Championship leader Alex Palou continued his strong run in the second half of the season and matched his best qualifying result this year, landing the third starting spot for Sunday’s Big Machine Music City Grand Prix (5:30 p.m. ET, live on NBCSN).
But there’s a catch: Palou will start ninth, not third, due to a six-spot starting grid penalty for an unapproved engine change in the No. 10 NTT DATA Honda after a test session last month.
Palou’s best lap time of 1 minute, 14.6316 seconds was short only of NTT P1 Award winner Colton Herta’s massive pole run of 1:13.6835 in the No. 26 Gainbridge Honda and second-place starter Scott Dixon’s best lap of 1:14.2327 in the No. 9 PNC Bank Grow Up Great Honda.
“It’s disappointing, but nothing we can do, nothing that the team could have done differently or that I could have done differently,” Palou said. “We tried our best today. We have two Chip Ganassi Racing cars in the top three (on time), so that means that we have a fast car that I’m super comfortable with. I’m super happy.”
That’s probably because Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Dixon is the only one of Palou’s title rivals who is starting considerably further up the grid. Six-time and reigning NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion Dixon is third in the standings, 56 points behind Palou.
Palou will take the green flag only one position behind Pato O’Ward, who will start eighth in the No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet. O’Ward is second in the standings, 39 points behind Palou. Josef Newgarden, 69 points behind Palou in fourth, will start behind Palou in 12th in the No. 2 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet.
Race strategy for Palou may change now, from a defensive posture against his championship rivals to try to stay in front of them to an offensive one in which he’s chasing them to lose the least amount of points possible.
However, Palou’s mindset is unchanged: Focus on the race result, and the championship battle will take care of itself. He’s done that as of late, and it’s worked. Palou leads the field in podium finishes this season with six, with top-three results coming in each of the last three NTT INDYCAR SERIES races.
“I think tomorrow is going to be an exciting race,” he said. “We have to get around some cars, and hopefully we can get to the podium again.”
That might be easier said than done for Palou, who is competing in his second NTT INDYCAR SERIES season. Street courses such as Nashville have been his weakness this year. His two lone finishes outside the top 10 have come at St. Petersburg (17th) and Belle Isle-1 (15th).
In both races, Palou’s less-than-desirable finishes made a big impact on the championship standings. After losing the lead in April at St. Petersburg, he didn’t regain the points lead until after the 105th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge in May, where he finished second to Helio Castroneves.
Palou kept the points lead after Belle Isle-1, but when O’Ward won the second race of the doubleheader weekend, it was the latter that walked away with the championship lead. Fortunately for Palou, he regained the lead when he won the following weekend at Road America.
In all, Palou has been the points leader following six of 10 races this season, including after four of the last five.
But the 11-turn, 2.17-mile temporary street circuit that incorporates parts of downtown Nashville and crosses the Korean War Veterans Memorial Bridge twice per lap could be a success story for the Spaniard despite the grid penalty.
Palou has shown speed all weekend, landing the sixth-fastest time in Practice 1 on Friday and fourth-fastest time in Practice 2 Saturday.
The bumpy surface of the bridge that crosses the Cumberland River and the transition from the concrete bridge to asphalt streets has proven to be a massive challenge for drivers and teams this weekend, but these NTT INDYCAR SERIES athletes have been up to it, including Palou.
“It’s super challenging, but I love it,” he said. “I love this city and the atmosphere. I love the track. To be honest, it’s really challenging and really bumpy, with some slow-speed stuff and high-speed stuff.”