IndyCar champion Alex Palou might actually be underrated

Alex Palou, Chip Ganassi Racing, IndyCar - Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
Alex Palou, Chip Ganassi Racing, IndyCar - Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports /

Consistency and Alex Palou go hand in hand. But his 2023 IndyCar championship-winning season has gone above and beyond typical consistency.

As long as Chip Ganassi Racing’s Alex Palou finishes the 2023 IndyCar season finale at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca in the top 16, he will become the fourth driver in the last six seasons to win the championship with the best worst finish.

Palou, who clinched this year’s title with his series-leading fifth victory of the season at Portland International Raceway last Sunday afternoon, hasn’t finished lower than eighth place in the last calendar year, and the next best driver on the best worst finish list in 2023 is Team Penske’s Scott McLaughlin, whose worst finish is 16th.

Best worst finish is the stat that many, most notably NBC Sports announcer Townsend Bell, have pointed to when discussing Palou’s championship-winning run, which made him the first driver to secure a title before the season finale since Sebastien Bourdais in the 2007 Champ Car season. Excluding Champ Car, it hadn’t happened since Dan Wheldon in 2005.

Since Palou made the somewhat surprising move from Dale Coyne Racing with Team Goh to Chip Ganassi Racing after the 2020 season, the Spaniard and consistency have gone hand in hand. In fact, he began somewhat of a trend when he won the 2021 championship in his first season with the team.

While he didn’t finish the season with the best worst finish, thanks to a mechanical issue at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, his final position meant that he would have won the championship even if all three of his wins had been runner-up finishes.

Team Penske’s Will Power won the 2022 championship with just one win and the best worst finish, and he too would have won the title had his victory been a runner-up finish.

Now Palou enters the 2023 season finale with a 91-point lead in the standings, on pace to become the third straight driver who would have won the championship even without a win.

Bottom line, consistency has been the name of the game for Palou, and his 3.9 average finish would be the best for a champion since Dario Franchitti (3.8) in 2007. But simply pointing out his consistency sells him way short. In fact, it’s borderline disrespectful.

IndyCar has already clinched its first five-win champion since Simon Pagenaud in 2016, and given the Palou onslaught last year’s Laguna Seca finale produced, the 26-year-old could become the first six-win champion since Scott Dixon in 2008.

For as consistent as Alex Palou has been throughout the 2023 IndyCar season, he has been just as dominant.

Through 16 races in 2023, Palou has scored 618 points. Just to put that in perspective, during his 16-race 2021 championship-winning season, he scored a total of 549 points, and that haul included double points for a runner-up finish in the Indy 500.

The Indy 500 is no longer a double points race. But Palou still would have won the championship in 2021 with 509 points, as Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden would have scored 493 points instead of 511.

In what has long been perceived as the most competitive racing series on the planet, his point total through 16 races in 2023 is 109 points higher than the same from 2021. The maximum point total a driver can secure over a two-race stretch is 108.

Now let’s talk consistency. Third place finishes pay 35 points each. If a driver were to have finished in third place in all 16 races this season, he’d be on pace for the best average finish since Tony Kanaan won the 2004 title with a mark of 3.0.

Yet that driver would be 58 points behind Palou heading into the season finale, already eliminated from championship contention.

So yes, consistency serves Palou well on days when he isn’t winning. When your worst outings of a season result in eighth place finishes, that goes without saying.

But when he wins as much as he does, it’s this mixture of dominance and consistency that becomes as potent of a combination as IndyCar has seen in decades and has already elevated him into the discussion of this generation’s best.

And for as much as everybody tried to hype up Dixon as being a driver you can never count out, there was no chance he was going to make up 74 points on Palou over two races. Shy of Palou signing another contract with McLaren to move to Formula 1 for the rest of the year, this wasn’t happening.

Power said it best at the start of the year: Palou is a faster Dixon. He didn’t say a more consistent Dixon, but a faster Dixon. And what did Palou go do at Portland? He took matters into his own hands and left no doubt. It would surprise nobody if he did the same at Laguna Seca.

Just look at Dixon’s season. Aside from his DNF on the streets of Long Beach, he hasn’t finished lower than seventh place. Had he won that Long Beach race, he would have a better worst finish than Palou this year, and he would boast an average finish (4.0) higher than any average finish he posted during any of his six previous championship runs.

Looking at the illustrious career of IndyCar’s second winningest driver of all-time, that’s some impressive stuff. Yet he’d still be 43 points behind Palou heading into the season finale, meaning Palou would lock things up with just a top 18 finish.

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The Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey is set to be broadcast live on NBC from WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca starting at 2:30 p.m. ET on Sunday, September 10. Begin a free trial of FuboTV now and don’t miss the 2023 IndyCar season finale!