Alex Palou

Reigning NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion Alex Palou of Chip Ganassi Racing quietly returned to the points lead following Sunday’s second-place finish in the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Barber presented by AmFirst at Barber Motorsports Park. Those drivers trying to dethrone him would be wise to take notice.

If Palou wins the upcoming Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge, the season’s only double-points race, he knows the cadence of methodically marching to a second consecutive title. Yes, he won three races last year, but his success has been defined by consistency.

Beginning with top-three finishes in both May races at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Palou finished first, second or third in eight of the final 12 races of last season, and he might have added more such finishes had equipment failure not doomed him in the summer road race at IMS and a crash initiated by Rinus VeeKay at World Wide Technology Raceway not collected him.

In three INDYCAR SERIES seasons, Palou has 12 top-three finishes in 34 races, a rate of 35 percent. If that wasn’t impressive enough, he has had podium finishes in 11 of the past 16 races. That’s a staggering 69 percent.

“He’s as solid as a rock,” 2014 series champion Will Power said.

Palou has finished second, seventh, third and second in the four races this season. It adds up to 17 points more than he had through the same number of races last year.

Sunday’s drive at Barber was classic Palou. He started third, dropped back to fourth on the opening lap to let the dust settle and waited for his opportunity to pounce. As cars in front of him pitted for the second sequence of stops, Palou used the benefit of clean track to run two quick laps ahead of his final stop, vaulting him from fifth to second in the exchange. He held the position from that point on.

“I was already really happy with the start of the season we had,” said Palou, who through three races had three more points than he had to open the 2021 season. “Obviously, another podium (is good), another race where we were pushing it at the end and almost got (the win).

“It gives us some momentum, some confidence, some happy time. It’s going to be good.”

Palou won last year’s season-opening race at Barber, but it wasn’t until his strong showing at IMS that he started drawing attention as a championship contender.

Driving the No. 10 NTT DATA Honda, Palou finished third in the GMR Grand Prix on the IMS road course as one of five drivers to lead the race, then he led 35 laps in the “500,” a figure second only to Conor Daly. With just over two laps to go in the most significant race of the season, Palou had the lead with Helio Castroneves, then a three-time champion of the event, behind him.

Castroneves has acknowledged that his experience was a major factor in overhauling Palou, then competing in just his second “500.” Next time?

“I’m not sure,” the Brazilian said. “Clearly, he’s getting more experience all the time. I’m glad I got him when I did.”

Something else to note: Heading to the Barber race, Palou said the Ganassi cars have been “better” than they were last year.

“Hopefully we can go to the places we won (Road America and Portland International Raceway) or we were really strong last year, and we can still have really good cars,” he said.

INDYCAR’s restructuring of PPG presents Armed Forces Qualifying for the “500” means that there are additional points available at IMS this month. A sweep of the events, coupled with Palou’s hallmark consistency, could make the 25-year-old Spaniard difficult to catch in pursuit of the Astor Challenge Cup.

“We were really good at the Speedway test,” Palou said of the April 20-21 session that saw him seventh on the overall speed chart. “Really good, really comfortable. A lot better than we did that same test last year.”

Let that stand as an alarm for the rest of the field.

The GMR Grand Prix will be held May 13-14. Official practice for the “500” begins May 17 with the 106th Running on Sunday, May 29. All on-track practice and qualifying sessions can be viewed on Peacock Premium, NBC Sports’ live streaming service. Both races will air live on NBC.