Alex Palou

NTT INDYCAR SERIES championship leader Alex Palou was exactly where he needed to be in the closing laps of Saturday’s Big Machine Spiked Coolers Grand Prix on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, with an opportunity to extend his points lead.

Palou was running fourth in the No. 10 NTT DATA Chip Ganassi Racing Honda with 18 laps remaining in the 85-lap race. But as he exited Turn 4, smoke started wafting from the rear of his blue race car. Palou stopped just before the entrance to Turn 5 with a mechanical issue.

He ended his day with a 27th-place finish, which tightened the championship standings and kept the battle for the Astor Challenge Cup wide open.

“It hurts, obviously,” Palou said. “It hurts when you have a P4 car and you’re there in the race fighting, doing a good job, and you can’t finish. It is what it is. We cannot change that. I’m disappointed, but there’s nothing we could do, nothing the team could have done differently. I think we did a really good job with setup and things. Just a bump in the road that we got here, but it’s all right.”

Instead of scoring what was expected to be his fifth consecutive top-10 finish and 10th of the season while continuing to keep championship rivals Scott Dixon and Pato O’Ward at bay, he opened the door for them to score a big points day.

Palou entered the 12th race of the season with a 42-point lead over teammate Dixon in second and 48 over O’Ward in third. Spaniard Palou and Mexican O’Ward raced around each other in the top five all day, while Dixon was mired in the back of the field after qualifying 26th.

O’Ward scored the NTT P1 Award for pole in the No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet and led 16 laps. Palou started sixth and had a point lead as high as 54 during the race. Just before Palou’s Lap 68 incident, he made his way past O’Ward for the fourth position.

That gave O’Ward a front-row seat to watch Palou’s day end early and O’Ward’s championship hopes open up. O’Ward acknowledged had Palou not suffered the mechanical issue, he wouldn’t have been able to work his way past his rival.

“I just think that shows us that we didn’t do well enough, and we need to improve,” said O’Ward, who finished fifth. “We’re within striking distance, so we need to try and maximize what we can in the last four races. I think there’s some good ones heading our way.”

With the incident. Palou saw his championship lead cut in half, now just 21 points ahead of O’Ward. Dixon, who finished 17th in the No. 9 PNC Bank Grow Up Great Honda, is 34 points behind his teammate Palou.

Yes, Palou is frustrated. He admits it’s a hard pill to swallow when a great day amid a battle for the Astor Challenge Cup is taken away.

However, the 24-year-old has a positive nature about him that doesn’t let frustration linger. So, he’s not worried about the tightening points race with just four races remaining.

Instead, he takes solace that until his car experienced a mechanical failure, Palou and his Chip Ganassi Racing team were leading their championship rivals.

“We were in front of them, and we did everything we could today,” Palou said. “We were doing, I think, a really good job. It’s over now. I cannot do anything about it. My team cannot do anything about it. So, we keep our smile because we are still in the championship.

“The good thing is we still have a cushion in the points. It’s not like we lost 200 points. We lost, what, 30 points? That’s nothing. We’ll move on and get them back at Gateway, Portland, Laguna Seca and Long Beach.”

Of the four races left on the 2021 NTT INDYCAR SERIES schedule, Palou has only competed on one racetrack: next Saturday’s Bommarito Automotive Group 500 at World Wide Technology Raceway (8 p.m. ET, live on NBCSN).

Palou’s rookie year was the COVID-19 impacted 2020 season, which did not feature trips to Portland International Raceway, WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca or Long Beach, the final three races of the season. O’Ward has competed at Long Beach once, while six-time and defending series champion Dixon is experienced at each of the remaining races.

That doesn’t worry Palou. He and his Chip Ganassi Racing team tested at Portland and WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, and the results of those tests have left him feeling optimistic about his chances there.

As for Long Beach? Well, Palou doesn’t plan to have to worry about that one.

“We know we’re ready for them,” Palou said. “I’ve raced at Gateway, so we’re ready for it. Hopefully we can get our job done before Long Beach. It’s going to make this race and stuff more difficult for sure, but we’ll try and get that done before.”