romain Grosjean on red tires passed Palou on Lap 70 which put him back to third. That’s where he’d finish.
“Yeah, it was a good day for us,” Palou said. “Started third. We had to be aggressive with the strategy there to try and beat (Josef) Newgarden and Colton (Herta) there in the first stop. We did, and the guys did an amazing strategy, amazing stop, and we came out in P1.
“Then we were leading for some laps, but I could see that we were lacking a bit of speed compared to Josef. We had to pit because we pitted two laps earlier, so we had not a lot of fuel, and he got us. It was a good battle with him on track, as well. I think it was on the limit, but we tried, both of us. He won today.
“And then on the restart with Romain, I couldn’t really do much. I was really bad out of the hairpin and he was really good all the race and also with red tires, so yeah, not much I could have done. But it was a good day for the 10 car.
“We couldn’t make it today. Normally we were able to do it last year, but yeah, we’ll try again.
“I think we gave everything we had. We were lacking a bit of speed out of the hairpin, and that made it really difficult to try and defend and also to try and attack him.”
Still, Palou will take it. Palou, is 0-for on street courses. As in winless in eternity thus far. He’s never had a chance to relish a street course victory.
Sunday’s race shows him inching closer and closer to doing so.
Palou, would admit, that street courses were his Achilles Heel in this series. To come away with a pair of podiums on them 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 third respectively as you can see, he’s improving greatly in going from no top 10’s in his first three to four top four’s in his next five.
In saying that, he still doesn’t necessarily feel comfortable on them yet. Palou told me on Wednesday that while it’s coming around, street courses still aren’t a track that he comes to with the upmost confidence.
“I think I’m getting better and I’m getting more comfortable at it; but to be honest, I never won a street course race,” he told me. “Never in my entire life. I don’t think I’m there yet. I’m not 100% comfortable like I can feel on road courses.
“Having a second place at St. Pete and a podium last year at Detroit gave me some confidence. I think I’m getting there, and I can push myself a bit more. Yeah, I’m not as comfortable as on the road course.”
To be this good on them now and sitting 3rd in points, only 15 markers out, he’s feeling confident in going back-to-back in terms of championships. We go to Barber next, a place he’s 1-for-1 at in his win last year.
“We’re still good. We’re running third in a championship without having a really good weekend. We just started, but I feel like we’ve been struggling the start of the season. We still got the results we wanted, but I think it’s time to try and move forward and trying to find points.”
Is that a warning shot though that the defending champion who resides fourth in points isn’t firing on all cylinders…yet?
“Yes and no. You never know,” he says. “This series, it’s so competitive right now that if you don’t have everything together mentally, physically, the car and all the team is perfect, you cannot fight for wins. But, yeah, we struggle.
“I think everybody saw that that it’s not like we show up and we are running super fast since the beginning of the weekend. We struggle, but we still end up with a good result. Yeah.
“I cannot wait for the races that are coming now. I think our races that we were strong last year that I have experience in, we know that we have a strong car. Yeah, maybe it’s something that’s coming.”
With Penske being 3-for-3 to start the season off with, Palou likes that they’re flying under the radar. It gives him confidence. He knows that Penske’s streak is eventually going to win and he’ll be there to pounce.
“Yeah, they did an amazing job at the start of the year,” he said. “The same way we started really good the past year, they started really good this year I think with the three cars they have. Yeah, that’s going to change soon. I don’t know if next race or if two, three races, but that’s going to change, and we’re still there. Everybody is talking that they’ve won three races, but I think we are only 15 points away of them.
“We are always there. We are trying the best. We got already two podiums this season, so yeah, I’m feeling confident.
“I think this start of the season for us was tough. We didn’t get good results last year with these first three races, so yeah, I think we’re improving the results we got last year, and we’ll get back hopefully at Barber.
“We are now heading to some of the tracks that we know we can be a bit better, that we have better cars that I’m more confident. We tested at Barber, as well, two weeks ago. It felt amazing to be back there, and then we go to the month of May, which is the best month of the year, a part of April which is my birthday, also. So yeah, April is good. But I cannot wait for the month of May. I think it’s really special for everybody, all the drivers, all the crews, the fans, so yeah, hopefully we’re already carrying good momentum, but hopefully we can carry better momentum with Barber and Indy GP before the big one, the Indianapolis 500.”