Alex Palou just lost the biggest race in the world after being locked in an intense battle with now four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves – a recipe for a sour taste left in one’s mouth.
Not for Palou, who beamed with a smile after exiting his car on pit lane after the race and cracked jokes with the media during post-race interviews.
Palou is honored to have finished second in the 105th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge on Sunday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He dreamed about competing in this race as a kid, and this was a dream come true.
“When it hurts, it's good because you know there's something better,” Palou said. “When you win, it's the most satisfying thing. When you lose, for me, c'mon, we finished second in my second Indy 500.
“It just hurts a little bit. Helio wanted it, as well. I think all the 33 drivers wanted the same. I'm happy. I'm living the dream, man. I'm able to drive the fastest car for the best team in the Indianapolis 500 and fight for it. Everything was good today.”
Those are wise words for the 24-year-old who is competing in just his second season in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES. But growing up in Barcelona, Spain, Palou always knew how special “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” was. As a kid, he said the emotional pre-race festivities were his favorite of the race.
Moments before he took the green flag Sunday, he thought back to those days as a kid and put it all into perspective.
“When I was at the pre-race listening to the anthem, that's the most special thing,” he said. “I think that's the best part about the race, apart from the race itself. When I was there, I was like, ‘Man, we're starting P6, driving the No. 10. I'm here in America.’
“I'm having a blast.”
Still, coming .4928 of a second away from winning the world’s biggest race isn’t a blast, even if Palou has the perspective to understand how monumental the achievement is.
Palou led 35 laps Sunday, five shy of the race-high of 40 set by Conor Daly. Palou insists his No. 10 NTT DATA Chip Ganassi Racing Honda was the fastest car in the field.
He proved that as he locked into a stirring duel with 46-year-old Castroneves in the closing laps of the race. Palou was searching for his second career NTT INDYCAR SERIES win after winning the season opener on April 18 at Barber Motorsports Park. Castroneves was aiming to tie A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears as this race’s only four-time winners, with his last coming in 2009.
Fuel was added to the Palou vs. Castroneves flame on Lap 162 of 200 when Palou inherited the lead from Scott Dixon, and Castroneves followed behind in second. Castroneves took the lead from Lap 169-171 until Palou led Lap 172 and the two leaders pitted.
The duo continued their intense battle once they were back on track, even if it wasn’t for the lead. As the field cycled through pit stops, Palou and Castroneves ran nose-to-tail. Castroneves had the advantage when defending winner Takuma Sato pitted from the lead on Lap 193.
Castroneves, who won the prestigious Rolex 24 At Daytona sports car race in January, inherited the lead and led Laps 194 and 195. Palou whizzed by the Brazilian on the outside in Turn 1 on Lap 196 and kept the legend at bay for three laps.
But Castroneves was biding his time, and on Lap 199 he made a daring pass on the outside of Palou into Turn 1 in the No. 06 AutoNation/SiriusXM Honda for Meyer Shank Racing.
For Palou, that was it. He chased the man who competed in his first INDYCAR race when Palou was not yet a year old to the famed Yard of Bricks as a cheering and socially distanced crowd of 135,000 roared at the battle before them.
“I was doing everything to catch him,” Palou said. “I think my car was really good out of Turn 2, so I knew I had the really good shot for Turns 2 and 3. I was trying to prepare a bit. But the thing is, he was getting the tow from the traffic cars. He was not losing speed against me on the straight line.
“That's all I could do. I think I gave it everything. I even had a moment in Turn 4 where I almost went to the wall because I was trying too hard. Yeah, these things happen. He was better today.”
Castroneves was better today, but Palou thinks he’ll be better in the future because of this day at the Racing Capital of the World. It was his career-best finish in the Indianapolis 500 – he finished 28th in his first career Indy 500 in 2020 after a spin in Turn 1 took him out of contention on Lap 121.
“For sure, I'm better than last year,” Palou said. “I'm super proud that we are doing well on ovals because I had no experience before. I'm feeling good. I don't think we're doing any crazy moves or anything like that. We're just learning lap by lap and having fun. But there's a long way to go to reach these guys.”
There’s a long way to go, but he’s ahead of all of them at the moment. Palou took the points lead from teammate Dixon and leads the NTT INDYCAR SERIES 248-212 over the six-time and defending NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion.
He’ll look to build his points lead at the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit doubleheader, the headline races of the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix presented by Lear on June 12-13 on Belle Isle in Detroit.