IndyCar: Alex Palou’s rivals made the same mistake again

Alex Palou, Chip Ganassi Racing, Mid-Ohio, IndyCar (Photo Credit: Mansfield News Journal)
Alex Palou, Chip Ganassi Racing, Mid-Ohio, IndyCar (Photo Credit: Mansfield News Journal) /

The fact that Alex Palou was once again the highest starter on the opposite tire compound spelled trouble from the very start of Sunday’s IndyCar race.

Another IndyCar race, another dominant Alex Palou victory. The 2021 series champion extended his championship lead to 110 points through nine of the 17 races on the 2023 calendar, meaning he could technically sit out the next two events and still be the points leader.

Keep in mind, no driver has clinched an IndyCar championship before a season finale since Dan Wheldon in 2005.

Palou has now won three races in a row, and his win in Sunday’s Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio presented by the 2023 Accord Hybrid at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course was his fourth in the last five events.

Including Indy 500 qualifying, he has been P1 on five of the last six on-track, points-paying weekends. In what is arguably the world’s most competitive racing series, that type of run is simply on another level.

His only non-win during that span came in the Indy 500, a race he may very well have won had he not been mired back in 30th place after being hit in the pits. He still rallied for a fourth place finish and has now reeled off eight straight top five results. He has yet to finish lower than eighth this year.

So Alex Palou is a pretty good IndyCar driver. But you already knew that.

What is somewhat mind-boggling, however, is the fact that Palou, from fourth place on the grid for Sunday afternoon’s 80-lap race around the 13-turn, 2.258-mile (3.634-kilometer) Lexington, Ohio road course, was once again the highest starter on his tire compound. He was on the primary compound while the top three were on the alternates.

This was the case at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course when he also started on the second row, and he won that race by nearly 17 seconds after taking the lead from polesitter Christian Lundgaard of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing and leading a majority of the laps.

While Sunday’s race was dominated early on by Andretti Autosport’s Colton Herta and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Graham Rahal, who shared the front row, this race played out in a similar fashion.

Palou leapfrogged both drivers by the time the first pit cycle had concluded, and he never looked back, despite spending several laps being held up by A.J. Foyt Enterprises rookie Benjamin Pedersen.

Even without his pit road speeding penalty, Herta was never going to beat Palou, and even without his own pit lane issues, neither was Rahal.

With the top three finishers having started on the primary tire compound, podium finishes even would have been difficult for Herta and Rahal, which is crazy considering the fact that seven of the previous eight races at the track had been won from the front row.

But that leads us to one key question. Why is it that nobody chooses the opposite tire strategy of the leaders until you get down to Palou in the starting lineup? Why did this happen yet again when you basically know what you’re signing up for?

Sure, teams go into each race with their own strategy, and you’re not necessarily going to put yourself in position to respond to another team’s tire choice, especially if you believe you have picked the better of two options.

But on Sunday, this was different.

Andretti Autosport had two of the top three drivers on the starting grid, with Kyle Kirkwood in third place, and they both started on the same tires.

At this point, with the championship well out of reach, why not take the gamble? Why not at least put yourself in a position to have a leg up on Palou one way or another?

By no means is this sort of a gamble a form of desperation when all you’re trying to do is finally stay ahead of the guy who continuously beats the tar out of you under normal circumstances. It’s not like it would have been a bold decision.

Herta still wouldn’t have won, but Kirkwood, who proved he can win from the front in Long Beach back in April, might have been a factor. At the very least, he sure wouldn’t have spun out trying to defend a much quicker Palou at the end of the first stint, effectively ruining his race, due to the tire crossover difference.

As simple as it sounds, there is something to be said for knowing how to win and knowing what it takes to win. That is the case in any sport. There is something to be said for knowing how to operate and executing a successful strategy over the course of an entire IndyCar race weekend.

Being fast is one thing. But it’s not always interchangeable with being able to win. Palou and the No. 10 team continue to do both, and nobody is doing anything about it, no matter how fast they are. We continue to see the other big Honda teams fail to deliver.

This is certainly not the first time that Andretti Autosport and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing have had race-winning cars, only to finish entirely off the podium for one reason or another. We saw it at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course with Lundgaard, and we saw it at Road America with Herta.

Now at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, Palou once again found himself atop the podium with very little resistance from the two teams with drivers who started in front of him.

The two drivers with whom he shared the podium were teammate Scott Dixon and Team Penske’s Will Power, who happened to be the next highest drivers in the starting lineup who began the race on the primary tires.

Sure, hindsight is always 20/20, but it’s not rocket science.

Maybe it comes down to lack of recent experience managing a race from the front, at least on the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing side. There is certainly no shortage of talent, but winning races is difficult, especially when you’re not used to being in position to potentially capitalize.

Next. All-time IndyCar wins list. dark

A lot of it comes down to strategy and execution, and Chip Ganassi Racing simply have that down pat right now, while these other teams continue to struggle to put together good performances over an entire race distance.