One teammate is a six-time NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion, another the winningest NASCAR Cup Series driver of his generation. Another is a former Formula One driver and yet another is one of the eight Indianapolis 500 winners that will head to the grid for Sunday’s 106th Running of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”
Given that, it’s not surprising that in last week’s media availability of Chip Ganassi Racing drivers and executives, Alex Palou went 25 minutes before being asked a question. And yet, the reigning NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion never considered it a slight because that’s not what drives him.
“More talking, less talking, no issues with that,” Palou said, smiling. “I’m still the champion.”
The 25-year-old Spaniard even got shuffled out of the spotlight in last weekend’s PPG Presents Armed Forces Qualifying when Scott Dixon posted the fastest pole speed in “500” history. Palou, who was this close to winning his first Indy pole, just shrugged his shoulders, figuring it wasn’t meant for him to be this year.
Palou had a similar reaction following last year’s “500” after Helio Castroneves slid past him for the lead with less than two laps remaining. His moment wasn’t that time, either.
“I think I did everything I knew how to do at that moment,” Palou said of trying to fend off Castroneves amid the most pressure-packed laps of his career. “It was my first time leading an oval race. It was not easy. But yeah, I learned a lot from that. Hopefully, we have the opportunity this year.”
That’s the thing about Palou: He knows who he is and is not, regardless of the attention he’s getting.
“I’m learning each day, and I’m growing my experience, especially on ovals,” he said confidently. “I feel comfortable now. Hopefully my day here will come.”
Sunday might be the day. For all the attention on Dixon, who is seeking his first “500” victory since 2008, and fellow CGR driver Jimmie Johnson, a seven-time Cup Series champion and four-time winner of the Brickyard 400 at IMS, Palou is extremely well positioned to be the driver drinking milk in Victory Lane.
This race has been won by a front-row starter, which Palou is, 45 times (nearly 43 percent). Chip Ganassi has owned the cars of five winning drivers, including in 2010 when Dario Franchitti won with the No. 10, a number which Palou uses on the NTT DATA-sponsored Honda.
Palou also has friends in high places on the grid, with Dixon starting next to him on the front row and Marcus Ericsson, a veteran of five F1 seasons, starting directly behind him. Johnson and 2013 “500” winner Tony Kanaan are lined up in the first four rows, as well.
Back for a third try at IMS, Palou carries exponentially more knowledge of how to race this race, particularly in the late going. Last year, when Castroneves got him, Palou watched the experienced Brazilian use the traffic ahead of them to maintain his advantage. After the race, Castroneves acknowledged that a more seasoned Palou would have been more difficult to hold off. Palou hopes that is true, and he believes it is.
“I think I did everything I knew how to do at that moment,” he said. “It was my first time leading an oval race. It was not easy, but yeah, I learned a lot from that.”
Palou’s development has been evident with each NTT INDYCAR SERIES race since last May. He has finished in the top three of 10 of the past 17 races, with a pair of victories and an NTT P1 Award for being the fastest qualifier at Portland International Raceway, where he won for the third time in his career. Palou posted the fastest lap in Monday’s two-hour, full-field practice at IMS and enters the race second in the standings.
Palou isn’t surprised that he’s under the public radar heading into Sunday’s race. He doesn’t engage in the attention-grabbing shenanigans that take place in the driver motorhome lot, and he naturally defers to veterans when the media is around.
It’s called letting results do the talking.
“I stay under the radar both on and off the track,” he said. “I still get the same points and the same results whether I get more media or more attention.”
“I understand that last year we came in, and nobody expected us (to win the championship), and we did. People were like, ‘Whoa, what’s going on?’ but that’s OK.
“I think people are starting to realize now, even if not everyone does.”
Sunday’s Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge airs live on NBC, Telemundo Deportes on Universo and the INDYCAR Radio Network beginning at 11 a.m. (ET).