INDIANAPOLIS — A little over a year ago, unless you really followed motorsports closely, you more than likely had never heard of a human named Alex Palou before. Nothing against Palou either but he just wasn’t a well known driver over here in the United States yet.
He was willing to pursue a path of success no matter where it took him. An opportunity with Team Goh led him to Dale Coyne Racing in the middle of a pandemic for the 2020 season. A year later, he was on the move, this time to a bigger team.
It was his sophomore season in the series but his first with Chip Ganassi Racing. Fast forward to a little over 12 months later, he comes back to the scenic Alabama facility not only as a race winner in the sport, he did so three times a season ago, but also as the defending series champion too.
How much has changed in the Spaniard’s life now compared to around this time a year ago?
“Changed quite a lot, yeah,” Palou told me on Thursday afternoon. “It was the first race with Ganassi, with a big team, with — I remember that I didn’t really have a really close relationship with Dixon or Jimmie yet, which for me was like oh, my God, I’m racing with these guys and in the trailer with them, which now I have that’s just a bit more normal.
“But yeah, I’m just more comfortable with the team, with the car, with the series, obviously with myself just knowing that we had an amazing year last year.
“But yeah, same mindset. Everything starts from new. It’s not like we started with one more point than everybody else. We started with the same points, and we just need to try and make it the best we can every weekend.”
As a result of such a strong season last year, Palou has definitely noticed that his peers maybe now have more respect for him this season compared to this point a year ago too.
“I don’t think they race me differently,” he told me. “Maybe you can see that on qualifyings where we go all slowly all together. Maybe last year people would not respect me that much, as you could expect.
“Now they are okay if I am up front, let’s say, if we go together. But apart of that, when we’re racing hard, I don’t think anybody is racing me differently.
“I think everybody knows how I race, that I would always be as aggressive as I can but leaving enough space for them to race, as well. It’s been fun so far. I have not had any problems with anybody yet, which hopefully we can continue like that.”
Palou, returns to Barber this weekend, the site of his breakout, sitting third in points, 15 back of points leader Josef Newgarden. In fact, Palou is surrounded in the standings with the entire Team Penske fleet. Newgarden, the winner of each of the last two races, leads his teammate Scott McLaughlin by 5 points. The other Penske driver in Will Power is one spot behind Palou in fourth (-16).
While Team Penske is undefeated 3-0 to start 2022, Palou, knows first hand how this could all turn back around. Penske went 0-for-8 to start last season while Ganassi won 2 of the 1st three events and 3 of the 1st 7. A year prior, Ganassi won each of the first 4 races.
Now, with Penske doing this season what Ganassi has done in the last 2, Palou is ready to put that Penske power to an end.
“Yeah. I mean, they’ve done an amazing job,” he said of the Penske undefeated (3-0) start to the season. “They were also there last year. They were fast — I think Newgarden started like P5 last year at Barber, but he had the spin and the crash and then they had some issues.
“So they were there; they just had a bit of bad luck, which sometimes happens in racing. You expect them to be there.
“I think obviously they were super strong at Texas. I don’t think we had the pace they had at St. Pete, as well. At Long Beach I think we catched them. Like we were right there. I didn’t win the race not because of the car or our speed; I think it was more of the strategy and that overtake that didn’t play out.
“They just were better overall that day. Yeah, they’ve done a good job.
“We will try and stop them, but there’s a lot of drivers on different teams. We have to stop the Andrettis, as well. They are super fast, and with Romain there, I think they are — obviously they have one more driver that’s right there and they have more info and they have really good cars. They had already last year.
“It’s going to be tough always, so yeah, we’ll try and make it happen.”
Palou said after the Long Beach podium that while Penske is getting all the attention, it’s not like he’s had a bad start either. He’s only 15 points back and hasn’t won yet. Eventually, the Penske streak will have to end and what better driver sitting there to capitalize than Palou.
“I think the season in INDYCAR in terms of like drivers and teams being strong or not, I think we all know there’s like 10, 15 racing drivers and different teams that can win,” he said. “So it’s not a surprise anymore to see, I don’t know, guys like Herta being 11th now. Like that’s the level of the series right now.
“But yeah, I don’t know. I think it was surprising for me. I focus more on myself. I think it was surprising for me that this year with the three races we had so far that we are there, we are in the mix. Like we haven’t win any race and we are like 15 or 20 points back, so it’s really good.
“I’m surprised that we are really good on places that I expected to struggle, and that doesn’t mean that now when we go to places that I expect to be better or more comfortable we are going to be like shining and winning.
“But at least it makes it clear like we can be okay.”
Palou made a scary proclament though too. He says they have better cars now than what they had last year.
“Yeah, we had better cars than last year so far,” he continued. “Hopefully we can go to the places we won or we were really strong last year and we can still have really good cars.”
Now could be the start of that dominating string. Palou, won at Barber last year and in fact, all 3 of his wins were on natural road courses. He says these are the places where he feels the most comfort on. Natural road courses make up 4 of the next 6 races on the schedule.
1 of the other 2 remaining races in this upcoming span? The Indianapolis 500. He was runner-up in 2021.
If you go back to last season, he has 5 top 4 results in the last 6 races run. With what’s ahead, how important going to Barber on Sunday, a spot he’s won at, to keep this momentum going into the most important month of the year? Is it bigger to gain momentum heading to Indy or not lose it?
“Yeah, I’ve seen all sports, but especially racing, momentum is basically a big part,” Palou told me. “I think the momentum we have now, it’s amazing, and just having a bad race now wouldn’t crush all we’ve done so far.
“Yeah, just focus on Barber itself instead of thinking about the month of May. I know it’s like as soon as we finish Barber it’s like month of May and everything is nonstop, which that’s going to be great. I cannot wait for some busy times in racing.
“But yeah, I think it would help if we can win it or we can have another strong result and just go like more comfortable to the month of May. But if we can’t, it’s not going to be a big deal.”
This can be the start to further propel Palou into stardom.