IndyCar: Alex Palou can break into uncharted territory

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 has a chance to do something that no IndyCar driver has ever done since the Indy Racing League was started back in 1996.

The 2023 IndyCar season has not yet hit its halfway point, yet Chip Ganassi Racing’s Alex Palou has already opened up a 74-point lead in the championship standings over teammate Marcus Ericsson.

Ericsson himself hasn’t finished a race outside of the top 10 this year, making Palou’s lead that much more impressive. In fact, Ericsson has scored more points through eight races this year than he would have last year, had the Indy 500 not been a double points race (like it wasn’t this year).

Palou has reeled off two straight wins and won three of the four most recent races. He hasn’t finished outside of the top five since the season opener, when he finished in eighth place. His average finish of 3.5 is simply on another level.

The 26-year-old Spaniard has seven career wins to his name. But he has still never won an IndyCar oval race.

Palou has the chance to become the first driver to win two championships without an oval win to his name since the Indy Racing League was started back in 1996. He is one of only three drivers who became champion without having ever won an oval race, and you really can’t even count the first.

Scott Sharp was co-champion with Buzz Calkins in 1996, when there were only three races, all oval races, on the schedule. While he didn’t win any of those three races, he had also never won a road or street course race prior.

Palou, on the other hand, won the title in his first season with Chip Ganassi Racing back in 2021 when he earned the first three victories of his career at Barber Motorsports Park, Road America, and Portland International Raceway.

The only other driver to become champion without having ever won an oval race is Simon Pagenaud. Pagenaud won five races in 2016, bringing him to nine career victories, en route to winning the championship.

Of course, Pagenaud went on to secure multiple oval victories. He earned his first the next season at Phoenix Raceway, and he won the Indy 500 in 2019 en route to winning the oval championship for the first time in his career. He added a win at Iowa Speedway in 2020.

Alex Palou potentially winning a second IndyCar championship without a single oval victory is uncharted territory.

IndyCar’s schedule is as diverse as they come and demands that drivers perform well at several types of tracks. Palou has done that, yet that oval win continues to elude him.

The owner of the fastest pole speed in Indy 500 history has a top finish of second place in an IndyCar oval race. He recorded that runner-up finish in the 2021 Indy 500 behind Helio Castroneves.

His only other podium finish in an oval race came at Texas Motor Speedway back in April, a race which Palou felt would be one of his worst of the year.

Though he only earned his first IndyCar victory of any kind two years ago, Palou is already tied with Colton Herta as the winningest active non-Indy 500 winner.

There are three oval races remaining on this year’s schedule, two at Iowa Speedway and one at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway. Palou has one top 10 finish in four starts at the former, and one top 10 finish in four starts at the latter, as short ovals have presented him with his biggest challenge.

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These races are justifiably seen as great opportunities for Team Penske and Josef Newgarden, who has won at one or both of those tracks every year since 2019, to try to close the gap. Newgarden, a four-time winner at both tracks, sits in third place in the standings and trails Palou by 81 points.