As defending NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion Alex Palou heads to the site where he claimed his first series title less than seven months ago, he has a negative assessment of his start to the 2022 season.
It’s been a struggle. He’s not had good race weekends by his standards. His No. 10 NTT DATA Chip Ganassi Racing team needs to find points starting with the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach at 3 p.m. (ET) Sunday (live on NBC, Peacock Premium and the INDYCAR Radio Network).
Keep in mind that Palou is third in the championship and has two top-10 finishes in two races. He is down just 30 points to leader Scott McLaughlin. So, the rest of the Long Beach field should be warned if Palou considers that to be a struggling start to the season.
“This series is so competitive right now that if you don't have everything together mentally, physically, the car and all the team is perfect, you cannot fight for wins,” Palou said. “But, yeah, we struggle. I think everybody saw that. It's not like we show up and we are running super-fast since the beginning of the weekend. We struggle, but we still end up with a good result.”
To Palou’s point, he crashed during practice for the season-opening race Feb. 27 on the Streets of St. Petersburg, but he rallied to finish second – his best finish on a street course. Then March 20 at Texas Motor Speedway, he didn’t have the same pace as the leaders, qualifying 11th and finishing seventh.
The Spaniard can’t pinpoint anything specific about the struggle. He thinks they didn’t hit the right setup at St. Petersburg and that he should have been faster at Texas.
He admits, though, that after winning the Astor Cup, the bar for success is simply higher than it used to be.
“Last year knowing that I was driving for Chip Ganassi, you know, you have a car and group of guys that are giving you the opportunity to run up there, so if you are not doing it, you're doing something wrong,” he said. “Being a champion didn't change much of that, but obviously, you want to improve everything you did last year, which so far we are achieving it.
“We're running third in a championship without having a really good weekend. If all the bad weekends are like that, we can have a good year, for sure.”
Before finishing second at St. Petersburg, his best finish at that event was 13th in 2020. At Texas, he matched one of his performances from last year’s doubleheader. So, as he looks toward this weekend’s race on the Streets of Long Beach, the bar is his fourth-place finish last September that clinched the Astor Cup.
Based on how his race in St. Petersburg ended, just half a second behind race winner McLaughlin at the finish, there’s reason to believe Palou can win this weekend. It would be his first street course win – not just in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES, but in his entire racing career.
“I think I'm getting better and I'm getting more comfortable at street courses,” he said. “I like St. Pete, but I prefer Long Beach. The atmosphere and the way that we feel the car here, it's awesome. We were really strong last year, especially in the race, and hopefully we can improve in qualifying and win.”
Palou got to Long Beach early this week for a media tour as he rekindled memories of winning the championship here last fall. He said through all that the weekend entailed, from the preparation to the race, celebrating with his crew and family, the media tour and then the honors that followed the weekend, there isn’t one specific memory that stands above the rest. The entire weekend is one he’ll cherish forever.
“Obviously, it's super special for me,” he said. “There's not like one thing that I would say, 'Oh, that was the best moment.’ I think the weekend, in general, was just amazing, all the attention from the fans and the media that we got that weekend, all the hype that was around the championship fight with Josef (Newgarden) and Pato (O’Ward). It was special.
“There was that little added pressure, but it was a good pressure. It was something that would push you forward, and the atmosphere from the fans was great. I would say the experience of the weekend was super-special.”
Palou thinks the next couple months could be good for him and his Chip Ganassi Racing team. In May, the series heads to Barber Motorsports Park, where he got his first career win last year, and the Indianapolis 500, where he narrowly finished second in 2021. And in June the series returns to Road America, where he also won in 2021.
But first comes Long Beach, which tops all memories from last year and could be the start of a strong spring for Palou. The NTT INDYCAR SERIES on-track action starts today with Practice 1 at 6:15 p.m. (ET), live on Peacock Premium and INDYCAR Radio Network.