Postponed IndyCar Test Leaves Champ Palou Cold

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, March 10 2022

IndyCar Series driver Alex Palou earned the right to kiss the Astor Cup last fall. (Photo courtesy of INDYCAR)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

FORT WORTH, Texas _ Sidelined by a blast of unseasonably cold weather on Monday, Team Penske will attempt to log meaningful oval-track test laps Thursday at Texas Motor Speedway.

How cold was it Monday in North Texas?

“Yeah, it was a little shock to see flurries this morning,” said Scott Dixon of Chip Ganassi Racing.

“Like a summer day in Sweden, right?” said Marcus Ericsson, one of four Ganassi teammates who shivered through a scrum with Dallas-Fort Worth media.   

“I was looking forward to testing at Texas,” said Alex Palou, the reigning NTT IndyCar Series champion. “But unfortunately we’re going to miss that. So we’ll get ready from home (Indianapolis). Hopefully we don’t get these conditions on race day here. I don’t think we would run. I think it would be…tricky. It depends always on the weather, right?”

Palou was referring to the XPEL 375 booked here for Sunday, March 20, as Round 2 of a 17-race 2022 schedule that began with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on Feb. 27. The aforementioned CGR trio will be joined at TMS later this month by seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson in his open-wheel/oval-track debut. The long-range forecast is for springtime-like conditions with ambient temps in the low-to-mid 70s.

“If it’s a really warm, warm day it’s not going to be that good for racing, I believe,” Palou said. “But if we have a normal (as in cool) day it should be even better for racing because we can get more grip, more downforce and that’s going to allow us to pass more cars. As long as we have fans here and we put on a good show, I don’t care.”

After running a schedule limited to the street and road-courses as a series rookie in 2021, Johnson is contesting the full INDYCAR calendar this season highlighted by the 106th edition of the Indianapolis 500 on May 29.

Monday’s original team lineup included drivers from CGR, Team Penske and Ed Carpenter Racing. But no laps were recorded as ambient temps hovered in the low 40s. Firestone Racing requires a combination of ambient and track temps totaling at least 100 degrees to operate its tire compounds safely on an oval. Ironically, ambient temps reached 80 degrees throughout the area on Saturday.  

“Sunday was nice,” said Dixon, the six-time series champion from New Zealand and driver of the No. 9 Honda. “It’s frustrating and these days with such limited testing you really have to make sure you pick a day that’s going to be worthwhile. It’s unfortunate for everybody that came and not able to test, but can’t do anything about the weather.”

CGR, which originally paid for the track rental, exited Monday afternoon without any of its Honda-powered Dallaras turning a lap. Representing Team Penske and Chevrolet Racing Thursday will be two-time series champion Josef Newgarden; 2014 series champion and 2018 Indy 500 winner Will Power and Scott McLaughlin, winner of the season-opener on the Streets of St. Pete.

Ed Carpenter Racing, also powered by Chevrolet, was tentatively scheduled to test with Rinus VeeKay, the 2020 series Rookie of the Year from The Netherlands, and Conor Daly.

As was the case last year when TMS hosted a unique doubleheader on May 1-2, the XPEL 375 will be the series’ only oval-track event contested before the Indy 500. Those TMS races were won by Dixon _ who posted his INDYCAR track-record fifth victory _ and native Mexican Pato O’Ward, who scored his first series victory with Arrow McLaren SP.

Native New Zealander McLaughlin, the 2021 Rookie of the Year, scored his first open-wheel victory for Team Penske on the temporary 1.8-mile street circuit in Florida. Palou finished second, just 0.5095-seconds behind McLaughlin.

Recall that Palou became the seventh-youngest IndyCar Series champion and first from Spain in 2021. In his second series season and first with Ganassi, the 24-year-old earned the first three wins of his career (Barber, Road America and Portland) and recorded 10 top-five finishes in 16 starts.

Palou also scored a pair of top-10s at TMS last season, finishing fourth in the opener and seventh in the finale. When inclement weather washed-out qualifying, Palou was awarded pole position as a result of leading the championship points heading into Texas. Palou secured his first career pole later in the season at Portland.

Palou completed his self-described “dream season” by winning the 2021 championship. For an encore, welcome to Palou’s “greed season” _ one unashamedly focused on winning the 106th running of the 500.

“Yes, absolutely,” Palou said through his ever-present smile. “That doesn’t mean that I don’t want another championship. But yes, for our team, No. 1 is the Indy 500. It’s the biggest event in motorsports and we were really close last year.”

Indeed, Palou went on to parlay what he learned at TMS into a solid second-place finish to Helio Castroneves of Meyer Shank Racing on the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway. After battling Palou for 19 laps, Helio completed the winning pass on the outside of Turn 1 on Lap 199 of the scheduled 200. Castroneves’ margin of victory was just 0.4928-seconds.

A native of Brazil, Castroneves became the fourth four-time winner of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” _ a club featuring Houston’s A.J. Foyt Jr., Al Unser and Rick Mears. Palou, meanwhile, served notice that he was a serious title contender.

“Yeah, last year was really amazing,” said Palou, driver of the No. 10 Honda. “We got the results we wanted; it was not easy but it was amazing to get it done.

“This year we were preparing a lot for street courses, where we were lacking a little bit last year, and a bit in qualifying as well. We got to St. Pete, struggled a little in the beginning but got out of there with our first podium. So, really happy how we started.”

Palou said he went to school this offseason in an effort to refine his oval-track race craft via a combination of experience, the advice of his teammates and plenty of simulator and iRacing “hot laps.”

“More hours than you can imagine,” said Palou, a native of Barcelona, Spain. “And even if it’s (TMS) so different from Indy, you get so many things that are the same and the way you think. It’s good training here for Indy.”

Palou finished the 2021 season with three wins, eight podiums and one pole en route to raising the silver Astor Challenge Cup Trophy after the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach on Sept. 26. Palou is the first series champ from a predominantly Spanish-speaking country since Juan Pablo Montoya of Colombia in 1999 with CGR.

Speculation continues that Palou’s career path _ like that of JPM _ eventually might include pursuit of a seat in Formula One.

“Yeah _ I stay here,” said Palou, without little hesitation. “I like it here, I love it here and if I can get six (championships like Dixon), why not? That’s what you want. Once you get something you want more of it and winning and having fun. I have a great team of people around me as well, and I’m in a happy place. So I would just go for an Indy 500 and another championship if we can.” 

Live coverage of the XPEL 375 is scheduled for 12:30 p.m. (ET) on NBC and simulstreamed on Peacock Premium. Coverage also is available from the INDYCAR Radio Network with audio available via the INDYCAR App powered by NTT DATA.

(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 inaugural recipient of the Texas Motor Speedway Excellence in Journalism Award (2009). His list of freelance clients has included Texas Motor Speedway, the Dallas Morning News, New York Newsday, Rome (N.Y) Daily Sentinel, Corpus Christi (Texas) Caller Times, NASCAR Wire Service and Ford Racing).

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, March 10 2022
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