Indy 500: Why the ‘odd man out’ may be the man to beat

Alex Palou, Chip Ganassi Racing, Indy 500, IndyCar (Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images)
Alex Palou, Chip Ganassi Racing, Indy 500, IndyCar (Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images) /

Alex Palou may be the only Chip Ganassi Racing driver without an Indy 500 win. But that could change this Memorial Day Weekend.

Alex Palou wasn’t initially planning on competing for Chip Ganassi Racing in the 107th running of the Indy 500. When Chip Ganassi’s IndyCar team and Arrow McLaren both announced last summer that they had signed him for 2023, Palou made clear his intention to leave the former and join the latter.

But long story short, Palou finds himself back for a third year behind the wheel of the No. 10 Honda. Now back in the month of May, with the 25-year-old Spaniard is seeking redemption.

And he is doing it as somewhat of the “odd man out” at Chip Ganassi Racing. Thanks to Marcus Ericsson’s Indy 500 victory a year ago, Palou is the only member of the team who has never drank the milk.

Scott Dixon, the all-time laps led leader at the speedway, hasn’t won since 2008. But he’s still won it. Takuma Sato, whom the team signed for this season, is a two-time winner. He won in 2017 with Andretti Autosport and 2020 for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, and he’ll be looking to continue the pattern of winning every three years with a new team in 2023.

“I think I have all the resources in the team, like information, setup, and knowledge from my teammates,” Palou told Beyond the Flag. “All my teammates are Indy 500 winners, so obviously I feel like I have everything I need to know. Is it my best chance? It’s my best chance so far, for sure, just because of my experience and the team that I have around me.

“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.”

Despite having not won, Alex Palou just might be the best of the Chip Ganassi Racing quartet entering this year’s Indy 500.

He has never started worse than the third row in his three Indy 500 starts. It was an impressive seventh place start as a rookie with Dale Coyne Racing and Team Goh which elevated him to Chip Ganassi Racing’s radar before they made what was deemed at the time to be somewhat of a surprising move to sign him for 2021.

In two starts with his current team, Palou has started in sixth and second place. In 2021, the year which saw him go on to claim an unexpected first career IndyCar championship, he was the driver to beat in the closing stages of the race.

It just so happens that the driver who had to beat him is arguably the greatest driver in the history of the Indy 500, and it was that driver, Helio Castroneves, who prevailed to tie the record with his fourth victory in the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing”.

“If you need to lose something, you want to lose to the best, and losing to Helio was okay, let’s say – it’s never fine to lose – but if you lose, you want to lose to the best,” Palou admitted.

The 2022 race was shaping up in a similar manner. Palou and Dixon, who needed an all-time record pole speed to knock Palou to the middle of the front row, swapped the lead a number of times in the opening stages.

“It was the same against Scott in qualifying,” he continued. “I was really happy last year that we had the pole until obviously Scott went out and, in order to take the pole from us, he had to do a record qualifying. That’s pretty cool.”

Through 68 laps, Palou led eight times for 40 circuits. But an untimely yellow closed the pits when he needed service, and his subsequent fuel shortage mired him 30th of 31 cars still in the race.

Let’s not forget what Palou did after that misfortune, the same misfortunate which had struck Dixon in the exact same way in 2021.

Dixon battled back to finish in 17th place when it happened to him far earlier in the race. Palou battled back from 30th to finish ninth on a day when passing was exceptionally challenging.

With the aero package changes to the cars for 2023, a drop to 30th place may not be as devastating.

“It depends,” he admitted. “I think as long as you have a fast car like we had last year, I think it will be super hard, but it will be doable to make it. I hope I’m not in that position, honestly, because that makes your day super long and super hard.

“But yeah, I think it’s doable with the small changes that we have in the car for everybody with a little bit more downforce. Hopefully it’s going to be quite good and an interesting race.”

Remember what happened in 2012, when Dario Franchitti was hit by E.J. Viso in the pits? Remember what happened in 2015, when Simona de Silvestro inexplicably ran into Juan Pablo Montoya under caution?

It can be done. But Palou, known for his methodical and calculated approach, is hoping it doesn’t come to that.

“It’s going to take a perfect day,” he said. “It’s going to take a crazy fast qualifying and it’s going to take an amazing race on my side and on the strategy side, which involves myself, and on overtakes, defending, and all that stuff. So I don’t need to be only fast, or I don’t need to be only really good at overtakes. I need to be super complete on Sunday.”

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The 107th running of the Indy 500 is set to be broadcast live on NBC from Indianapolis Motor Speedway beginning at 11:00 a.m. ET on Sunday, May 28, with qualifying set for Saturday, May 20 and Sunday, May 21. Begin a free trial of FuboTV now and don’t miss it!