Alex Palou’s dominance throughout the 2023 IndyCar season makes one wonder how it took him 17 races to find victory lane a year ago.
Maybe it’s because Alex Palou’s dominance has left very little to wonder about the current state of the 2023 IndyCar championship battle.
He is more than two full race weekends ahead of second place Scott Dixon, one of his two full-time Chip Ganassi Racing teammates, in the standings with eight races remaining on the 17-race calendar.
This coming Sunday’s race on the streets of Toronto will mark seven weeks since Palou last started an IndyCar race and failed to win it, which feels more like a Max Verstappen Formula 1 statistic than that which can be brought up just halfway into a season of what is generally viewed as the world’s most competitive racing series.
But one question that keeps creeping up about Alex Palou is this: how in the world did it take him 17 IndyCar races to finally find victory lane last year?
Palou is currently riding a three-race winning streak and has won four of the last five events. He has been P1 on five of the last six on-track, points-paying IndyCar race weekends, if you include his record-breaking pole position for the Indy 500.
The only non-win during that stretch was the Indy 500 itself, when he still managed to rally from 30th place to fourth after a pit road collision which was not his fault.
DraftKings Sportsbook, which is offering fans an instant $150 (no promo code required) just for signing up and placing a single $5 bet (on Palou or anybody else), lists Palou as a prohibitive -1000 favorite (full odds here) to win this year’s championship.
So how did Palou, who won the championship in his first season with Chip Ganassi Racing in relatively convincing fashion back in 2021, end up going on an 18-race win drought before winning the 2022 season finale?
And how did he finish behind four other drivers in the championship standings? His lead over fifth place in the standings through nine races this year is already 127 points.
Yes, it’s tough to repeat as champion in IndyCar. Nobody has done it since Dario Franchitti won three in a row from 2009 to 2011, also in the No. 10 Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing.
But you have to wonder if all the drama surrounding his contract and his future did take a toll on the Spaniard throughout the 2022 season.
Last July, both Chip Ganassi Racing and McLaren announced that they had signed Palou for 2023, and Palou made clear his intention to leave the former and join the latter, though with his specific destination unspecified.
A legal battle ensued, and the 26-year-old ended up back behind the wheel of the No. 10 Honda in 2023 after ending the 2022 season with the most dominant race win — margin of victory-wise — in modern IndyCar history, a win which finally brought an end to a surprising win drought of 364 days.
Of course, at the time, he was applauded for not letting the contract talk get in the way. Considering the fact that his “down” season still saw him lead the standings after the first four races, score six podium finishes, and post just three results (excluding a DNF) outside of the top 10, it’s not like we’re talking about his career falling off a cliff.
But when you compare his 2022 season to his 2023 season, something has definitely changed.
He hasn’t finished outside of the top eight this year, and he is riding a streak of eight straight races not just in the top five, but eight straight races in which he has finished ahead of Dixon.
That kind of streak simply does not happen against Scott Dixon, a six-time champion of the sport, much less during a stretch when Dixon himself has just one finish outside the top seven. Dixon has had what would be a championship-caliber season in any other year.
He just so happens to be up against a driver whose average finish is 3.22, more than one full position higher than he posted in any of his six title-winning seasons.
But that raises a follow-up question: if Palou is driving with a clearer mind this time around, does that mean his future is sorted?
Will he be back with Chip Ganassi Racing in 2024? Will he be driving for the Arrow McLaren IndyCar team? Will he be competing in Formula 1, and if so, for whom? Maybe he already knows the answers to those questions.