After falling from the top of the NTT INDYCAR SERIES points standings last weekend at Detroit, Alex Palou came back in a big way Sunday at Road America, staking his claim as a legitimate, season-long championship contender.
Spanish driver Palou drove the No. 10 NTT DATA Honda to a victory at the REV Group Grand Prix at Road America presented by AMR and regained the championship lead after nine of 16 races this season. He leads second-place Pato O’Ward by 28 points after trailing O’Ward by one point entering this weekend.
Palou set out to join INDYCAR in 2019 while he was racing in Japan, so for the 24-year-old driver who grew up in a small town in Spain and dreamed of becoming a race car driver, he has come a long way in a short amount of time to prove himself as the real deal.
“I'm super happy to be here, and it's crazy,” said Palou. “I'm part of the best team in INDYCAR. I'm living the dream.”
Palou had his dream come to fruition last year when he became a driver for Dale Coyne Racing with Team Goh. His confidence began to build after he finished third last July in Race 1 at Road America for his first podium finish in his third career INDYCAR race.
“Coming back here and being able to not only score another podium but being able to win, it feels awesome,” Palou said.
With his second victory in 2021, Palou became the first driver other than Scott Dixon to win at least two races in one season for Chip Ganassi Racing since Dario Franchitti in 2011. Franchitti earned the last of his four championships that year, the last driver to beat Dixon at Ganassi over the course of a season.
Palou has gained a lot of advice and learned quite a bit from listening to Dixon, but as the first teammate of his to really give him a push in the race for the championship in 10 years, Palou knows that if it comes down to the last race, they will be no more than competitors.
“I know what I would do if I was in his position, and I wouldn't help me,” Palou said. “If we are going into the last race and we are matching points, maybe then he's not going to talk to me, like that would be obvious.”
Palou may have received a lucky break Sunday with the car failure of Josef Newgarden, who led on the restart with two laps to go before a gearbox problem allowed Palou to blast past him into the lead before Turn 1. Still, Palou was the only driver within striking distance of NTT P1 Award winner Newgarden for nearly all the race.
Opportunity knocks for fast drivers, and Palou was in position to answer that door.
“A win is a win, and it always feels awesome even if it's your lucky day or just because you have really good pace,” Palou said. “I had a bit less push-to-pass than him, so that was going to make our race a bit more difficult to battle, but I knew we had a good car. I knew we were a bit faster than him on the straights, so our team did an amazing job, and at the end we took it before Turn 1.”
The victory should come as no surprise now, as the young driver has proven himself time and again in the run for the championship this season.
“You win championships by winning races and then staying consistent,” Palou said. “There's going to be days where we have a car to finish fifth, and that's the best we can do, but when we have a chance to win, we have to take that.
“I mean, we take a look at the points, obviously, every race. But that's not changing our motivation or our work ethic. I think until the last race, this championship, it's not going to be decided. Even if you think a lot about the championship, you have to be here to score those points to still be there.”
And while Palou knows how competitive INDYCAR is, he feels incredibly confident following the win at Road America heading into the Honda Indy 200 on July 4 at Mid-Ohio, another one of his favorite tracks.
“It's more special, this place, just because I love it,” Palou said. “But we go to Mid-Ohio, and I think we're going to do the same.”
And just maybe this time, he will finally go and get some fried chicken to celebrate the victory like he said he would after winning the season-opening Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama on April 18 at Barber Motorsports Park.
“Fried chicken is excellent everywhere,” Palou said. “Yeah, I'm going to have fried chicken.”