Alex Palou

Chip Ganassi Racing’s Alex Palou is a week removed from the one-year anniversary of his first big splash in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES.

Palou was the surprising winner of last year’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama presented by AmFirst, one of his three race victories during the season that propelled him to the series championship that almost no one saw coming.

Success doesn’t seem to have much changed the 25-year-old Spaniard driving the No. 10 The American Legion Honda this weekend, but he has noticed some differences in the way others treat him.

Specifically, he mentioned how his fellow competitors now give him more respect on the track.

“I don’t think they race me differently, (but) maybe you can see that (in) qualifying where we go slowly all together maybe last year people would not respect me that much, as you could expect,” he said. “Now they are OK if I am up front if we all go together.”

Palou also noted how much more relaxed he is around his distinguished teammates: Six-time INDYCAR SERIES champion Scott Dixon (No. 9 PNC Bank Honda), seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Carvana Honda), Formula One veteran Marcus Ericsson (No. 8 Huski Chocolate Honda) and Tony Kanaan, the 2004 series champion and 2013 winner of the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge who will rejoin the team for next month’s race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“I remember that I didn’t really have a really close relationship with Dixon or Jimmie yet, which for me was like, ‘Oh, my God, I’m racing with these guys and in the trailer with them,’” Palou said. “Now, I have, and it’s just a bit more normal.

“I’m just more comfortable with the team, with the car, with the series, obviously with myself just knowing that we had an amazing year last year.”

Palou doesn’t yet have a race win this season, and he has led only 23 laps in the first three races, 41 fewer than he had a year ago at this point. However, he has three more points and is closer to the series points leader than he was at this point a year ago.

Add in the confidence and experience gained from a successful championship run, and Palou’s opponents would be wise not to take their eyes off him.

Palou was second in Friday’s lone practice, a 45-minute session that saw him turn a lap of 1 minute, 6.5657 seconds. He was a scant five-hundredths of a second off Colton Herta’s field-leading lap of 1:06.5149 in the No. 26 Gainbridge Honda of Andretti Autosport w/Curb-Agajanian.

Johnson: Right Hand Improving

Johnson said the right hand he broke April 8 during practice for the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach is still somewhat swollen, but the stitches were removed last week and there was no external evidence of the surgery. He did not wear a splint in Friday’s first practice.

“I’m probably 80 percent with it,” he said of the hand.

Johnson was 25th of the 26 drivers in Friday’s session, turning a best lap of 1:08.4633. Last year’s Barber race was his first as an INDYCAR SERIES driver. He finished 19th.

Three Excel in Barber Qualifying

NTT P1 Award qualifying is Saturday at 1 p.m. (ET), live on Peacock Premium. Three active NTT INDYCAR SERIES drivers have a strong history of qualifying well at this track.

Will Power (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske) has an average starting position of 2.9 in 11 races. Helio Castroneves (No. 06 AutoNation/SiriusXM Honda of Meyer Shank Racing) has a Barber average of 3.75 in eight races while Scott Dixon (No. 9 PNC Bank Honda of Chip Ganassi Racing) has an average of 4.2 in 11 starts.

Power has eight front-row starts at Barber with Castroneves three, and they have combined to win six poles. Dixon’s best start is third, but he has earned a spot in the Firestone Fast Six in all 11 events. Power has been in nine.

Odds And Ends

  • Most of the INDYCAR SERIES teams tested at Barber earlier in the month. Team Penske, which has won the first three races of the season and six of 11 at this track, was among those which did not. Herta had the quickest lap of the test, which had 13 competitors.
  • Firestone brought a different compound of Firehawk tire than was used in Barber testing, which is why Andretti Autosport’s Alexander Rossi (No. 27 AutoNation/SiriusXM Honda of Andretti Autosport) said participants at that test took information gathered “with a grain of salt.
  • This new compound came out of testing done in October at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course simulating the weight of the hybrid engine package that is set to debut in 2024. Firestone reported that the tread depth is 5 millimeters, equivalent to the thickness of an OREO Thins cookie.
  • Herta noted he doesn’t have a lot of racing experience here. His first Barber start, in 2019, ended after 51 laps due to a fuel pressure issue. Last year, he was collected in a first-lap accident.
  • Series rookie Tatiana Calderon (No. 11 ROKiT AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet) has raced at Barber, but it was years ago. She was 18 years old in 2011 when she finished third in Star Mazda for Juncos Racing.
  • INDYCAR’s new EM Motorsports Marshalling System is getting a trial run this weekend, although it will only be used when the cars of Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires are on the track. The colorful LED system, which reduces the dependance on corner workers for flagging, is scheduled to make its NTT INDYCAR SERIES debut next month in the GMR Grand Prix at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
  • PNC Bank made good use of Dixon’s Thursday by having him read to a Birmingham pre-kindergarten class. The book: “Peg + Cat Race Car Problems” by Jennifer Oxley and Bill Anderson. April is PNC’s Great Month, an annual celebration highlighting the bank’s advocacy for early childhood education through its Grow Up Great program. Chip Ganassi Racing’s No. 9 show car also was on display the Rushton Early Learning Center.
  • The three cars of Rahal Letterman Lanigan and the one of Juncos Hollinger Racing are among those in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES donning stickers this weekend in support of Racing for Children’s, an initiative from the Alabama Center for Childhood Cancer and Blood Disorders. In addition to a Friday night fundraiser at the track, afflicted children are getting laps around the 17-turn, 2.3-mile permanent road course this weekend.
  • Josef Newgarden (No. 2 PPG Team Penske Chevrolet) is supporting the National Auto Body Council’s campaign to raise awareness about distracted driving. “Talking and texting on cell phones can create distractions and so can other activities such as turning on the radio, focusing on GPS, or eating and drinking,” Newgarden said. “We need to make sure we stay focused on the road to help keep everyone safe.”