Palou’s on a roll – but the IndyCar title fight is at a crossroads

After his latest outrageous display of circuit ownership, we may as well rename Laguna Seca (Dry Lake) Lake Palou in honor of its newest winner.

In his four visits to the legendary road course situated just outside of Monterey, Alex Palou has never finished off the podium. He opened with a second-place in 2021, ran away and hid in 2022 when he put 30.3 seconds between himself and Josef Newgarden while demolishing his rivals on the way to victory, and took third last year.

His most recent performance at Laguna Palou felt a lot like 2022, and while three cautions in the last 20 laps prevented him from building a ridiculous lead, Chip Ganassi Racing’s two-time champion toyed with the field and cruised home to another demonstrative win.


The result also returned Palou to the top of the Drivers’ standings, which he led after the Indianapolis Grand Prix that he won and again after the Indy 500, but the championship clock is ticking for the 27-year-old from Spain.

With a tidal wave of ovals on the horizon, supreme road racers like Palou who’ve yet to claim an oval win are about to run out of opportunities to flex their strongest muscles. He’s built a 23-point lead over Will Power, who stood on podiums at Iowa in three of the last four races and has wins at Milwaukee and World Wide Technology Raceway on his resume. Teammate Scott Dixon is 32 points back and has a menacing record of wins on ovals — he could easily take half of the six oval races — that await the field from July-September.

Pato O’Ward in sixth (-77 points) and Arrow McLaren teammate Alexander Rossi in seventh (-87) are also capable of winning at Iowa, WWTR, Milwaukee, and the season finale at Nashville’s 1.33-mile oval, and could draw down Palou’s lead if the Ganassi driver doesn’t make big strides at those four events.

On the positive side, Palou has another road course up next at Mid-Ohio where, since joining CGR in 2021, he’s placed third, second, and first. The wildcard to acknowledge is the NTT IndyCar Series’ choice to introduce its new energy recovery systems at Mid-Ohio, so while Palou has been the best driver at the track in recent years, there’s no telling how reliability issues at IndyCar’s first hybrid powertrain race might affect him or any of the other drivers on the entry list.

If everything holds together in Ohio, it should give Palou a chance to shine, but the overarching note to consider leaving Laguna Seca is how Palou can’t pad his lead enough before we get to the doubleheader at Iowa, which falls directly after Mid-Ohio. And Iowa can’t get here fast enough for Josef Newgarden.

Wind the clock back to 2022, and of the 11 oval races held by IndyCar, the two-time Indy 500 winner has claimed a mind-boggling eight victories — that’s 73 percent — from 11 chances. Newgarden’s oval strike rate is the thing that can easily dismantle Palou’s title hopes, provided the second half of his season is smoother than the first.

Looking at where his championship got its proper start with a fourth at Long Beach, the 2017 and 2019 IndyCar champion has been riding a rollercoaster with dips to 16th at Barber and 17th at the Indy GP, a huge rise to first at the Indy 500, then a huge drop to 26th at Detroit, another spike to second at Road America, and an error-filled plummet to 19th on Sunday at Lake Palou. Over the same span, Palou’s finishing record has a single blemish as he’s placed third, fifth, first, fifth, 16th, fourth, and first.

Newgarden has some ground to make up in the championship, but an oval-heavy second half of the season gives him the best possible opportunity to do so. Michael Levitt/Motorsport Images

Newgarden heads to Mid-Ohio, a track where he’s won on two occasions since 2017, holding ninth in the championship with a significant deficit of 104 points to Palou — the equivalent of two race wins — and can start to carve into that gap with a strong run.

And then it’s onto Iowa, where Newgarden has won three of the last four races, and it could be four-for-four if it weren’t for the suspension failure that fired him into the wall while leading the second race in 2022. Then the series motors to Toronto, where Palou finished second last year with the front wing dangling from the nose of his No. 10 Honda, but Newgarden has a pair of wins on the Canadian street course as well, so he can’t be overlooked.

A late August trip to Portland – a road course where Palou has won two of the last three races – is his last chance to exploit a road racing advantage. Everywhere else before at WWTR, and the three ovals after to close the season with Milwaukee’s doubleheader and the big roll of the championship dice at Nashville Speedway, certainly play to the favor of Newgarden, Power, and Dixon.

As Palou told RACER after the Indy 500, “I need to win a oval race. We’ve been lucky enough to win two championships without winning in a oval, but we need we need to win there.” Thanks to the shift in how the schedule was made, the majority of venues where Palou has distinguished himself will be completed long before 2024 is farewelled.

And that’s the gift that awaits IndyCar fans. Just as it’s easy to see how the Newgardens, Powers, and Dixons can erase Palou’s championship lead once the ovals start hitting every few weeks, the oval-heavy close to the season also presents Palou with an opportunity to get his first oval win — and maybe more — and prove to himself and his fiercest rivals that he’s more than a road and street specialist.

Last year, three of the last nine races were on ovals, which allowed Palou to clinch the title with one race to go. This year, six of the final nine races are on ovals, which won’t provide the same comfort or relative lack of pressure.

Is this the year where Palou levels up and becomes a complete IndyCar driver, or will the handful of all-discipline monsters chasing him send a reminder that he has more work to do to reach their lofty status?

Each IndyCar champion is crowned as the best to master the five unique circuits they face on calendars constructed with road courses, street courses, short ovals, intermediate ovals, and superspeedways, but it’s fair to say Palou has never been pushed to his limits on the ovals in order to capture his titles in 2021 and 2023.

That’s about to change, and it should be a fascinating plot for fans to follow until the checkered flag waves over the field on Sunday, Sept. 15, in Tennessee.

Story originally appeared on Racer