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.
All the makings were in place for Chip Ganassi Racing to win its 14th season championship in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES in 2021.
Scott Dixon had dominated the previous season and, at age 40, was positioned to become to win his record-tying seventh championship. But that’s not what happened.
Instead, another driver without much of a Q rating jumped into the picture early in the year and never faded. By year’s end, INDYCAR fans had received a large dose of Alex Palou’s talents.
Palou was 23 years old when Chip Ganassi signed him following a season with Dale Coyne Racing, and the Spaniard promptly won the first race of 2021, at Barber Motorsports Park. Maybe it shouldn’t have been a surprise since Ganassi’s organization has had a history of drivers having early success.
Juan Pablo Montoya was 23 years old and in his first INDYCAR season when he won the third, fourth and fifth races of the 1999 season. Alex Zanardi had been older and had more experience – age 29 with 25 Formula One starts over four seasons – when he joined CGR in 1996, but he won the pole for his second race with Ganassi. Even Dixon, who was a month shy of turning 22 when the team signed him in 2002, wasted no time making an impact, winning the championship in his second season as a Ganassi driver.
Yet, Palou seemed different, perhaps because not many INDYCAR observers watch Japan’s Super Formula division, where he nearly won the championship in 2019.
Palou was introduced to the INDYCAR paddock by former series driver Roger Yasukawa, who had been charged by Japanese race team owner Kazumichi Goh to assist with the young driver’s career. Palou didn’t make a huge splash with Coyne’s team in 2020, in part because of things out of his control, such as being taken out of the first race by another driver’s mistake at Texas Motor Speedway. But he finished third in just his third race, at Road America, and had several punching-above-his-experience performances for those paying close attention. Clearly, Ganassi and his team’s managing director, Mike Hull, were.
Palou not only won his first race with the team, he backed it up with two more wins (at Road America and Portland International Raceway) and might have won the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge if not for the vast Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval experience of Helio Castroneves.
With the tight points battle heading to the final stretch, Palou’s September saw finishes of first, second and fourth to win the championship relatively comfortably (by 38 points over two-time series champion Josef Newgarden of Team Penske). It could be the first of his many NTT INDYCAR SERIES titles.