LEEDS, Ala — From the thrill of victory to the agony of defeat. That’s exactly what you saw in Sunday’s NTT INDYCAR Series race at the Barber Motorsports Park on a pleasant sunny Alabama afternoon. Rinus VeeKay was in the catbirds seat to winning the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama. The Dutch driver not only earned the pole on Saturday, but he was quickest in practice that morning and entered the final pit stop with the lead as well.
At that point of the race, VeeKay had led 57 of the 60 laps. He hit pit lane on Lap 61 in the lead. He’d never lead another lap.
Pato O’Ward made up a ton of ground on the in lap and as a result, passed VeeKay in Turn 5 on the out lap. He’d never look back and lead the final 26 laps en route to his 3rd career Indy Car victory.
“I think the shift that we kind of felt was in Long Beach actually,” O’Ward said of his momentum now and victory. “I just think we had a great race there. I think a top-five finish in this series is pretty stellar because it’s so competitive, there’s so many factors that have to go right in order to be up there.
“I just think this weekend was the perfect weekend to do it. I love this place. We had a great car here. No reason why we wouldn’t have had a good car here this weekend, which we just proved that we were the guy to beat. We missed it just by a little bit in qualifying, but I knew I had the pace, I knew the car had the pace. It was just kind of playing a bit of a waiting game.
“These races are so long where it’s not a sprint race. If would have started, it’s 30 or 40 laps, you maybe approach it a bit different. But it’s 90 laps. It’s so, so long. I wasn’t really stressing. I was just managing my fuel, my tires, and just taking care of everything. Whenever the opportunity would come to us, I was sure to be ready to take advantage of it.”
It makes up for how last year’s race ended here. O’Ward started on the pole and looked like the favorite to win but had an early race tire puncture and had to abandon the 2 stop strategy for a 3 stopper. That allowed Alex Palou to go from 3rd to 1st to win this very race in 2021.
“I think ultimately what allowed us to do it was the pace was honestly super slow,” O’Ward said of this year’s race compared to last year’s for him. “Everybody was doing that. I think that was for sure the fastest way to get around for the 90 laps. Obviously not for the fastest lap, but we wanted to win the race.
“Last year I think we got fastest lap but we crossed the finish line in fourth. I think it was all about how can we save as much fuel and also we were a bit into the mercy of how long are we going to make the reds last? I think that was probably the biggest thing, just making sure that we can make the reds last up until lap, I don’t know when I pitted, 28 or 30 or something. I think that was the biggest thing, just making sure we didn’t just overshoot the tire in the first 10 laps because we weren’t going to make it to do the two-stopper.
“I think it’s a combination of a lot of things. Whenever you’re saving so much fuel, it makes the saving of the tire a lot easier.”
Fast forward to now.
O’Ward got revenge and beat Palou by .980-seconds in his No. 5 Dallara-Chevrolet for his 10th podium in 42 starts.
This now gets O’Ward back in the championship race again. He went from 13th leaving Texas to 9th (-55) heading to Barber. By winning, he makes up 25 more points and goes from 9th to 5th (-30) heading to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
That’s all predicated by his 5th place result in Long Beach. While it wasn’t a win, to go from 11th to 5th got him back towards his happy place. With a contract on the table to make O’Ward much happier, the momentum was starting to turn.
Qualifying on the front row and now winning, sends him to the Month of May at Indy back in the hunt again.
O’Ward won the pole on the IMS road course last time out in August of last year and in his 2 Indy 500 starts, he finished in the top 6 in each. After Indy is to Belle Isle to where he won at in 2021 too making this stretch the time for the 22 year old driver to possibly get in the hunt to win the 2022 championship.
Palou, finished runner-up in his No. 10 Dallara-Honda for his second straight top two result at Barber and 6th top 4 finish in his last 7 starts dating back to last season. In fact, he’s been on the podium in 3 of the 4 races run this season (2nd St Pete, 3rd Long Beach, 2nd Barber) and has 12 podiums in 35 career starts.
He too made up some ground in the championship race in going from 15 points down in 3rd to 3 points up in 1st.
VeeKay, finished 3rd in his No. 21 Dallara-Chevrolet for his 4th career podium and 6th top five. As far as how the driver who dominated most of the day went from 1st entering the pits to 1st leaving the pits to 3rd at the checkered flag?
Well, he allowed O’Ward to chop off 2 seconds off his lead heading to pit road. At Lap 60, VeeKay led O’Ward by 2.0875-seconds. They’d pit the next time by. VeeKay, had O’Ward right on his rear wing on pit lane.
“Unfortunately I got held up a little bit before getting into my second pit stop, so Pato was on me, really on me,” VeeKay said.
While VeeKay beat O’Ward off pit lane, O’Ward had more speed on pit out.
“I did beat him out of pit lane,” VeeKay continued. “Coming into turn five, I just took it a little bit too conservative, and he got around me. Yeah, he drove away basically. Lacked a little bit of pace on the last set of tires. Pato and Alex were a little bit too fast for me to hang with.
“Yeah, I think third place is pretty good still.
“Yeah, unfortunately I didn’t push enough on that out lap. Another lesson learned. Unfortunately the hard way.”
As far as why he was so conservative?
“Well, I have screwed myself a few times in the past braking a little too deep, locking a tire, yeah, basically destroying my whole last stint,” he said.
“I did not know Pato was going that deep. Yeah, I was looking in my mirrors a lot. Maybe that distracted me a little bit. Yeah, I don’t know. If I could go back, I would go way deeper and stay ahead of him.”
Then, Palou did the overcut on him by going 2 laps later before hitting pit road for his final time on Lap 63. Palou, was .635-seconds quicker than VeeKay on his pit in lap. He was .363-seconds faster for his time on pit lane and .801-seconds faster on hit out lap. While VeeKay had a .200-second advantage in the pit box, add it all up and you get a 1.599-second difference between Palou and VeeKay which put Palou ahead of VeeKay when he exited pit lane.
“Yeah, you feel bummed at that moment,” said VeeKay when settling into 3rd. “There’s still so many laps left in the race, you never give up and you kind of reset and try to make the best out of it still.
“Definitely still surprised by how Alex got between us. Yeah, I think I could have made a run for him. I came out of turn five fully sideways, that’s kind of where I lost touch with him.
“Yeah, I did not really expect that to happen. It’s INDYCAR. Anything can happen. Level is extremely high. You weaken a little bit for one second and you’re being passed from the lead.”
Palou said that extra two laps meant he knew that he could push more in the end to close that deficit to O’Ward too.
“I went two laps longer so I knew I could push more. I didn’t really had to save that much fuel as him. I said, Okay, we’ll have a chance, have plenty of overtake to use. I felt really comfortable with the car. Started pushing. He was making the same lap time. I said, Oh, no, that’s going to be tough.
“I pushed till the end. Caught him on some laps, lost a little bit of time on some others. He was really good. It’s maybe a track where even if you’re a little bit faster, you cannot really pass. It’s so hard. As soon as I would get, I don’t know, a second close to him, I would just lose my front and drop 3/10ths max. I was doing that all race at the end.
“But it was fun. I was trying to push him and try and make him to do a mistake or try to make him to push too much, have to save fuel. But, no, he did a good job.”
Will Power charged from 19th to finish fourth in his No. 12 Dallara-Chevrolet while Scott Dixon went from 13th to 5th in his No. 9 Dallara-Honda.
Palou A Legitimate Championship Threat
Alex Palou snagged his 3rd podium in the first 4 races of the NTT INDYCAR Series season on Sunday from the Barber Motorsports Park and by virtue of that, while winless this year too, also grabs ahold of the points lead heading to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway this month.
Palou, brought his No. 10 Dallara-Honda home 2nd in the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama and now looks like a legitimate favorite to win his second straight series title. Would that make him the lead driver in the Ganassi camp too?
“I was happy with my afternoon,” Palou said. “Was exciting there at the end. We almost got Pato. Yeah, super happy. All weekend we had a really good car. I was really comfortable. We were really, really fast.
“I did a couple of mistakes, lost a position on the start with the No. 3 position in the restart with 27. That just cost me a lot of track time, a lot of track position let’s say.
“Yeah, so far so good. We made a risky strategy of staying out a lot more than others, saving fuel. We almost got Pato. Another podium, it’s good.”
For years, Scott Dixon was the overall lead driver at Chip Ganassi Racing. It wasn’t until Dario Franchitti came to the team in 2009 to where the pendulum swung from the 9 car to the 10 car. Prior to that, Dixon had won two championships in a six year span including an Indy 500 as well as 16 wins. The 10 car had 6 wins in that span.
However, Franchitti won three straight titles between 09-11 to go along with 11 wins. Dixon, had 10 victories still but was 2nd, 3rd and 3rd respectively in points.
The only separation was Franchitti’s titles.
2012 saw Dixon win twice and Dario once, the Indy 500, which equaled them now in victories between 2009-2012. Each had 12 wins. Dario had 3 titles and 2 Indy 500’s though.
2013 saw it swing back to Dixon’s favor. Dixon won 17 times between 2013 and the end of 2020. The rest of the teams won three times. In fact, between 2014 and 2017, they had a four car operation.
Now though, it appears that it’s swinging back to the 10 car side.
Palou joined CGR in 2021 and immediately won the title. In 20 starts in this span, he has 3 wins and 12 podiums. Dixon has just 1 win and 5 podiums.
In fact, Dixon has just 1 win in his last 26 starts overall dating back to the second Gateway race in 2020. He had six wins in the 20 races prior as this span between wins is the second longest of his career. The other was 39 races between wins at Richmond in 2003 and Watkins Glen in 2005 as well as 36 races between his win in Nazareth during the 2001 season and his next victory in the 2003 season opener in Homestead. In fact, Dixon has just 6 podiums in his last 26 starts compared to 20 in his previous 31.
That’s remarkable in a sense that a little over a year ago, unless you really followed motorsports closely, you more than likely had never heard of a human named 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.”
With another podium, you have to start to wonder if the best is still ahead.
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 was 15 points back then and hadn’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. All 3 of his wins were on natural road courses last year and natural road courses make up 3 of the next 5 races on the schedule.
1 of the other 2 remaining races in this upcoming span? The Indianapolis 500. He was runner-up in 2021.
“I cannot wait. It’s already May today,” he said. “You can feel it. It was super sunny today. Yeah, cannot wait. It’s such a special place. It’s good that we got a good race now, I don’t know, to get a bit more relaxed going into Indy road course where we had strong results there and we were competitive. Cannot wait for the 106th Indianapolis 500.
“Yeah, I was already really happy with the start of the season we had. Obviously another podium, another race where we were pushing it at the end, and almost got it. It gives us some momentum, some confidence, some happy time.
“It’s going to be good. It’s going to be really busy from next week on, so it’s good to have, like, couple of good results to get there.
“Also looking forward because we had strong results in the road course before, and also at the 500 last year. Can’t wait.”
If you go back to last season, he has 6 top 4 results in the last 7 races run. With what’s ahead, how important is it to keep this momentum going into the most important month of the year? Was 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.
Penske’s Undefeated Start Comes To An End, Did Skipping Barber Test Hurt Them?
Team Penske’s perfect 3-for-3 start to the 2022 season with 3 wins in 3 races ends at 4. Not only did they not win Sunday’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, they were shutout of the podium for the first time all season too. In fact, they had 1 car (Will Power) finish in the top 5 all day.
That opened the championship door back up with them having 3 of the top 4 spots in the standings entering Sunday and now having Alex Palou take over the points lead and allowing Pato O’Ward, Scott Dixon and Rinus VeeKay back in the hunt too.
While they’ve won this race 5 times in the 11 year history of this event prior to this weekend, they just didn’t look like themselves once they unloaded on Friday morning. They were only 5-16-18 on Friday’s practice, 4-11-16 on Saturday morning and 6-11-16 on Saturday afternoon. That’s wasn’t going to get it done for the win on Sunday especially with coming from starting spots of 4th, 7th and 19th respectively.
How much did not testing here cost them though?
Team Penske didn’t test here like other teams did. We’ve seen how track time including testing can really separate teams from those that don’t. It’s a new strategy involved in the series today that can really make or break race weekends.
How much did not testing here hurt Penske?
Well, Andretti Autosport, Chip Ganassi Racing, Meyer Shank Racing, Juncos Hollinger Racing and Ed Carpenter Racing did. They combined to take 8 of the top 10 speeds in Friday’s practice session and 7 of 10 on Saturday morning. In the afternoon session, the teams that tested went 1-2-3-4-5. For qualifying, they took 4 of the top 6 qualifying speeds including 8 of the top 12.
Penske elected to focus on the street course and oval package for 2022 and will use their test days on them. They chose to test at Texas in favor of Barber. It paid off in a 1-2 finish but Will Power said that while the test was nice, it didn’t help much because they used a similar setup on his car this year as last at Texas.
The lack of testing at Barber is hurting them but helping the others including Callum Ilott who was in the top 10 in all 3 practice sessions including leading the final session while also qualifying 11th.
Now, it’s to Indy to where their main focus has been all along. They want an Indy sweep of the road course and ‘500.
Lap 32 Caution Ruined 3 Stop Strategy
For those on the 3 stop strategy, the beginning of the race was going their way. Josef Newgarden and Colton Herta were blazing fast and may have had something if not for Callum Ilott and Helio Castroneves having contact on Lap 32 in Turn 9. That brought out the 1st and only caution of the day and for the 3 stoppers who were going to have to pit here in a few laps, it ended their shots of a win.
The top 3 stopper to finish was Romain Grosjean in 7th. Herta, was 10th with Marcus Ericsson (11th) and Josef Negarden (14th) barely inside of the top 15.
Chevrolet The Top Manufacturer Again
Honda has typically had the pace over the Chevrolet’s in terms of road courses. Now, it appears that Chevy has swung the pendulum their direction. Chevrolet is off to an undefeated start to 2022 with 4 wins in 4 races by 3 different drivers. They’ve also won 3 of the 4 poles and have taken 7 of the 12 podium spots as well.
Furthermore, Chevy has led 412 out of 523 (79%).
Back in 2018, for the first time since Chevy came in for 2012 and beyond, Honda eclipsed Chevy for most wins in a season (11-6). They’ve been even the last two years prior to this one with Chevy winning 9-8 in 2019 and Honda having a 7-7 split in 2020. Last year, was 9-7.
With the same car this time around, it’s Honda 35, Chevrolet 32. In the three year span of the Aerokits from 2015 through 2017, it was Chevy 34, Honda 15.
“They’ve been really strong, that’s for sure, stronger than last year,” Palou said of the Honda to Chevy comparisons this year. “We can see on the sector times where we’re losing.
“But yeah, unfortunately it is how it is now. We were really good at the Speedway test, which that’s like a major problem, like it’s not there. Yeah, I don’t know. They’ve been really good. They’ve been really strong.
“We were really strong at the beginning last year, I think, all the Hondas. Now maybe we’re a little bit behind. We don’t know. Yeah, we still can fight with them. We still can get to the same lap as them on mileage or even more, like I was able to get two more to Pato, one more. I think we’re not too far. Maybe we’re a bit behind.”
Taylor Kiel spoke to that fact after their win on Sunday.
“I don’t know where Honda is at,” he said. “All I know is that Chevy has put a tremendous amount of work into their package in the off-season. I can sit here and say they’ve given us everything that we’ve asked for. They’ve worked relentlessly to close any perceived gaps that they thought they had.
“We certainly as a team have felt a huge shift in performance from year to year. I think we did a lot in the backcourt as a team to improve car performance. Chevy has done a fantastic job as well.
“At this stage in the engine game, as far advanced as we are, for them to find the gains they have is remarkable. Kudo to everyone at Chevy, Pratt & Miller, Ilmor, all the work they’ve done.”
Don’t Give Up On Race, Final Pit Sequence Proves Just That
If you gave up on the race past the midway marker, shame on you. Prior to the final round of pit stops, it appeared that strategy was now out the window. That happened with that Lap 33 caution. It was now the 2 stop strategy for the win and those drivers were settling in. However, all hell broke loose in the end.
Coming to the final pit stops, the top 4 were VeeKay-O’Ward-McLaughlin-Rossi. At the checkered flag, they finished in order: 3-1-6-9.
Will Power was 7th coming to the final round of stops but wound up 4th. Scott Dixon improved from 6th to 5th, McLaughlin faded to 3rd, Colton Herta spun while battling for 6th to fall to 10th and Graham Rahal/Romain Grosjean had an intense battle with a war of words.
The final 30 lap so this race was edge of your seat racing.
The podium was one of the youngest we’ve ever seen. A 22 year old was victorious. A 21 year old finished 3rd and led the most laps. A 25 year old was the meat of the sandwich in 2nd.
“Yeah, I think it’s great for the youth movement now,” VeeKay said. “All the young guys, of course, Alex has done it a few times last year, and already this year. Same with Pato.
“I’m happy to get there with those guys. I think it really shows that young guys are coming through, the new generation is kind of taking over.”
Palou had a different perspective.
“Yeah, I mean, we’re not really taking over. If you have Scott Dixon as your teammate, you would really think that’s not true (laughter).
“Yeah, I think it’s a good podium obviously. It’s always good fighting with each other. I think we know a lot how we race each other. I think we already shared like couple of podiums together. It’s really cool. Hopefully we can continue doing the same.”
The weekend favored the youth in general. That’s different.
When you come to Barber Motorsports Park, you think of Scott Dixon, Helio Castroneves, Simon Pagenaud, Takuma Sato and Will Power. Combined, they’ve won 5 of the 11 races but also 8 of the 11 poles.
In fact, they had won the pole in 5 of the last 7 tries here. However, none of them made it out of the first round in qualifying. That may be the most eye opening stat of the weekend.
Power’s 63 career poles rank 2nd most ever. Castroneves’ 50 is 4th all-time. Dixon has 27 poles which is tied with Al Unser for 10th most in INDYCAR history.
Coming into this weekend, Dixon had never qualified outside of the Fast 6 in any of his 11 Barber starts.
Power, had 8 front row starting spots here in 11 tries including 9 Fast 6’s. 10 of his 11 starts were 7th or better.
Castroneves, had 7 Fast 6’s in 8 tries with a worst start of 7th.
They’ll start 13th (Dixon), 16th (Castroneves) and 19th (Power) respectively. Throw in Colton Herta (10th) and you get some of the best qualifiers coming from 10th on back.
In the 11 year history of this race, no one has won from worse than 9th.
Sato, qualified 17th and Pagenaud 24th.
On the flipside, it opened the door for the youngsters.
Among the Fast 6, all were under the age of 30 and all had a combined 15 poles. 4 of the 6 had 2 or fewer career poles won heading into Saturday afternoon.
A 21 year old and 22 year old shared the front row. Row 2 was a 25 year old and 28 year old. Row 3 was a pair of 29 year olds.
3 of the top 4 starters have a combined 4 poles. 2nd place starter has 4 poles total. Factor in 3 of the 4 pole winners this season earning their 1st or 2nd career pole and you get a wild qualifying trend shaping up.
Practice 1 saw 22 year old Colton Herta lead 25 year old Alex Palou. Practice 2 saw 21 year old Rinus VeeKay lead 22 year old Pato O’Ward who led 22 year old Colton Herta who led 28 year old Scott McLaughlin. 25 year old Alex Palou was 6th.
“It’s great, man,” O’Ward said of the youth movement. “I think we’ve seen it not just this year but the past two years. I think it’s awesome to see the young ones coming to the series and giving the veterans a hard time.
“At the end of the day these guys that we’re racing against, Dixon, Power, Newgarden, we’ve been watching them for so many years. They’re basically idols of all of us when we were coming through the ranks trying to get to INDYCAR.
“It’s really cool to be able to battle with them. Ultimately what you want to do when you get to race against them, you can have your fan boy moment for a couple seconds, but then you want to beat ’em.”
Helio Castroneves had his run in with 2 different drivers on 2 different occasions.