Alex Palou

As title defenses go in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES, Alex Palou’s Sunday in the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg presented by RP Funding was about as good as it gets.

As for recoveries from a difficult start to the season-opening weekend, well, that was even better for the 24-year-old Spaniard.

It was almost incomprehensible that Palou was standing on the podium Sunday afternoon with a second-place finish. Chip Ganassi Racing’s four cars were low on the time sheet after Friday’s practice – Palou was 17th of 26 drivers -- and then his No. 10 NTT DATA Honda slammed the Turn 9 wall in Saturday’s morning session.

Earning the 10th starting position seemed like a reasonable rebound until race leader Scott McLaughlin found Palou stalking him in the second half of the race. McLaughlin held on for his first series victory in the No. 3 DEX Imaging Team Penske Chevrolet, but Palou made him work for it.

“I think everybody saw how we started the weekend – struggling,” Palou said. “But I think everybody saw, as well, how we were able to come back and just improve our car and our performance overall.”

Palou went on to say finishing second made it “a great day.”

“Obviously, my little contact with the wall in practice (Saturday) didn’t help at all, but the crew did an amazing job once again like it did last year during the Indy 500 to put a car back together before qualifying, and a fast car, as well,” he said. “So, we had no issues.

“We went out and started in the top 10 today, and we were able to just attack and pass cars one by one with amazing pit stops. (I’m) pretty happy. We’re making steps in the right direction … but hopefully we’ll have also easier weekends.”

That Palou delivered in the clutch shouldn’t have been a surprise because that’s what reigning INDYCAR champions have done with regularity in recent years. Palou is the fourth champion in nine years to finish second in the first race of the next season, and on two other occasions that driver finished third. But then there’s this: None of those eight other drivers has repeated as season champion.

Power Pleased with Podium

For the second consecutive year, Will Power (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet) got his season started with a podium finish. Last year, he finished second to Palou in the opener at Barber Motorsports Park. Sunday, he finished third after starting the race on the front row with McLaughlin.

Power said he is relaxed as he pursues his first series championship since 2014, and his sassiness in Sunday’s post-race news conference suggested that.

“I just find myself more relaxed the older I’ve got,” he said. “I never really swear on the radio or get mad in the car.

“I am very sarcastic in these press conferences for fun because my brother is a comedian and we’ve spent our whole life doing this, like just saying things sarcastically just in the family. I hope no one takes it too badly.”

Lundgaard Top-Finishing Rookie

Christian Lundgaard (No. 30 Shield Cleaners Honda of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing) was the top rookie finisher in 11th position, but Kyle Kirkwood (No. 14 ROKiT/AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet) and Callum Ilott (No. 77 Juncos Hollinger Racing Chevrolet) challenged at the front of the order before finishing 18th and 19th, respectively. Ilott ran as high as second in the second half of the race before pitting.

Devlin DeFrancesco (No. 29 PowerTap Honda of Andretti Steinbrenner Autosport) finished 22nd, with Tatiana Calderon (No. 11 ROKiT/AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet) 24th and David Malukas (No. 18 HMD Honda of Dale Coyne Racing with HMD) 26th. Malukas drew the race’s only caution flag after tagging the wall in Turn 3 on Lap 25 of 100. He was not injured.

While Ilott (three races) and Lundgaard (one) had competed in NTT INDYCAR SERIES races last year, none of them had driven a car in a series race at this venue. Kirkwood had won USF2000 and Indy Lights races at St. Petersburg.

McLaughlin Latest To Win for Penske

McLaughlin’s first race win as an INDYCAR driver put him on Team Penske’s winner’s list, as well. McLaughlin became the organization’s 20th winner in the series. The list:

37 wins: Will Power

30: Helio Castroneves

29: Rick Mears

17: Josef Newgarden

12: Danny Sullivan, Al Unser Jr.

11: Bobby Unser, Emerson Fittipaldi, Paul Tracy, Simon Pagenaud

9: Gil de Ferran

8: Sam Hornish Jr.

7: Ryan Briscoe

4: Juan Pablo Montoya

3: Mark Donohue, Tom Sneva, Al Unser

2: Gary Bettenhausen, Mario Andretti

1: Scott McLaughlin

McLaughlin became the sixth driver to earn his first series victory in a Team Penske car. The others were Donohue, Sullivan, Tracy, Mears and Castroneves. The win was the first for the team’s No. 3 car since Castroneves at Iowa Speedway in 2017.

Odds And Ends

  • Event organizers announced a crowd increase of 49 percent over the race weekend in 2019, the last held prior to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. That puts three-day attendance at an estimated 200,000.
  • The most competitive weekend of Dalton Kellett’s NTT INDYCAR SERIES career ended with mechanical problems related to his car getting stuck in fourth gear mid-race. After qualifying a career-best 14th, the driver of the No. 4 K-LINE/AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet finished 25th.
  • Three Florida-based Winter Olympics speed skating medalists were part of INDYCAR’s pre-race festivities. Erin Jackson rode in the Ruoff Mortgage Fastest Seat in Sports while Brittany Bowe and Joey Mantia were honorary starters waving the green flag. St. Petersburg Mayor Kenneth Welch gave the command to start engines; Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott gave the command to start the Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires race.
  • Matthew Brabham capitalized on the disappointment of Andretti Autosport teammates Hunter McElrea and Christian Rasmussen to win Sunday’s Indy Lights race. McElrea, the pole winner, hit the wall coming onto the front straightaway, giving the lead to Rasmussen, who later ran out of fuel with less than two laps to go. Brabham had to take evasive action to avoid hitting the slowing car of his teammate, earning his second career series victory. His other win was in 2014.
  • In USF2000, African American Myles Rowe of Pabst Racing rebounded from a last-lap accident in Friday’s race to win the back end of the doubleheader, the second victory of his career. Teammate Jace Denmark, who won Friday’s race, finished second with Jagger Jones of Cape Motorsports finishing third. Jones is the grandson of 1963 Indianapolis 500 winner Parnelli Jones.
  • INDYCAR’s next race, the XPEL 375 at Texas Motor Speedway, is March 20 on NBC and the INDYCAR Radio Network. Indy Lights, Indy Pro 2000 and USF2000 will stage their next races at Barber Motorsports Park during INDYCAR’s April 29-May 1 weekend.