Alex Palou

The battle for the Astor Challenge Cup features its final round this weekend, and championship leader Alex Palou is off to a fast start.

The Spaniard posted the third-quickest time of opening practice for Sunday’s Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach (3 p.m. ET, live on NBCSN and the INDYCAR Radio Network), with a best lap time of 1 minute, 9.4554 seconds.

What’s most impressive is that he did so having never turned a lap on the 11-turn, 1.968-mile racetrack. He attributed his early success to the hours of simulation he has put into preparing for this race, either on the Honda simulator or on the iRacing computer game, which he estimates to be around 15 hours of track time.

Palou’s last virtual laps on the track came one week ago when he traveled to Indianapolis between NTT INDYCAR SERIES races at Portland and WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca. Following the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey last Sunday, Palou went straight to Long Beach.

Already, Palou said the Streets of Long Beach is among his favorite street circuits.

“It was a bit bumpier than I thought, a bit less grippy than I thought,” Palou said. “But it’s really fun, to be honest. I really like it. The track really flows. You can connect one corner to the other that you don’t really get those corners in another street course.”

As is the case, virtual competition doesn’t always directly translate to the real-life racetrack. Palou was able to prepare for where certain bumps were located and how to enter and exit corners. But in real life Friday, Palou began to understand the secrets of speed for the circuit.

With just one 45-minute session on Friday, Palou said he still has more to learn, and therefore speed to produce, in his No. 10 NTT DATA Chip Ganassi Racing Honda.

“I think it’s more about learning how much speed you can roll in before coming here,” he said. “But it always changes, whatever you do on iRacing, the simulator at HPD. I thought I could have gone faster pretty much everywhere, and the session was over.”

Freaky Friday for O’Ward

On the other end of the spectrum was Pato O’Ward, second in the standings and 35 points behind Palou. If he wants to win his first NTT INDYCAR SERIES championship, he needs to find more speed than Palou and the rest of the 28-car field.

So far, that’s not happening.

Mexican O’Ward is known for his charisma and fun demeanor, but he admitted that was missing Friday as he struggled to understand the racetrack where he has only one INDYCAR start, a 12th-place finish in 2019.

O’Ward drove his No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet to the 16th-quickest time, 1:10.2451. He struggled to understand why the car is lagging.

“It’s hard to say where we’re at,” O’Ward said. “The car didn’t feel the best. I’d be lying if I said it did. So, we need to find out what is wrong with it, I guess, and try to go into a direction that’s going to help us for qualifying. I think qualifying here is going to be everything.

“Just really messy. Car was all over the place. Yeah, bummer.”

O’Ward has another 45-minute practice at noon (ET) Saturday (live on Peacock Premium) to continue to tweak his car and give him a shot for what he believes will be an all-important qualifying session at 3 p.m. ET (live on NBCSN, Peacock Premium).

While it was a messy session for O’Ward, he hopes the lack of speed was simply from a lack of understanding of the car. He can take solace that his teammate, Felix Rosenqvist, posted the fourth-quickest time of the session at 1:09.4870 in the No. 7 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet.

“I didn’t really get a read,” O’Ward said. “It’s kind of hard to tell where we’re truly at. That’s as much as I have, honestly. It was very messy for me.”

Castroneves Prepping for 2022 This Weekend

This weekend, Helio Castroneves will conclude his longest stretch of NTT INDYCAR SERIES races since he last ran full time in the series in 2017 by competing in the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach (3 p.m. ET, live on NBCSN) following races at Portland and WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca the last two weeks.

Reigning Indianapolis 500 winner Castroneves was sixth in Friday’s lone practice session in the No. 06 Meyer Shank Racing Honda on the Streets of Long Beach, looking to put a positive end to what’s been a challenging final stretch of the season. Aside from landing second in the opening practice in Portland, it’s Castroneves’ best start to a race weekend in 2021.

After opening his six-race 2021 season with a historic win at Indianapolis’ famed 2.5-mile oval and a ninth-place finish at Nashville, Castroneves finished 21st on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course in August, 23rd in Portland and 24th at Laguna Seca.

However, the 31-time INDYCAR SERIES race winner who will compete full-time for Meyer Shank Racing in 2022 said the down results are almost by design.

Castroneves and team are using their part-time run in 2021 to learn about each other and to test certain things for next season with the hope that this new car-and-team combination can start 2022 with strength.

You’ve got to trust the process,” Castroneves said. “Sometimes it feels a little bit strange, but I feel there’s so much here now in such a short period of time. Six races, it’s not enough. However, I’m so glad we have this opportunity. Not many people can have that luxury to spend time looking for those details. Hopefully with that, with testing coming, we’ll definitely leave with something we were looking for.”

It has been challenging for Castroneves to shift his mind from striving for race wins to experimenting with different setups, knowing it could result in poor finishes.

“I’m not focused on the results, I’m focused on understanding the fundamentals, and hopefully that will serve us well for next year,” he said. “You’re a driver and you’re here to compete and succeed and win races. When that doesn’t seem to happen, you’re like, ‘What the…?’ But you’ve got to hold back. You’ve got to trust the process. That’s what we’re doing right now.”

Odds and Ends:

  • The other driver battling for the Astor Challenge Cup, Josef Newgarden, was 10th in practice with a best lap time of 1:09.8557, making him second fastest of the three title contenders.
  • Firestone Racing is bringing the same race tire compound used in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg because of the similarities of that circuit and the Streets of Long Beach.
  • Make no doubt about it: Long Beach is one of the most challenging racetracks in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES. Seven drivers either went off course or tapped the wall in the lone 45-minute practice session, including Josef Newgarden, Jimmie Johnson (twice), James Hinchcliffe, Simon Pagenaud, Dalton Kellett, Colton Herta and Oliver Askew.
  • It was announced Friday that the NTT INDYCAR SERIES will have an expanded streaming presence in nine countries in the years to come. Nordic Entertainment Group announced it will continue to show the NTT INDYCAR SERIES on its Viaplay streaming platform in Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, while adding Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to the fold starting in 2022 and running through 2024.