LEEDS, Ala — 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.