Colton Herta won the NTT IndyCar Series' Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach, while Also Palou finished fourth in the race, but captured his first IndyCar season championship.
The 24-year-old Palou becomes the seventh-youngest champion in IndyCar history and the first native of Spain to win the IndyCar crown.
It also was the 14th IndyCar championship in Chip Ganassi Racing annals. Others who have won the title for CGR are six-time winner Scott Dixon, four-time winner Dario Franchitti, and single-season champs Jimmy Vasser, Alex Zanardi and Juan Pablo Montoya.
Josef Newgarden came close, but Alex Palou was not to be denied, earning his first NTT IndyCar Series championship in Sunday’s season-ending Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach.
Colton Herta won his second straight race and third of the season, while Palou finished fourth in the race, but more importantly, held on to his lead in the points standings to capture his first IndyCar crown. Newgarden finished second in the race and also second in the championship battle, ending up 38 points behind Palou.
In his first season with Chip Ganassi Racing and second season in the IndyCar Series, Palou drove a very smart race, staying out of trouble but also kept himself near the front of the field for much of the race. He didn’t let the pressure get to him, but rather seemed like he was on an easy Sunday drive.
“That’s ours, right?” Palou said with a big smile when interviewed in victory lane by NBCSN. “Oh man, what a year, what a season, it’s just amazing. I’m just super proud being part of Chip Ganassi Racing. Super happy, can’t thank everyone enough that made this possible, especially Chip Ganassi.”
The 24-year-old Palou becomes the seventh-youngest champion in IndyCar history and also the first native of Spain to win the IndyCar crown.
“I’m super proud to be a champion and the opportunity these guys gave me,” Palou said while holding a Spanish flag. “We’ll keep it going.”
Teammate Jimmie Johnson, a seven-time NASCAR Cup champion but a rookie this season in IndyCar competition, hugged Palou and said, “I’m super proud of you. Enjoy it!”
Palou celebrated the biggest achievement of his career by doing a celebratory donut on the track after crossing the finish line. He kept the championship in the Chip Ganassi Racing stable, as Palou picks up from Scott Dixon, who won his sixth title last season.
It also was the 14th IndyCar championship in CGR annals. Others who have won the title for CGR are six-time winner Scott Dixon, four-time winner Dario Franchitti, and single-season champs Jimmy Vasser, Alex Zanardi and Juan Pablo Montoya.
“You’re seeing a young man that is going to set a lot of records in this business, and he’s just starting,” team owner Chip Ganassi said. “My hat’s off, it’s very cool.”
Pato O’Ward, who was the only other driver in contention for the championship, was involved in an early-race incident that ended his title hopes (more below). O’Ward finished third in the championship (62 points behind Palou) and 27th in the race.
As for Herta, he capped off the season with his third win of the season and sixth of his career. Ironically, the California native has earned half of those six wins in the Golden State, twice at Laguna Seca (including last week’s race there) and now Sunday’s triumph at Long Beach.
Herta finished the season fifth, 94 points behind Palou, and 26 points behind fourth-place finisher Dixon.
“It feels amazing, great car, great team, it’s been on the bucket list for a long time,” Herta told NBCSN. “I’m super happy. It took a while to get here, but what a way to cap off the year. (Newgarden) made it hard. I just can’t believe it. I’m at a loss for words.”
There was some irony in Newgarden finishing second in the championship because after last week’s penultimate race at Portland, he had all but conceded the title to Palou, even saying that he was fighting for second place.
“If there had been no yellows today, I think we would have been okay to cruise upfront, but that’s the way it rolls sometimes, it just doesn’t always go your way,” Newgarden told NBCSN. “There’s a lot to be proud of this year. We fought hard but came up a little bit short, but we fought all year long.
“If a couple things go different, it’s a different outcome for us. We were in the fight, to put ourself in position to have a shot at winning but just came up short. It’s disappointing, incredibly disappointing. But we have the chance to start over next year but we’ll bounce back pretty quick so I think we’ll have a shot at it next year.”
Well, That Didn't Take Long
Even though many observers wondered if there’d be contact in Turn 1 of the opening lap of the race—historically, one of the biggest obstacles drivers have had to avoid in past races—it wound up being a clean situation until the end of the same lap.
Ed Jones made contact with O’Ward coming out of the last turn of the opening lap, spinning O’Ward’s car around. Several other drivers were involved in the aftermath, including Palou (suffered minor front wing damage) and Sebastien Bourdais, bringing out a yellow flag.
“It’s not the first time he’s hit us, it’s not the first time he’s done something stupid all season,” O’Ward told NBCSN of Jones. “I just wish he could use his head more and respect the guys in the championship. … Don’t be stupid about it.”
Jones was given a drive-through penalty for avoidable contact. O’Ward’s gearbox finally gave out on Lap 18 of the 85-lap race and he took his car to the garage, seemingly done for the day … only he wasn’t.
O’Ward came back on-track with 33 laps to go after his team repaired the damage on his car. The reason was wise: if anything happened to Newgarden or Palou, the Mexican driver still had a chance to finish second points-wise in the championship.
As it turned out, though, O’Ward parked his car for good with seven laps to go, ultimately finishing 27th in the race and third for the season.
But even with the early problems, O’Ward was happy with how his season played out for the most part and is looking forward to 2022.
“Man, I think we had a great season so far,” O’Ward told NBCSN. “I’m proud of the team and proud of myself. Obviously, it wasn’t a perfect season but that’s how it’s going to be. You learn from the little mistakes you made and I think that gets you stronger. I’m looking forward to next year and think we have a great baseline to start off from and see if we can get more wins and challenge for the title.”
O’Ward’s time in IndyCar may be relatively short: he’s slated to test in McLaren’s Formula One car in December. While nothing has been said about O’Ward going to F1, a driver doesn’t get a full test in one of those cars if the team’s top officials weren’t thinking about him as a prospect.
Why Next Year Will Be Different
Many fans wondered why such a pivotal and arguably the second-most popular race of the year, not to mention being the season-ending and championship-deciding race, was not shown on “Big NBC,” in other words, network television.
There actually was a good reason why the race wound up on NBCSN, which ironically broadcast its last-ever IndyCar race, with plans for the cable network to go out of business by year’s end. Big NBC was televising one of golf’s biggest matches, the Ryder Cup. And when it comes to golf vs. IndyCar, the guys hitting the little white ball almost always win out.
Things will likely be much different next season. NBC has announced that 14 of the 17 races in the 2022 season will be on “Big NBC”, while two others will be on the USA Network and one event will be televised solely on the Peacock streaming service (which also will carry all 17 races, all practice sessions and all qualifying sessions throughout the season).
Indy Magic ... For Awhile Anyway
Helio Castroneves, who won a record-tying fourth Indianapolis 500 title in late May, jumped to the front of the pack on a restart on Lap 25 and looked as determined to win as he did at Indy.
Castroneves had a rough weekend heading into Sunday’s race, including making contact with Alexander Rossi during Sunday’s morning warm-up, but overcame adversity to start third and then kept hanging in Newgarden’s shadow for much of the middle part of the race.
As it turned out, however, Castroneves, would fall back in the later stages of the race and finished 20th. He will return to full-time competition next season with Meyer Shank Racing with an as-yet to be named teammate (Jack Harvey leaves MSR after this season and is reportedly headed to drive a third car for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing).
Second Verse, Same as the First
Jimmie Johnson wrapped up his first season in IndyCar at a venue he visited numerous times as a youth (he grew up just about 100 miles south of Long Beach in suburban San Diego). Making his 12th start of the year (he skipped five other races that were on ovals), Johnson finished 17th. That equals his best finish of the season, set last week at Laguna Seca.
Johnson will decide after next month’s big series-wide test at Indianapolis Motor Speedway whether he’ll run the entire 17-race season in 2022, or remain racing only on temporary street courses and permanent road courses.
But What, There's More
Although it was close, Scott McLaughlin held off Romain Grosjean to earn Rookie of the Year honors. “I’m really excited for next year,” said McLaughlin, who finished 11th in the race. “This was a foundation year, all about building and I think I’ve done that. Hopefully, I can be a little better next year.” … Simon Pagenaud likely ended his seven-year tenure with Team Penske. Although nothing has been announced officially by the team, it’s likely Pagenaud will not return next season. If that indeed happens, Team Penske hasn’t revealed if it has its eyes on another driver to replace Pagenaud, or whether it will revert to a three-car operation instead of four cars, as they had this year. … James Hinchcliffe, in his last race for Andretti Autosport, wanted to end up with a podium finish, but fell short, ending 14th. Hinchcliffe has not announced what his future holds. He could potentially compete for another team or retire as a driver and become a broadcaster.
Follow Autoweek contributor Jerry Bonkowski on Twitter @JerryBonkowski