Alex Palou: Preparation and Hard Work Led to Title

Alex Palou hoists the Astor Cup. Indycar photo by Chris Owens

I was watching Saturday practice at Barber Motorsports Park April 17 from the turn 2-3 area. Something about the way Alex Palou drove the corners struck a chord in me. He was very smooth, smoother, I thought than anyone else on track. He qualified third, and I changed my original pick to win the race to Palou. After he won the next day, I kept thinking, “This guy is going to be good this year.”

Alex Palou may just now be realizing what he accomplished in the NTT Indycar Series this year, winning the championship in only his second season. Team Owner Chip Ganassi says Palou reminds him of Scott Dixon, who has pretty well in his career.

Palou spoke to the media after the race ended in Long Beach yesterday. He was still in awe of his achievement. Here are some quotes from Palou, interspersed with statistics of his incredible season.

On what it took to win the championship:

“Preparation. Preparation. Hard work. I
think everybody does that. It was working for us. We
didn’t leave anything on the table from my side or the
team’s side. We did everything we could to be as prepared
as we could possibly be.”

Some season statistics for Palou:

12 top 7s; 8 podiums

Palou hit a big bump late in the season with two straight DNFs at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and World Wide Technology Raceway

Asked whether he thought he had lost his chance at the title, Palou said,

“Never. I guess like Josef before coming
here, he was close. He did the job he had to do yesterday.
He got one point. He never said that it was over.
You can never say it’s over until it’s over. Yeah, I knew
that doing a good job at Portland, Laguna, like we luckily
did, I could have a shot here.”

Celebrating with his father. Indycar photo by Chris Owens

More statistics:

3 wins; 10 Top 5s

On finishing second in the Indianapolis 500:

“For me Indy 500 obviously it hurt this year
a little bit. At the same time I learned a lot. That’s one
thing that, yeah, obviously I want to win so bad.
If we keep on performing like we do, it will come. I don’t
know if it’s going to be next year or two years or five years.
Who knows. It’s only one race, 200 laps. There’s so much
stuff going on. You have to have the best car, the best
crew, the best mental attitude. You have to have
everything perfect for that race. If it’s not next year, I’m not
going to worry too much. I think we have lots of years to
come.”

One more statistic:

Palou improved his starting position in 12 of the 16 races.

Indycar photo by Chris Owens

After Palou was told he is the youngest champion since Scott Dixon in 2003. What does it mean to him?

“A lot. It means a lot. He’s a reference.
He’s one of the best, if not the best. To be able to be the
youngest behind Scott, it just feels amazing.
Now the difficult part comes, right? To be able to do it for
15 more years on the same level.”

Long Beach Thoughts- A Race that Reflected the Season

As races at Long Beach go, today was one of the better ones. Yellows forced pit strategy, the winning pass came on the track, and there was early doubts as to who would win the championship. Hometown driver Colton Herta won the race after starting 14th. He should have won pole yesterday, but a mistake in qualifying pushed him back on the grid.

Herta led every session except for qualifying. He held off Josef Newgarden on the last restart to win by 0.5883 seconds. The sad thing about eing the winner of the last race of the year is that no one cares. It is a shame in this instance. Herta grew up in Southern California and first went to this race when he was 2 years old to watch his father Bryan race. Winning here is very special for him, but everyone focused on seris champion Alex Palou.

Herta will have to win here next April when the 2022 edition of the Long Beach Grand Prix runs. Don’t bet against him. He won California this year.

9/26/2021 Photo by Chris Owens, Indycar

A Deserving Champion

Alex Palou won the NTT Indycar series championship with consistent driving and an unflappable focus. he reminds me of Scott Dixon in his approach to a race. I don’t think this will be the last of his titles. I will have more on him tomorrow.

Random Thoughts

Ed Jones had been racing well the last few weeks, but today we the Jones of old. I was concerned after qualifying yesterday when I saw that he would line up between title contenders Pato O’Ward and Alex Palou. Unfortunately, he ended O’Ward’s race and the chain reaction nearly took Palou out of the race. Jones seems to be in the wrong place at the wrong time more often than not.

I have never seen so much tension and anger in the paddock as I did this weekend. I loved it. Indycar felt alive. I hope the tension continues all season in 2022.

Three drivers I felt for today- Pato O’Ward, who didn’t get a fair shot to fight for the championship. This team will be even stronegr next year and O’Ward will be in the title mix as long as he drives in the series.

Romain Grosjean, an instant fan favorite from the moment he started his Indycar career this spring, felled by wall contact and dropped out of the race with 10 laps left. He had some amazing races this year, and while not officially the Rookie of the Year, he was the first timer that was the most fun to watch.

Ryan Hunter-Reay, whose last drive for Andretti Autosport ended as the last car running at the end. Hunter-Reay was involved in the Ed Jones incident on lap1 and struggled with a poor handling car the rest of the day.

Sebastien Bourdais recovered from an early spin to finish eighth in what may have been his last drive for A. J. Foyt Racing.

Photo by Chris Owens, Indycar

Congratulations to Scott McLaughlin, the Rookie of the Year. McLaughlin had a steady, if unspectacular year. Like the other rookies in the series, he had to learn a completely different type of car. I think we will hear his name a lot more in 2022.

I hope the new deal with NBC doesn’t include Rutledge Wood. His pieces are insipid and interrupt the race broadcast unnecessarily.

Josef Newgarden’s last three seasons- Champion in 2019, second in 2020, and second in 2021. Newgarden was also champion in 2017.

Thanks for following along this weekend. I will have a story about Alex Palou’s season and a season wrap up this coming week.

Day 2 at Long Beach- Starting Spot Key to Race Success

Photo: Chris Owens, Indycar

Today’s schedule: Times Eastern

“Going into qualifying I think it’s
important to find a good package because this place is,
from my experience, I’ve only done one race here, if I
remember it was a lot of fuel save, not a lot of passing.
Just in the pit stop sequences. I feel like you need to focus
on that. Qualifying up front will probably pay off a lot more
than if you qualify in the back, unless it’s Portland .”

Pato O’Ward stated the importance of qualifying near the front today for the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach. The track for the final race of the NTT Indycar Series season is difficult to pass on, and pit strategy is crucial. Oddly, the race has only been won 10 times from the pole by just five different drivers.

Qualifying order could have an effect on who wins the championship Sunday. Points leader Alex Palou needs to finish 11thg or better Sunday to win the title. O’Ward needs to earn the maximum points available (54) to have a chance to take the Astor Cup. If O’Ward does not win the pole, Palou will just need a 12th place or better finish. Don’t look for Palou to aim for a result that low.

Notes

Olivier Boisson, will be going with Romain Grosjean to Andretti Autosport in 2022. Boisson has been Grosjean’s crew chief this season, and the pairing has clicked.

Palou said he has spent about 15 hours on the simulator preparing for Long Beach. This is his first time driving the track. Palou had not driven any of the three final tracks, Portland, Laguna Seca, or Long Beach. he has done okay at the first two.

I’ll be back after the noon practice to set up qualifying, and then have a qualifyinq wrap up tonight.

Long Beach Preview-A New Champion Awaits

The Astor Cup will add a first time name Sunday. Indycar Photo by Chris Owens

Today’s Schedule: Eastern Time

Indycar Practice 6:00 pm-6:45pm

I am always shocked when the weekend of the last Indycar race of the season arrives. I’m excited for the race, but sad that I have to wait several months for the cars to hit the track again. Fortunately the gap until next season is shorter than in most years with St. Pete coming up in February.

Indycar returns to the longest running street race in the United States. In a normal season, Long Beach would be the third race of the year, but the event has been hit hard by the pandemic. The race was cancelled last season, and the promoters moved it to the fall in hopes that the COVID restrictions would ease enough to run the race. The Acura Grand pPx of Long Beach will go on with the specter of the Delta variant still lurking.

To gain entrance to the track, fans must show proof of vaccination or a negative test result no earlier than 72 hours prior to the day of entry.

The championship is all but over although most writers have amused themselves this week presenting scenarios in which Alex Palou could lose the title. This has been a crazy year, but I don’t think he is in danger. If neither Josef Newgarden nor Pato O’Ward win the pole Saturday, the chase is essentially over. There is still a points battle to keep an eye on.

Tight Battle for Rookie of the Year

The 2021 rookie class, though small, has impressed. Scott McLaughlin leads Romain Grosjean by 20 points. Grosjean has won a pole and been on the podium three times. McLaughlin has one podium and a couple of top fives. McLaughlin has run every race, while Grosjean skipped the first three ovals.

Romain Grosjean

The Long Beach will not allow Grosjean to make some of the spectacular passes he did last week, but he will still do well. I’m not sure he can catch McLaughlin in points, but I have been most impressed with Grosjean.

I have a new level of respect for Jimmie Johnson. After a long career in NASCAR, to step in an Indycar and try to learn on the job, takes courage I’m not sure I have. He has improved tremendously since the start of the year, and he has been racing people the last two weekends.

The Kids Did All Right

The new Indycar champion will be no older than 24 years old. Alex Palou, who has a fairly comfortable lead, has shown patience and maturity despite two consecutive hard luck DNFs late in the season.

Alex Palou

Pato O’Ward has had one the three fastest cars on the grid in 2021. Pato has a reputation for overdriving the car at times and using up his tires too quickly. A couple of bad results early in the year may have cost him a better chance at the title going into this weekend.

Palou needs to finish 11th or better to clinch the championship.

Last Rides

Ryan Hunter-Reay will drive his final race for Andretti Autosport Sunday. The 11 year affiliation produced an Indianapolis 500 win and a series championship. Hunter-Reay will most likely be driving in the 500 next season, but whether he runs full time is not known.

James Hinchcliffe will also have his last run in the 29 car for Andretti. I think his Indycar options are limited.

Is this Takuma Sato’s last drive for Rahal Letterman Lanigan? We should know next week. Sato won the 500 for the team in 2020.

Simon Pagenaud will leave Team Penske after Sunday. I believe he has another team lined up for 2022. Pagenaud won the 500 in 2019 and the series title in 2016.

The Race

Before the pandemic, Long Beach belonged to Alexander Rossi. In 2018 and 2019, Rossi won the pole and the race. In 2019, he won by 20 seconds. I look for him to be strong again. Rossi has had a frustrating season, but the last few races he has qualified well, but hasn’t always had the results to show for how he raced. He is especially hungry after the first lap incident last week put him out of contention for the win.

Rossi will win for the third straight time at Long Beach. Grosjean will make the rookie race even tighter but McLaughlin will prevail for the season.

Herta Holds Home Court; Palou on the Brink of a Title

Colton Herta leaves the pits after a stop. Indycar photo by Chris Jones

Some rambling thoughts on a race with some entertaining parts:

Colton Herta’s win in today’s Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey was pretty much a foregone conclusion, but there was some entertaining action behind the front two.

Herta’s two wins this year have come from the pole position. In his two victories Herta has led 188 of 195 laps.

Romain Grosjean put on quite a show, in moving from 13th on the grid to third at the end. He made some excellent passes, especially in the Corkscrew, and his altercation with Jimmie Johnson was probably the highlight of the race. Grosjean caught Johnson at the top of the hill leading to the Corkscrew, but he appeared to misjudge his speed. His car got airborne as the two collided, and Johnson was forced to go off track in the turn. How Grosjean did not have damage to nd his race I don’t know.

Indycar photo by Chris Jones

Grosjean is now just 20 points behind Scott McLaughlin for Rookie of the Year honors although he has run three fewer races.

Alex Palou started fourth and seemed content to run the entire day in second place after he fell into the position. Alexander Rossi collided with Herta in an attempt to take the lead. The two touched wheels and Rossi spun into the dirt and stalled. A lap later Will Power, who started third, pitted with an engine issue.

Palou is now very close to winning the series title next week at Long Beach. He extended his lead over Pato O’Ward to 35 points. Josef Newgarden, the only other driver who is still in contention, is 48 points behind. Newgarden needs to get the maximum 54 points while Palou finishes 25th or worse. An 11th place result next week will give Palou the title if O’Ward wins the maximum number of points. Palou is taking nothing for granted next week. After the race, he said,

“INDYCAR you cannot relax at any moment. We just keep
doing what we’ve been doing, race hard, race smart, and
hopefully we can get that championship without needing to
finish 11 or anything. We will try and get the best result as
possible.”

Another nice run for Ed Jones today with a 10th place finish. Jones is ending his time with Dale Coyne Racing on a high note. He has qualified and raced well except for Gateway.

Simon Pagenaud ‘s eighth place was his best finish in a while. This has been Pagenaud’s best weekend of the year.

Oliver Askew has done enough this weekend to earn a ride somewhere for 2022. In just his second race for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, the former Indy Lights champion qualified fifth and came home ninth. I’m not sure theses last three races are an audition for RLL, but I’m sure someone in the paddock has noticed what he did.

O’Ward’s fifth place seems surprising. He was fighting the car and the tires all day, yet pretty much maintained his spot in the top five. he will be a champion some year.

Scott Dixon charged into the top five on the first lap, then faded after colliding with Takuma Sato. I can’t remember the last time Indycar went into the season’s last race without Scott Dixon having a chance at the championship. Still, he will finish fourth in the standings.

Jimmie Johnson recorded his best Indycar finish, 19th. He showed some competitiveness, making a couple of passes for position and had that great battle with Grosjean.

I thought that NBC could have spent some time in the prerace show talking about the schedule for 2022. I didn’t like seeing it mentioned during the race when it cut away from on track action. You would think they would have given it more emphasis since 14 of the races will be on NBC.

Honda clinched the engine manufacturer’s title with Herta’s win.

Portland Finish Makes Monterey Grand Prix Key for Palou

The keys to the kingdom lie just beyond Alex Palou’s grasp. Another good result at Weather Tech Raceway this coming weekend could make Long Beach a little easier for the second year Spanish driver. There are some clinching scenarios for next Sunday, but they all involve Palou getting maximum points. I don’t think that is likely to happen. His main goal is just to finish ahead of his two main competitors.

Scott McLaughlin led the first laps of his Indycar career yesterday. Photo: Joe Skibinski, Indycar

The Rookie of the Year is still up for grabs. Scott McLaughlin finished ninth and lead five laps yesterday to increase his lead over Romain Grosjean to 38 points. Grosjean had closed to within seven points in August. Grosjean sat out the first three ovals of 2021. This race is much closer than it should be, since one of the races Grosjean missed was the double points Indianapolis 500. The French driver has looked forward to Laguna Seca all year, and I suspect he will do well there. The Rookie award will not be settled until after Long Beach.

Entrant Points- The Race for 22nd

Two full time entrants will miss receiving Leaders’ Circle money for 2022. Car 7, Felix Rosenqvist currently sits 23rd with 189 points, Followed by the 59 of Max Chilton at 144 points and the number 4 of Dalton Kellett.

A strong final three races by Felix Rosenqvist will secure the Leaders’ Circle for the 7 car

Car 45. driven by Santino Ferrucci, Christian Lundgaard, and Oliver Askew. in 2021, lost the 22nd spot yesterday with a 24th place finish. The car has 171 points, but my understanding is that it is not eligible for the Leaders’ Circle because it did not run the full season.

Final Thoughts on Portland

For a track with no elevation changes, yesterday’s race had quite a few ups and downs for several drivers. Credit to the top three starters, who fought back to finish where they started.

Alexander Rossi’s first podium of the season may give him the momentum to score well in the final two races. In 2018 and 2019 he dominated at Long Beach, winning the last race there by 20 seconds. I think he breaks his winless drought in the season finale.

Good results at last- Jack Harvey and Felix Rosenqvist ended a season of with top 10 finishes Sunday. Harvey finished fourth, finally having a trouble free race. Rosenqvist crossed the line sixth. He has struggled at times this season, and has been unable to give much help to teammate O’Ward in his battle for the championship.

Callum Ilott had a respectable debut. The 2020 F2 runner up qualified 19th but finished 25th due to a mechanical issue.

Chip Ganassi Racing has won six of the 14 races this year. Scott Dixon is third on the team in number of victories. I can’t believe I had to write that.

Engine count– Palou, O’Ward, and Newgarden have all reached or exceeded their engine allowance for 2021. Scott Dixon has one engine remaining.

Quick Thoughts- Portland Grand Prix- Invert, Reset

Alex Palou celebrates his third win of the year and retaking the points lead. Indycar photo by Chris Owens

Pit strategy and cautions can make or break your race. They hurt Graham Rahal, who arguably should have won the race, and Pato O’Ward, who lost the lead in the points standings They helped Alex Palou, Alexander Rossi, and Scott Dixon, who ended the day on the podium. Palou’s team waiting an extra lap to call him in on lap 44 was the winning move today.

The podium. Photo from my friend Brad Proctor

Why can’t Indycar drivers get through the first turn at Portland cleanly? Today’s melee wasn’t as destructive as the first two years after Indycar’s return, but it turned the race on its head, especially with the way Race Control reordered the field. It took a later caution to reverse what happened at the beginning.

Is Alex Palou the next Scott Dixon? Nothing seems to faze this kid-neither two consecutive finishes in the 20s, nor being shuffled to the back of the field after winning the pole. He just does what he needs to do in order to win the title. Today was a big step in that direction.

Palou not only leads O’Ward by 25 points, he now owns the first tiebreaker with his third win of the year. I really didn’t think we would see a driver win three times this season.

The points chase realistically is down to three-Palou, O’Ward, and Josef Newgarden. Dixon is 49 points behind, essentially a full race in arrears. Marcus Ericsson was barely hanging on, and losing 15 more points to the leader pretty much ends his title bid.

I hope in their new television deal that indycar has forbidden NBC from using the “Points as They Run” graphic. It is pointless and meaningless. Drivers don’t earn point as they run. They earn points when they finish. This graphic was displayed at least five times in the first 28 laps, a time in the race where it is totally not necessary.

Points as They Finished

It seems that the Team Penske drivers have had a lot of contact with each other during races this season.

Nice to see Alexander Rossi finally get on the podium in 2021. I think he will win one of the next two races. Rossi dominated two years in a row at Long Beach.

Palou’s repeat win means the series can only tie the record for most different winners in a season with a maximum of 11.

I will be back tomorrow with more on today’s race. Thanks for following along this weekend.

Palou Puts Other Contenders on Notice with First Career Pole

Alex Palou celebrates his first career pole. Indycar photo by Joe Skibinskii

Anyone worried about Alex Palou fading out of the championship hunt can breathe easier now. Palou backed up his top speed in practice with his first career pole, nipping Alexander Rossi by 0.087 of a second.

The day did not start well for Palou with a spin and a light tap of a barrier about halfway through the practice session. He rebounded to finish with the fastest time in the practice and in Round 2 of qualifying.

The biggest surprise of the day was that title contenders Josef Newgarden and Pato O’Ward did not advance. Newgarden will start 18th and O’Ward will start 7th. Scott Dixon starts 3rd. The irony for O’Ward is that teammate Felix Rosenqvist knocked him out of the Fast Six as round 2 ended.

Takuma Sato took a six place grid penalty for an engine change and will start 24th. Ryan Hunter-Reay did not participate in qualifying as his team could not repair the car in time. Hunter-Reay had an unspecified electronics issue.

Notes

Graham Rahal had a great day making the Fast Six. i would not be surprised to see him on the podium tomorrow.

Max Chilton qualified a career best 11th.

Meyer Shank cars driven by Helio Castroneves and Jack Harvey were second and third in the morning practice, but had no pace in qualifying. Castroneves starts 17th and Harvey 20th.

Simon Pagenaud continues to not qualify well. He starts 26th.

Tomorrow is Alexander Rossi’s best chance for a win in 2021. The series still has a chance to set a record for the most different winners in a season, but it will take a different new winner in each of the last three races to accomplish it.

I believe this is the first all Alex front row in Indycar history.

Thanks for following along today. I’ll be back tomorrow with a race preview and a post race recap.