If points leader Alex Palou does not return to IndyCar in 2024, the series looks poised for a familiar championship battle.
From 2015 to 2022, six IndyCar season finales began with both Scott Dixon and Josef Newgarden still mathematically eligible to win the championship. Five were won by one of the two.
The two exceptions were 2016, when just Simon Pagenaud and Will Power were eligible, and 2021, when the battle came down to Newgarden, Alex Palou, and Pato O’Ward. The other one which neither won was 2022, when Power scored his first title since 2014.
The 2023 season might very well be the third season to feature one or neither of those two multi-time champions in that battle heading into the finale, with Palou having already opened up a championship lead of more than two entire race weekend’s following his third straight victory at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course two Sunday afternoons ago.
Alex Palou has more wins in the last three races than anybody else has all year. Eight races remain on the 17-race 2023 IndyCar schedule.
Palou leads teammate Dixon by 110 points, with Team Penske’s newest Indy 500 champion sitting just six points behind him in third place. Chip Ganassi Racing’s Marcus Ericsson sits six points further back in fourth, with Arrow McLaren’s Pato O’Ward just five points back in fifth.
It’s quite a close battle for second place, all things considered. The gap from Palou to Dixon is more than six times greater than the gap from Dixon to O’Ward. In fact, it’s more than the gap from Dixon down to 13th place Felix Rosenqvist of Arrow McLaren.
Yet the 26-year-old Spaniard is facing an uncertain future in IndyCar, with consistent reports that he is eyeing a move to Formula 1.
As strange as it sounds, he may be willing to give up the IndyCar seat in which he has won the last three, four of the last five, and five of the last 10 races going back to last season.
Before the 2023 season began, reigning champion Will Power called Palou a “faster Dixon”, and that is exactly what he has demonstrated this year. He is riding an eight-race streak of finishing ahead of Dixon, despite the fact that Dixon has finished outside of the top seven just once during that stretch.
And get this. Even if Dixon had won in Long Beach, where his 27th place DNF remains his only non-top seven finish of the year, he would still be more than one full race behind Palou on points.
Dixon would still be 62 points behind Palou, despite the fact that he would have an average finish of 4.22 — better than any of his six championship-winning average finishes — and a worst finish of seventh — five spots better than in any of his six worst results in title-winning seasons.
It’s not hard to understand why Alex Palou potentially leaving IndyCar changes the landscape of the sport for the foreseeable future.
The 2021 champion — and clear 2023 championship favorite — is in a car in which, on paper, he is beyond capable of breaking the all-time championships and Indy 500s records over the next decade-plus.
Would a move to McLaren really be to join the Arrow McLaren IndyCar team, or would it be to join Formula 1? Has another Formula 1 option opened up outside McLaren?
Nothing is confirmed about Palou’s future. But it he does leave America’s highest level of open-wheel racing, it would be another case of “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”
With Dixon and Newgarden next up in the current championship standings, perhaps a Palou departure will give us yet another title battle — or more — that comes down to the wire between the two most decorated drivers since Newgarden entered the sport 11 years ago.