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Champ Palou: ‘Dream Completed’

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, September 27 2021

IndyCar Series driver Alex Palou earned the right to kiss the Astor Cup on Sunday at Long Beach. (Photos courtesy of INDYCAR)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

Alex Palou clinched his first NTT IndyCar Series championship with a workmanlike, fourth-place finish in Sunday’s Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach, where the 24-year-old was eager to explain what had just happened.

“What a race, what a year, what a season,” said Palou, first Spaniard to win an INDYCAR championship. “This team is amazing. I’m super-proud to be a part of Chip Ganassi Racing, all our partners. I’m super-proud to be a champion and for the opportunity these guys gave me.

“Dream completed. Let’s get another one now.”

Colton Herta of Andretti Autosport held off Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden by 0.5883-seconds to complete a back-to-back sweep of events in his native California. Herta posted his third victory of the season and first on the demanding 1.968-mile/11-turn temporary circuit that has been called “America’s Monaco Grand Prix.”

Palou, driver of the No. 10 Honda, produced Chip Ganassi Racing’s second consecutive INDYCAR title-winner and 14th champion overall in his first season with the powerhouse organization. Palou joined CGR after his rookie season in 2020, when he finished 16th in the standings.

I cannot really believe it,” said Palou, a relative unknown when he won the season-opener at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Ala., on April 18. “We worked so, so hard. Getting into the season-finale, this place, didn’t know the track _ but the guys gave me a really good car. They gave me good strategies.

“Today we went from P10 to P4, right? Just amazing, super-happy. I think all the season we were super- consistent. Feels amazing to be a champion. I want to do it again.”

Colton Herta held off Josef Newgarden to win the Long Beach Grand Prix on Sunday.

Palou finished the season with three wins, eight podium results and one pole. “I said it at the beginning and after the first race. There was no expectations; there were goals,” Palou said after hoisting and kissing the silver Astor Challenge Cup trophy. “The goal that Chip told me was to win the championship. So, it was a small goal to start.

“He says he likes winners. If you’re not a winner, you’re in trouble. That’s what pushes the team. It’s not a bad pressure, it’s a good pressure. He does everything he can to make the team successful. He just lives for the team and he takes care of all of us. He gives the opportunity to be here today.”

Palou is the first series champion from a predominantly Spanish-speaking country since Juan Pablo Montoya of Colombia won for CGR in 1999. And in the most definitive sign of the series’ current youth movement, Palou is the first INDYCAR champion younger than 25 since teammate Scott Dixon, now 41, in 2003. Palou also is the seventh-youngest champion in INDYCAR history.

“Ladies and gentlemen, you’re seeing a young man that’s going to set a lot of records in this business, and he’s already starting,” Ganassi said during Palou’s Victory Circle celebration. “What a great year we’ve had. I’ve got to be honest with you _ it has surprised us when he came in the door and the job he’s done. My hat’s off. Congratulations.”

Ganassi added during his post-race presser, “I’ve always said that driving Indy cars, the actual driving part is not hard, the travel is not too hard, the testing is not bad, the sponsorship work around our team is not hard. For some reason when you put it all together, it’s hard. He was able to put all that together and still have more in his tank.”

Herta led all three practice sessions in Long Beach after dominating last weekend at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca in Monterey, Calif. Herta, in fact, rebounded from starting 14th after hitting the wall during knockout qualifying on Saturday. Herta, who grew up in Valencia, Calif., just 60 miles north of Long Beach, considers this event his “home” race.

“Yeah, this is the biggest race for me outside of Indy,” said Herta, 21, driver of the No. 26 Honda. “I said previously that this is the first race I ever was able to come to, being from Santa Clarita. I was 2-weeks-old when I first came to Long Beach. My father (Bryan) was driving in 2000. It was the only race I could go to because I was so young and I couldn’t fly yet. Lucky enough that it came around.

“I remember growing up around here, coming to this race every year when I was 5, 6, 7 _ all the way up until I was racing in INDYCAR in 2019. I can’t believe I won it on my second try. I’m super-happy. This is a big one for me. This has been on the bucket list for so long.”

Herta now has finished third and fifth in points the last two seasons _ results that already have stamped him as “next year’s champion.” Asked what he needed to accomplish to displace Palou, Herta said, “Just need to clean it up a little bit. We’ve been so close. I think there have been three or four other times we should have won and we didn’t for different reasons.

“I’m not too worried about that right now. I think give it a month and then look at it afterwards, kind of into the offseason, debriefing on 2021, what we need to do better to kind of be in Alex’s position coming into the final round in 2022.”

Six-time series champion Dixon finished third in his No. 9 Honda, 1.3368-seconds ahead of teammate Palou. Team Penske’s Simon Pagenaud, the 2016 series champion, rounded-out the top five in the No. 22 Team Penske Chevrolet.

Scott McLaughlin clinched the 2021 Rookie of the Year award after finishing 11th in the No. 3 Team Penske Chevrolet, becoming the first Team Penske driver to earn the honor. New Zealand native McLaughlin joined Penske’s INDYCAR team after winning three consecutive Australian Supercars titles for the organization.

“I’m really proud of everyone with the PPG Chevy,” said McLaughlin, 28. “The car’s been awesome, and I finally got it to my liking the last six or seven races. I’m really excited for next year. This year was a foundation year, all about building, and I feel like I’ve done that.”

Herta took the lead for good on Lap 64 of the 85-lapper. He led a race-high 43 laps, logging quick times on both the “black” primary and “red” alternate tires.

That ability to find speed and traction on both tire compounds proved critical for Herta. He started 14th on the alternate tires, remaining on that rubber compound after his first pit stop. INDYCAR rules mandate that each driver must use both compounds during the race, forcing Herta to switch to the slower but more durable primary tires for his last stint. Meanwhile, Newgarden and other contenders already had used primary tires earlier and were on the faster but less durable alternate tires for their runs to the checkered flag.

Herta had built an 8.8-second lead on his final stint on the alternate tires before pitting on Lap 55 for primary tires. Newgarden jumped into the pits on the same lap for alternate tires and began cutting into Herta’s lead almost immediately.

Newgarden also caught a break on Lap 62 when Oliver Askew’s No. 45 Honda nosed into the tire barrier in Turn 9 after contact with Conor Daly’s No. 20 Chevrolet while dueling for position. That triggered the race’s fourth and final caution period, bunching the field for a restart on Lap 65 with Herta in the lead and Newgarden second.

Herta, on primary tires, appeared vulnerable to losing the lead on the restart to Newgarden, on the grippier alternates. But Herta rocketed away at the start of the restart zone and got superb traction exiting the famous hairpin corner leading to the front straight and green flag, while Newgarden’s car lost grip exiting the hairpin.

“We had a great car,” Herta said. “Reds or blacks, we seemed to have the pace. I just can’t believe it.”

Newgarden refused to concede, showing the resiliency of a two-time series champion. He continued to shave the gap every lap, pulling to within 0.680-seconds with eight laps to go. Herta and Newgarden raced in accordion fashion around the circuit, with Herta _running less downforce on his rear wing than Newgarden _ building his lead on straightaways and Newgarden taking advantage of more grip to cut that deficit through the tight turns.

Newgarden pulled to within a car-length or two of Herta late in the tight and treacherous Fountain Turn complex. But the gap grew on the straights due to less drag on Herta’s rear wing, and he was able to hold on for victory.

The runner-up result allowed NTT P1 Award-winner Newgarden to jump into second in the final championship standings, 38 points behind Palou.

“Colton did a great job, so congrats to him and his entire crew,” said Newgarden, 30, driver of the No. 2 Team Penske Chevrolet. “He was on the right tire on the right point of the race. If there were no yellows, I think we would have been OK today, to cruise out front. But that’s the way it rolls sometimes.

“Strong effort by our team. I think my crew was the fastest in pit lane all year, so there’s a lot to be prideful for. We fought hard. We came up a little bit short this year, which is unfortunate, but we fought all year long.”

Pato O’Ward, who entered the race 35 points behind Palou in second, ended up 62 points back in third after a disappointing day. O’Ward’s No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP Chevy was hit from behind by the No. 18 Honda of Ed Jones and spun in the hairpin turn at the end of Lap 1, dropping him to the rear of the field. That contact led to a loss of drive on Lap 19 after the half-shaft in his right rear wheel snapped.

O’Ward returned to the track on Lap 53 after extensive repair time but dropped out when it became apparent second place in the championship was out of reach. The 22-year-old native of Mexico ended up in 27th place.

“It’s not the first time he has hit us and not the first time he has done something stupid all season,” O’Ward said of the early contact from Jones. “I just wish he could use his head a bit more, at least respect the guys who are fighting for the championship.

“I think we’ve had a great season. I’m proud of the team; I’m proud of myself.”

Palou was rightfully proud to learn that Ganassi compared him to Dixon, the greatest open-wheel driver of this generation. The winner of 51 INDYCAR races, Dixon is third on the all-time list led by icons A.J. Foyt Jr. and second-place Mario Andretti.

“Well, that’s big words,” Palou said. “I don’t think there’s anybody close or like Dixon. He’s an amazing driver, really complete. He always gives 100 percent and extracts 100 percent from the car. Without him I wouldn’t be here today. That’s 100 percent true. I’ve been learning a lot from him, from how to go faster, to save fuel, save tires, think better while I’m in the car, everything. Yeah, it’s a lot of thanks to Scott. Yeah, that’s the idea, try to follow Scott if I can. It’s not going to be easy. This guy, he’s from another planet.

“What do I need to improve? Everything. I need to go faster. I’m not the fastest. I need to try and do everything better. I think there’s not one only thing I’m missing. I think there’s a lot of things that I can just bring up. With experience it will come next year.”

(Editor’s Note: John Sturbin is a Texas-based journalist specializing in motorsports. During a near 30-year career with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, he won the Bloys Britt Award for top motorsports story of the year (1991) as judged by The Associated Press; received the National Hot Rod Association’s Media Award (1997) and several in-house Star-Telegram honors. He also was the inaugural recipient of the Texas Motorsports Hall of Fame Media Award (2010). His list of freelance clients has included Texas Motor Speedway, the Dallas Morning News, New York Newsday, NASCAR Wire Service and Ford Racing).

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Results of the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach NTT IndyCar Series event on the 1.968-mile/11-turn Streets of Long Beach, with order of finish, starting position in parentheses, driver, engine, laps completed and reason out (if any):

  1. (14) Colton Herta, Honda, 85, Running
    2. (1) Josef Newgarden, Chevrolet, 85, Running
    3. (2) Scott Dixon, Honda, 85, Running
    4. (10) Alex Palou, Honda, 85, Running
    5. (4) Simon Pagenaud, Chevrolet, 85, Running
    6. (15) Alexander Rossi, Honda, 85, Running
    7. (25) Jack Harvey, Honda, 85, Running
    8. (22) Sebastien Bourdais, Chevrolet, 85, Running
    9. (16) Takuma Sato, Honda, 85, Running
    10. (12) Will Power, Chevrolet, 85, Running
    11. (13) Scott McLaughlin, Chevrolet, 85, Running
    12. (9) Ed Jones, Honda, 85, Running
    13. (5) Felix Rosenqvist, Chevrolet, 85, Running
    14. (7) James Hinchcliffe, Honda, 85, Running
    15. (23) Max Chilton, Chevrolet, 85, Running
    16. (19) Graham Rahal, Honda, 85, Running
    17. (27) Jimmie Johnson, Honda, 85, Running
    18. (20) Charlie Kimball, Chevrolet, 85, Running
    19. (26) Dalton Kellett, Chevrolet, 85, Running
    20. (3) Helio Castroneves, Honda, 85, Running
    21. (21) Conor Daly, Chevrolet, 84, Running
    22. (28) Oliver Askew, Honda, 83, Running
    23. (11) Ryan Hunter-Reay, Honda, 83, Running
    24. (6) Romain Grosjean, Honda, 75, Contact
    25. (24) Rinus VeeKay, Chevrolet, 48, Mechanical
    26. (18) Callum Ilott, Chevrolet, 47, Mechanical
    27. (8) Pato O’Ward, Chevrolet, 43, Contact
    28. (17) Marcus Ericsson, Honda, 25, Contact

Race Statistics
Winner’s average speed: 91.935 mph
Time of Race: 1:49:10.3764
Margin of victory: 0.5883-seconds
Cautions: 4 for 13 laps
Lead changes: 7 among 7 drivers

Lap Leaders
Newgarden, Josef 1 – 18
Castroneves, Helio 19 – 33
Herta, Colton 34 – 54
Dixon, Scott 55
Harvey, Jack 56
Askew, Oliver 57 – 59
Rahal, Graham 60 – 63
Herta, Colton 64 – 85

Final 2021 point standings (top-10): 1, Alex Palou, Chip Ganassi Racing, 549; 2, Josef Newgarden, Team Penske, 511; 3, Pato O’Ward, Arrow McLaren SP, 487; 4, Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing, 481; 5, Colton Herta, Andretti Autosport, 455; 6, Marcus Ericsson, Chip Ganassi Racing, 435; 7, Graham Rahal, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, 389; 8, Simon Pagenaud, Team Penske, 383; 9, Will Power, Team Penske, 357; 10, Alexander Rossi, Andretti Autosport, 332.

2021 NTT INDYCAR SERIES SCHEDULE/RACE WINNER

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

Sunday, April 25 _Streets of St. Petersburg, Fla. (Colton Herta, Andretti Autosport)

Saturday, May 1 _ Texas Motor Speedway Race 1, Fort Worth (Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing)

Sunday, May 2 _ Texas Motor Speedway Race 2, Fort Worth (Pato O’Ward, Arrow McLaren SP)

Saturday, May 15 _ Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road-Course (Rinus VeeKay, Ed Carpenter Racing)

Sunday, May 30 _ The 105th Indianapolis 500-Mile Race (Helio Castroneves, Meyer Shank Racing)

Saturday, June 12 _ The Raceway at Belle Isle Park Race 1, Detroit (Marcus Ericsson, Chip Ganassi Racing)

Sunday, June 13 _ The Raceway at Belle Isle Park Race 2, Detroit (Pato O’Ward, Arrow McLaren SP)

Sunday, June 20 _ Road America, Elkhart Lake, Wis. (Alex Palou, Chip Ganassi Racing)

Sunday, July 4 _ Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, Lexington, Ohio (Josef Newgarden, Team Penske)

Sunday, Aug. 8 _ Streets of Nashville, Tenn. (Marcus Ericsson, Chip Ganassi Racing)

Saturday, Aug. 14 _ Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road-Course (Will Power, Team Penske)

Saturday, Aug. 21 _ World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway, Madison, Ill. (Josef Newgarden, Team Penske)

Sunday, Sept. 12 _ Portland (Ore.) International Raceway (Alex Palou, Chip Ganassi Racing)

Sunday, Sept. 19 _ WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, Monterey, Calif. (Colton Herta, Andretti Autosport)

Sunday, Sept. 26 _ Streets of Long Beach, Calif. (Colton Herta, Andretti Autosport)

 

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, September 27 2021
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