Perhaps it’s time to consider the greatness of Alex Palou’s season to date.
The NTT INDYCAR SERIES driver who heads to the second half of the season with four race wins and a 110-point lead is on pace to better two memorable seasons since 2000.
Tony Kanaan and Dan Wheldon raced with comparable point allocation systems in 2004 and 2005, respectively, and Palou is exceeding their pace.
After nine races, Kanaan held a 64-point lead; Wheldon’s advantage was 73. Kanaan had fewer wins (three) and while Wheldon, like Palou currently, had a streak of four wins in five races, including three in a row, he didn't have nine straight top-10 finishes as Palou has. Also, Wheldon’s average finish was 4.9; Palou’s is 3.6.
Sebastien Bourdais won four consecutive INDYCAR SERIES championships beginning in 2003, but the Champ Car World Series used a different scoring system. He won as many as eight races in 2007 and as few as six in 2005, but his best average finish was 3.6 – the same as Palou’s.
Remember, seasons using this point system have gone to the final race undecided each of the past 17 years, but that streak is in jeopardy, to Palou’s credit.
Palou has been asked to put his season in perspective, and he has deferred to others. But when someone asked him after winning Sunday’s The Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio Presented by the 2023 Accord Hybrid if he’s “riding the wave,” he took it further.
“Yeah, I don’t know, honestly,” he said. “It’s been great. It’s been amazing since the month of May (at Indianapolis Motor Speedway).
“Well, I would say all year, but we’ve been able to have really consistent and really fast cars (at Chip Ganassi Racing), and we’ve been able to maximize everything. So yeah, (a) tsunami.”
How Can Palou Be Caught?
For starters, a refresher on the point allocation system: With a maximum of 54 points offered per race and five points awarded to those who finish last in a 27-car field, the most an opponent can gain in a single race is 49 points. Which means, Palou’s lead is more than two races with eight remaining.
Scott Dixon is the closest to Palou, trailing his Chip Ganassi Racing teammate by 110 points. Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden trails by 116 points. CGR’s Marcus Ericsson is 122 points out of the lead. Arrow McLaren’s Pato O’Ward is 127 in back of Palou. All will need to get on a massive run.
Dixon will be the defending winner at two of the remaining races, in the Honda Indy Toronto on July 16 and Big Machine Music City Grand Prix in Nashville on Aug. 6. Had Newgarden not had a mechanical failure in last year’s second race at Iowa Speedway, he would have won all of the oval races over the past calendar year, and there are three such races left in this season.
So, Palou knows he has work to do to secure his second series title in the past three years, but he said the target on him is the same “if you are 10 points or 50 points in front.”
But history is on Palou’s side: The last four times a driver won three consecutive races in a season – Ryan Hunter-Reay in 2012, Scott Dixon in 2013 and 2020, and Simon Pagenaud in 2016 – they went on to win the series championship. In all, 24 of the 30 drivers to have won three straight races became champions that season.
“(It’s) going to be a very tough challenge to beat (Palou) in a championship this year,” said reigning series champion Will Power of Team Penske. “He is so on point in every respect, in every respect.
“He is not missing a thing, which is very difficult in this series to be extremely fast, which a lot of guys are, but then being able to do all the disciplines (well) plus the intricacies of fuel save, tire conservation, in-and-out laps, qualifying. It’s bloody hard to have all that nailed, and he is doing it.”
As Palou seeks four in a row in Toronto, only four times since 1970 has such a feat been accomplished. In all four cases – Al Unser Jr. in 1990, Alex Zanardi in 1998, Cristiano da Matta in 2002 and Bourdais in 2006 – they finished the year off with a series title. Three of those streaks included a win in Toronto.
Overall, Good Weekend for RLL
Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing had one of its best weekends of the season, with all three drivers advancing to the second round of qualifying. Two of them reached the Firestone Fast Six with Graham Rahal earning his first front-row start since the third race of the 2019 season (at Barber Motorsports Park).
Christian Lundgaard finished fourth, matching his best result of the season. Rahal’s chance to score his first race victory since sweeping the Detroit doubleheader in 2017 was lost with a slow pit stop on the second round of stops. He finished seventh.
“It’s a quick reminder that we’ve got to be good in every phase of the program,” Rahal said. “It was a difficult day. We weren’t quite good enough on track and, unfortunately, we had some bobbles in pit lane. But we win as a team, and we lose as a team.
“We’re going to take this one on the chin. We’ve got to get better in all phases if we want to win a race. We had ourselves in position, I think.”
Lundgaard was disappointed to miss a spot on the podium, but he sees progress.
“I think it’s good that we’re improving our packing at road courses, and I think this just proves it in getting two top-seven results in a row,” he said. “I think we can be happy with that. I’m just unbelievably proud of what we’re doing. We’re improving; we’re making progress.”
Jack Harvey finished 18th after qualifying 11th.
Malukas Posts Best Road Course Finish of Season
Progress also was earned at Dale Coyne Racing with HMD, which saw second-year driver David Malukas finish sixth, his best result on a road course this season.
“That was one of the most exhausting races for me,” he said. “I came in (to the pits afterward) and could barely get out of the car. I was constantly pushing throughout that entire run.
“It was a near-perfect run for us to come from 12th (starting position) to sixth with every guy in front of us having a lot of speed. We timed everything beautifully, from strategy to using the push to pass to set up (passes). I’m just so proud (of the team). We’ve kind of finally rebounded.”
“We had found pace at Road America but here we were able to it all together.”
Reaching the second round of qualifying also was a first this season for the No. 18 HMD Tucking Honda.