Palou Takes Down A Pair Of Champs In Ganassi Racing Debut

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, April 19 2021

Driver Alex Palou is 1-0 at Chip Ganassi Racing. (Photos courtesy of INDYCAR)

Chip Ganassi Racing’s glamorous rollcall of race-winning drivers includes American Jimmy Vasser, Italy’s Alex Zanardi, Juan Pablo Montoya of Colombia, Scotsman Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon of New Zealand.

None of those international stars, however, won in their INDYCAR debuts for “The Chipster” _ a feat pulled off Sunday by Alex Palou. The Spaniard held off Will Power and Dixon _ who have combined for seven NTT IndyCar Series championships _ to win the 2021 season-opening Honda Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park. Palou held off Team Penske’s Power by 0.4016-seconds to register the closest margin of victory in the history of the race.

“Amazing. It feels amazing,” said Palou, driver of the No. 10 SEGI.TV CGR Honda. “I think those names, they won more than one time, and they won championships. They are 10 steps ahead of me. It’s just a start. It’s just the beginning. But for sure we couldn’t start better with Chip Ganassi Racing.”

Palou spent the COVID-19-impacted INDYCAR 2020 season driving for Dale Coyne Racing with Team Goh.

“So, I just have to thank the (Ganassi) team for giving me the opportunity and all the sponsors,” said Palou, who turned 24 on April 1. “It’s been amazing the road that we began single-seaters. I went to Japan, spent time there and my focus was to come here in U.S. Last year I was struggling a bit _ rookie year, pandemic going on, small team, didn’t know any track. But now we had this opportunity and I think we started out strong, but we’ve got to keep it up.

“Like winning a race in INDYCAR, it’s not easy. We’ll try to do our best, but for sure at the moment I’m going to embrace the feeling of being a winner. And I’ll try to do it again.”

Dixon, the six-time/reigning series champion, helped Chip Ganassi Racing take two-of-three podium positions by finishing third in his No. 9 PNC Bank Grow Up Great Honda, 2.9881- seconds behind Palou after 90 laps/207 miles around BMP’s 2.3-mile/17-turn natural terrain circuit in Birmingham, Ala.

Young driver Alex Palou is congratulated by teammate Scott Dixon after Sunday’s IndyCar Series race in Alabama.

Pole-sitter Pato O’Ward finished fourth in the No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet, 3.9741-seconds behind Palou as a duel between series legends and young stars unfolded over the closing laps. Sebastien Bourdais rounded out the top five after starting 16th in the No. 14 A.J. Foyt Racing Chevrolet.

The race, held before a capacity-allowed crowd of 20,000, developed into a clash of strategies for the first 70 laps. Palou, Power, Dixon and Marcus Ericsson were among those opting for a two-stop pit strategy; O’Ward, Bourdais and Graham Rahal chose a three-stop strategy.

Two stops became the ticket, as Palou, Power and Dixon advanced to the podium. “As Chip likes to say, we kept it simple,” Palou said. “We went for a two-stop, we were able to manage our fuel mileage and our tires, so I’m just super, super-happy.

“It was one of those days when everything went well. We had good fuel mileage, good tire management and good pace.”

Once each of the contenders had made their final stops, regardless of strategy, the race became a battle of determined driving and deft usage of Push-to-Pass.

Power scorched the track with fast in-and-out laps around his last pit stop in the No. 12 Team Penske Chevrolet. Palou led Power by 5.1284-seconds when the Spaniard made his final stop on Lap 60. Power made his final stop on Lap 62 and had trimmed the margin to Palou to 2.3901-seconds on Lap 68, one circuit after Palou took the lead for good, when O’Ward made his final stop.

Over the closing laps, Power began to reduce Palou’s lead through pace and more available Push-to-Pass. The gap evaporated to 1.8038-seconds on Lap 83 of 90, with Power having nearly twice the Push-to-Pass seconds at his disposal than Palou. The latter also had to deal with the turbulence from the rear wing of the No. 20 Chevrolet of Conor Daly, who was just ahead of him and racing to stay on the lead lap.

Power closed to within 1.1160-seconds with two laps to go, but Palou padded that margin to 1.8311-seconds at the white flag and staved off everything Power had over the final lap.

“I made one little mistake in (Turn) 9, but with the amount of Push-to-Pass I had left, it could have been pretty good,” Power said. “We had to save some fuel, but I had enough to use Push-to-Pass the last two laps.

“It just blew my mind how fast Alex was in that first stint. I had absolutely nothing for him. He just pulled away, so I figured he was on a three-stop race. I was getting the best lap time I could for the fuel number.”

Palou said he was fully-aware of Power, the 2014 series champion and a road-racing ace. “Yeah, it was not easy, especially because I had some guys in front,” Palou said. “I had lap cars, and I was trying not to get to think too much and go over the radio like, ‘Come on, go away!’ I know INDYCAR is like that. I think it’s good for the show. When you are leading it’s not fun, but when you are P2 or you are P3 it’s super fun. So I think it was fun, but I was like, ‘Oh, man, please, go away!’

“The good thing is that I was not able to pass a lap car. So I think even if Will was just behind me, two-tenths close to me, he was not able to pass me either. Yeah, I was trying to stay calm and the team was trying to keep me calm on the radio.”

Palou’s early fast pace after starting third helped him build a lead of 6.6-seconds shortly before his first pit stop on Lap 31 and a gap of 8.4-seconds on Lap 49. His average speed was 110.025 mph in a race that featured 10 lead changes and just two caution periods for eight laps.

One of those cautions occurred on the opening lap. Chaos unfolded when two-time series champion and three-time Barber winner Josef Newgarden got loose exiting Turn 5 in the No. 2 Team Penske Chevrolet, touched the dirt just outside the racing surface and spun. He collected Andretti Autosport teammates Colton Herta and Ryan Hunter-Reay, Felix Rosenqvist of Arrow McLaren SP and Max Chilton of Carlin.

All the drivers involved were unhurt, but Newgarden and Hunter-Reay were eliminated.

“I got loose coming over the hill,” Newgarden said. “I thought I had the car and touched the grass, and I think once I touched the grass, it pitched me sideways. I feel really bad for anyone that got involved in that. Obviously, my mess created a bigger mess.”

The second caution flew on Lap 10 when seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson spun in the No. 48 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda. Johnson recovered to finish 19th in his open-wheel debut.

Former Formula One regular/INDYCAR rookie Romain Grosjean finished 10th in his series debut in the No. 51  Honda, while INDYCAR rookie and three-time/reigning Australian Supercar Series champ Scott McLaughlin placed 14th in the No. 3 Team Penske Chevrolet.

Palou is the second Spaniard to win an INDYCAR race, nearly 16 years after Oriol Servia prevailed in Montreal with Newman-Haas Racing during an event sanctioned by the Champ Car World Series.

“It’s just amazing, but I think it was part of the job,” Palou said. “When you are part of a big team and a successful team like Chip Ganassi, they give you all the tools. Like you have everything you need to win, and that’s why you see so many successful drivers.”

Next event is the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, Fla., on Sunday, April 25. Live coverage will start at noon (EDT) on NBC and the INDYCAR Radio Network. First practice is scheduled for 4:15 p.m. (EDT) Friday, April 23, and will be carried live on Peacock Premium.



Sunday, April 18 _ Barber Motorsports Park, Birmingham, Ala. (Alex Palou, Chip Ganassi Racing)

Sunday, April 25 _Streets of St. Petersburg, Fla. (NBC)

Saturday, May 1 _ Texas Motor Speedway Race 1, Fort Worth (NBCSN)

Sunday, May 2 _ Texas Motor Speedway Race 2, Fort Worth (NBCSN)

Saturday, May 15 _ Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road-Course (NBC)

Sunday, May 30 _ The 105th Indianapolis 500-Mile Race (NBC)

Saturday, June 12 _ The Raceway at Belle Isle Park Race 1, Detroit (NBC)

Sunday, June 13 _ The Raceway at Belle Isle Park Race 2, Detroit (NBC)

Sunday, June 20 _ Road America, Elkhart Lake, Wis. (NBCSN)

Sunday, July 4 _ Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, Lexington, Ohio (NBC)

Sunday, July 11 _ Streets of Toronto (NBCSN)

Sunday, Aug. 8 _ Streets of Nashville, Tenn. (NBCSN)

Saturday, Aug. 14 _ Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road-Course (NBCSN)

Saturday, Aug. 21 _ World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway, Madison, Ill. (NBCSN)

Sunday, Sept. 12 _ Portland (Ore.) International Raceway (NBC)

Sunday, Sept. 19 _ WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, Monterey, Calif. (NBC)

Sunday, Sept. 26 _ Streets of Long Beach, Calif. (NBCSN)


| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, April 19 2021
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