The streak is nearly as old as some of those trying to extend it.
Beginning in 2006, a run of 17 consecutive seasons, every NTT INDYCAR SERIES year has gone to the final race with multiple championship contenders. It’s a sign of how competitive this series has been year in, year out.
Today, Alex Palou stands positioned to break it.
The dominance of the Chip Ganassi Racing driver, particularly over the past two months, is remarkable. He is one pit road contact from possibly riding a four-race winning streak. Palou has won three of the past four races, including Sunday’s Sonsio Grand Prix at Road America presented by AMR. He has an average finish of 2.85 over the past seven races and has created a lead of more than a race.
Palou’s 74-point advantage over teammate Marcus Ericsson is the largest advantage for a series leader since Scott Dixon led Josef Newgarden by 76 points following the 10th race of the 2020 season. But here’s why Palou’s second title in three seasons isn’t a foregone conclusion: This is INDYCAR, and challengers lurk at every corner.
In 2020, Dixon exited the 11th race of the 14-race season clutching a 72-point lead, but Newgarden won two of the final three races to close to within 16 points at year’s end. It wasn’t like Dixon fell apart, either. He closed with finishes of ninth, eighth and a third he had to have at the finale to hold back Team Penske’s driver.
So, Palou knows it is foolish to be thinking too far ahead.
“I would understand racing for points on the last two races, but it’s too early (for that),” he said. “We’ve (done) eight races; there’s still eight or nine left. Somebody else can do the same amount of points that we did, or even more, with the races that we have left.
“We’re going to focus on scoring wins because that’s the way we can score more points. That’s the best way. Honestly, there’s some races coming up now that are still really good for us, and we know we’re going to have a (competitive) car and my confidence to fight for wins.”
To Palou’s point, he has finished on the podium in each of the past two races at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, which is the next venue on the schedule (Sunday, July 2, USA Network, Peacock and the INDYCAR Radio Network). He also has race wins at Portland International Raceway and WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, the circuits that will close the season.
It’s not over until it’s over, but the field has work to do to catch him.
Passing Aplenty within Field
There was significant banter about Road America’s offseason repaving, with some drivers praising the smoothness of the 14-turn, 4.014-mile circuit while others frustrated with the lack of grip off line.
This point is undeniable: The racing was superb.
There were 444 on-track passes, 386 of them for position. Of the latter, 110 were among drivers running in the top 10, 32 within the top five. Those were all records for the INDYCAR SERIES at Road America since these stats were tracked starting in 2016.
“Wow,” Palou said. “Lots of action.”
Of course, much of muscling for position was behind Palou, who after overhauling Colton Herta for the lead on Lap 49 of 55 scooted to a five-second lead. His margin of victory was 4.5610 seconds, and he essentially coasted to the checkered flag.
Twenty-three of the 27 cars finished on the lead lap, tying an event record.
Weekends To Remember
For as strong as Palou was on Sunday, Herta was at least his equal.
The driver of the No. 26 Gainbridge Honda led 33 laps and likely would have paced more had his team not called for a final pit stop for Lap 40. Meanwhile, the rest of the frontrunners, including Palou, waited another lap to come to pit road, allowing them to worry less about fuel the rest of the way. Clearly, Herta couldn’t push as hard in the final segment.
“At that point, it was hard to say what was going to happen with fuel numbers,” Herta said. “I know there were about 15 laps to go and that’s usually a pretty reasonable fuel number (to make), but it ended up being quite a bit more, so it’s frustrating.
“We had the best car, and we were cruising the whole time. We had so much more in (the car), and we just never got to show it because we were always saving fuel trying to go that lap (longer). That’s a killer.”
Herta certainly had an eventful weekend, going off course three times in practice and qualifying before winning his first NTT P1 Award of the season and the 10th of his career. That 10th pole tied his father’s career total, and the second-generation star also now has as many career poles as Dan Gurney, Alex Zanardi and Sam Hornish Jr., among others.
Will Power and Dixon also had race weekends to remember – or forget – and theirs took a wrong turn by coming together early in Saturday morning’s practice. Dixon said he didn’t see Power charging from the left side as he moved out of the preferred racing line approaching Turn 12. Both cars crashed hard against the outer wall, with Dixon’s No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda requiring a change to the backup car.
Despite starting 22nd and 23rd, respectively, both drivers were on point during the race. Power’s team got off sequence early, using multiple pit stops to extend the fuel life of the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet. The strategy helped to a point, allowing Power to lead seven laps and finish 13th.
Dixon was the day’s biggest gainer, a plus-19 to finish fourth. He might not win a record-tying seventh series championship, but these are the kind of days that keep him in position to score such another title. He will head to the second half of the season fifth in the standings, trailing Palou by 98 points.
Salvaging the Weekend
Like Dixon, Marcus Ericsson, Pato O’Ward and Newgarden did the best they could to keep pace with Palou in the battle for the Astor Challenge Cup, likewise finishing in the top six.
Newgarden had a sneaky quiet weekend, qualifying fourth and finishing second despite not leading a lap. The driver of the No. 2 PPG Team Penske Chevrolet is chasing what would be his third series title in the past seven years and would cap this season, which includes his first victory in the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge. Newgarden has finished second in the standings each of the past three years.
O’Ward had an adventurous but productive afternoon. His No. 5 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet was struck from behind in the race’s opening corner by Andretti Autosport’s Kyle Kirkwood (No. 27 AutoNation Honda). While Kirkwood spun and stalled, O’Ward was able to keep moving and lost only five positions, restarting seventh. However, on Lap 4, O’Ward was penalized two positions for blocking Santino Ferrucci (No. 14 AJ Foyt Racing/Sexton Properties Chevrolet). O’Ward overcame that hiccup to finish third.
Ericsson admittedly didn’t have a car to win Sunday’s race, so his team tried a different strategy to make a run at the victory in the No. 8 Huski Ice Spritz Honda. He maintained second place in the standings, 74 points out of the lead.
- Palou clearly likes Road America. As a series rookie with Dale Coyne Racing in 2020, he finished third and seventh, then won the 2021 race with Chip Ganassi’s team. He has won two of the past three races at the Elkhart Lake circuit and overcame a significant crash in Saturday’s practice to win this one.
- Christian Lundgaard (No. 45 Vivid Clear Rx Honda) gave Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing a strong race by finishing seventh, and teammate Graham Rahal ended up 11th in the No. 15 Fifth Third Bank Honda. Lundgaard’s effort moved him up two places in the standings, to 11th.
- Chip Ganassi Racing continues to have four competitive cars, with Palou, Dixon and Ericsson finishing in the top six with series rookie Marcus Armstrong climbing from eighth to third and leading five laps before having his race derailed by a spin in the No. 11 Ridgeline Lubricants Honda.
- Kirkwood rebounded from an avoidable contact penalty for first-lap contact with O’Ward to finish ninth. Arrow McLaren's Alexander Rossi rounded out the top 10.
- While the next NTT INDYCAR SERIES race isn’t until July 2 at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, some teams will test Wednesday at Iowa Speedway.