Note: The editorial staff at INDYCAR.com is taking a look back at the 10 biggest moments of 2021 in INDYCAR in this year-end series, with one installment appearing on the site per day in countdown fashion from Dec. 22-31.
Two stops or three stops, no one could stop Alex Palou in the season-opening NTT INDYCAR SERIES race on April 18 at Barber Motorsports Park.
In his first race with Chip Ganassi Racing, Palou was among the drivers opting for the two-stop strategy, which proved to be the winning play. But even those following suit – former series champions such as Will Power and Scott Dixon, who have seven season titles and two Indianapolis 500 victories between them – couldn’t match Palou’s pace over the 90 scheduled laps, particularly early in the race.
Palou held off a late-charging Power by .4016 of a second to capture his first series victory.
“We did it!” Palou screamed on his team’s radio after crossing the finish line.
Palou’s early fast pace after starting third helped him build a lead of 6.6 seconds shortly before his first pit stop on Lap 31, and his advantage was 8.4 seconds on Lap 49. His average speed was 110.025 mph in a rapid race featuring 10 lead changes and just two caution periods for a combined eight laps.
The win, while surprising, was the first of Palou’s three victories in 2021, the others coming at Road America on June 20 and at Portland International Raceway on Sept. 12.
“It was one of those days when everything went well,” Palou said. “We had good fuel mileage, good tire management and good pace.”
Dixon finished third at Barber to give Chip Ganassi’s team two drivers on the podium, another sign of things to come. Palou, Dixon and Marcus Ericsson all finished in the top six of the point standings, the best showing for a non-Penske team since Michael Andretti’s organization finished first, second and fourth in 2005.
This event also featured the breakout performance of Pato O’Ward, who won his first NTT P1 Award. O’Ward might have won the race, too, had three stops been the better strategy. He finished fourth.
Palou’s victory came in the 15th race of his INDYCAR career, and that’s noteworthy. The 10 winningest drivers in INDYCAR history didn’t get their first race win until they were making their 19th start. Yes, Dixon won in his third attempt, and Sebastien Bourdais won in his fourth. But it took Power 17 races, Paul Tracy 18, Al Unser Jr. 19 and Michael Andretti 36.
Since 1946, three drivers earned their first INDYCAR SERIES win in their maiden race – Graham Hill (1966), Nigel Mansell (1993) and Buzz Calkins (1996) – and 28 won a race as rookies. Palou did neither of those, but he certainly made an early statement about where his career could be headed.