IndyCar champion almost won one of his ‘worst races’

Alex Palou, Chip Ganassi Racing, IndyCar (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)
Alex Palou, Chip Ganassi Racing, IndyCar (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images) /

Alex Palou wasn’t expecting to be a contender at Texas Motor Speedway. At first, he wasn’t. Yet he almost came away with his first IndyCar oval victory.

For just the second time in the 2023 IndyCar season, the series is set for an oval race, with the 107th running of the Indy 500 scheduled for Memorial Day Sunday next weekend.

The season’s first oval race took place at Texas Motor Speedway back in early April, and it was widely considered the most exciting race the series has seen since the June 2015 race at Auto Club Speedway saw a pack race with an all-time record 80 lead changes.

Chip Ganassi Racing’s Alex Palou made his IndyCar debut in 2020 with Dale Coyne Racing and Team Goh, and thanks to a surplus of schedule changes brought on by COVID-19-related restrictions, he made his series debut on the high banks of the Fort Worth, Texas oval. He was ultimately caught up in another driver’s wreck.

In 2021, the series raced twice at the track, and he earned the pole position in the first race by virtue of leading the point standings since qualifying was rained out. He finished that race in fourth place and backed that up with a seventh place finish. He also finished in seventh at the track in 2022.

It’s no secret that Palou has excelled in the road course races. He scored his first career IndyCar podium finish in just his second road course start back in 2020 at Road America, and he earned his first victory in his first start with Chip Ganassi Racing in 2021 at Barber Motorsports Park.

As for the ovals, he is still adjusting. In fact, he expected this year’s race at Texas Motor Speedway to be one of his worst races of the season.

“Honestly, Texas I expected to be one of my worst races of the season,” Palou told Beyond the Flag. “I’ve been struggling there since I started in IndyCar and honestly didn’t feel great during practice and stuff, but in the race I was really confident.”

At first, it looked as though it would be one of his worst, if not his overall worst, as he was a lap down toward the middle of the race. But he ended up leading 22 laps and finishing in third place, a pretty good effort considering his low expectations.

“We had a good car, and we made my first oval podium outside of the 500,” he stated. “So that was really, really special. We were battling there until the end.

“I don’t think we had the ultimate speed that the No. 5 [of Pato O’Ward] and the No. 2 [of Josef Newgarden] had at Texas, but honestly, we were still able to fight a little bit and learn quite a lot. So after that, I was really pleased, and that gave me quite a lot of confidence coming here for the 500.”

Just how much can be applied from Texas Motor Speedway to Indianapolis Motor Speedway? Both are fast ovals, but they are far different in nature.

“Yea, I would say, there is quite a lot of stuff,” Palou said. “I don’t think in terms of setup, but in terms of driving and approach on like overtakes and defending and all that stuff, strategies – it’s really similar to IMS. Super confident after Texas.”

One of Palou’s five career IndyCar wins, which have all come on road courses, came less than a week ago. The 25-year-old Spaniard enters Indy 500 practice and qualifying week on a high, having won the GMR Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course by almost 17 seconds.

While momentum is often talked about in IndyCar, Alex Palou knows that there is nothing to take from that race to apply to the Indy 500.

“It’s more about the confidence that I can get, the energy that the team in general can get, and obviously just the positive things that you get after a win,” he said. “In terms of racing-wise, there is nothing that you can really take from the Indy road course to the speedway.

“But anyway, I feel really confident, I think we had amazing cars the past two years, and we did the open test a month ago, and it was really, really good. Felt super confident with the car, and so on, so super confident after the win. Couldn’t be a better start honestly. Hopefully we can keep it rolling this week and next week.”

After finishing in third place in what he expected to be a lackluster showing, does he feel as comfortable on ovals as he does on road courses?

“Maybe not yet,” he admitted. “The confidence that I just have on road and street course when I go out, it’s just a lot more than what I have when I go out here at the speedway or at Texas. I wish that someday that changes and that I can have the confidence from the get-go, but honestly, it’s been increasing since day one in IndyCar.

“I think it’s just normal, the learning process that we have, knowing that my first oval race was in IndyCar in 2020. So it’s been only three years. I guess that someday I’ll feel super comfortable.”

Despite not yet having the same confidence on the ovals as he does on the road courses, Palou already has a second place finish in the Indy 500, and he couldn’t have been beaten by better competition, finishing behind four-time winner Helio Castroneves in 2021.

In 2022, he started in second place and only missed out on the pole position because teammate Scott Dixon posted a record pole speed.

“The Indy 500 is possibly the best that I feel, just because we have this week of practice, we have qualifying, we have Carb Day, and all that stuff, and it’s quite a lot of practice that we have on track, so that makes me feel really, really good,” he continued.

After leading 40 of the first 68 laps a year ago, he was taken out of contention early by an untimely caution, since the ensuing pit road closure left him unable to come in for service when he needed it. But he still rallied from 30th to finish in ninth place.

“It’s my best chance so far, for sure, just because of my experience and the team that I have around me,” he said when asked about his chance to win this year’s race. “But yeah, I think you need a lot of stuff to go well here at the Indy 500.

“It’s a long race, 200 laps. Four to five, even six pit stops, everything needs to be on point. So yeah, I feel confident, but at the same time, I understand what it takes to win the Indy 500, and if it doesn’t come this year – which hopefully it does – we will just keep knocking on the door.”

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The 107th running of the Indy 500 is scheduled to take place on Sunday, May 28. Qualifying is scheduled to take place on Saturday, May 20 and Sunday, May 21. Begin a free trial of FuboTV today!