Alex Palou Is an IndyCar Winner

Fred Smith
·5 min read
Photo credit: Icon Sportswire - Getty Images
Photo credit: Icon Sportswire - Getty Images

When Alex Palou signed with Chip Ganassi Racing to fill one of the best seats on the IndyCar grid, he had finished better than seventh just once and had never won a race. That changed quickly.

Palou's win came at the expense of Patricio O'Ward, the still-winless Arrow McLaren SP driver who has made a habit of fighting for race wins over the past season. It was O'Ward who qualified on pole, and O'Ward who got out to an early lead when two-time series champion Josef Newgarden second trip off track of the weekend ended far worse than the first when he spun and caused a crash that effectively ended the day of four other drivers. NASCAR veteran, and IndyCar rookie, Jimmie Johnson brought out a yellow shortly after the restart, forcing a second restart just twelve laps into the race.

The timing of the second yellow was crucial. Another yellow never came, and the field was left with what had been cut into an obvious two-stop race with a narrow window left over for a driver to try three and make up the time on a clean track. O'Ward, and second-placed Alexander Rossi, opted for a three-stop strategy, while Palou was joined by the majority of the field and going for two.

Palou's race was relatively smooth. He never got any real separation from Will Power and Scott Dixon, second and third on his strategy, but he was not under any real pressure from either until Conor Daly's battle to stay on the lead lap forced him to give up some time to the rest of the field on the final few laps. O'Ward's day, theoretically more straightforward, ended up being much more complicated.

If traffic breaks another way, his team's bold strategy wins the day. The No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP entry was the fastest car on track for most of the day, and he was fast enough to catch the rear bumper of the top three by the end of the race. However, he twice came out of the pit lane into much slower traffic, and twice had to waste huge chunks of time fighting cars saving fuel (first Sebastien Bourdais, then Marcus Ericsson before he could get into the promised clean air and make up time on the leaders. It meant he never got close enough to put any real pressure on the leaders, and that he would have to settle for fourth in the fastest car in the field.

It was a day that mirrored last year's race 2 at Road America, another event O'Ward lost. That race came down to the opposite tire management strategy, with O'Ward burning through his grip fighting the lapped traffic, also of Conor Daly, before being caught and passed by Felix Rosenqvist. Today, it was Roseqnvist's successor in the No. 10 Chip Ganassi Racing entry that was on the right strategy, and it was that car again creating another first-time winner before O'Ward.

The series veterans are the favorites for the championship until proven otherwise, but O'Ward came into this season as the clear lead driver at Arrow McLaren SP, and the combination of the high-profile nature of the team and his strong, consistent runs last year mean that he will be expected to fight for a championship sooner rather than later. A recovery to fourth today means that he is off to a strong start. But historic field depth means that this will be one of the most competitive championship fights ever, and, while strong finishes are a strong start, the champion will need to win the races they have a shot to win. O'Ward has had an arc reminiscent of Simon Pagenaud and Josef Newgarden's stints before winning their first championship, coming close time and time again, but all of those ambitions come later. This season's champion will have to win often, and, to do that, O'Ward will have to win the first one.

Palou, meanwhile, is off to a very strong start. His win puts him ahead of teammate and eternal title favorite Scott Dixon early, something that will be crucial as Dixon and Penske Racing's Will Power each claim a fairly effortless podium finish in the season opener. The news is worse for Indianapolis 500 winners Alexander Rossi and Simon Pagenaud, who finished ninth and 12th. For Colton Herta, Felix Rosenqvist, and Josef Newgarden, finishes of worse than 20th resulting from Newgarden's early spin are a disastrous early result.

The high-profile group of rookies struggled behind the contenders, but none failed to finish. An impressive qualifying run and first stint had Romain Grosjean running well early, but he struggled on cold tires after his stops and failed to make much noise on the way to a respectable finish of 10th. Scott McLaughlin ran well early, too, but he wound up just 14th after fading late. Jimmie Johnson's early spin would be his only mistake of the day, but it wiped him out of contention early and he would finish 19th, last of the cars not involved in the lap 1 wreck.

IndyCar will race three more times over the next two weekends. That begins with next weekend's delayed Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, the first of six scheduled races on temporary street circuits.

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