Big Machine Music City Grand Prix start

“Hey, we survived,” Alex Palou said Sunday.

That was the reassuring message of the NTT INDYCAR SERIES points leader following the season’s 13th race, the Big Machine Music City Grand Prix in Nashville. Palou didn’t have the car to win on this hot and steamy afternoon, but a series of significant moments allowed him to finish third, one position ahead of his biggest threat to winning a second championship in the past three years.

For a time, it appeared Palou might suffer his worst finish of the year – he has always been in the top eight – but terrific fuel savings and two late cautions helped the No. 10 The American Legion Honda get home on fumes. Doing so and holding off Josef Newgarden on those restarts ensured Palou’s title pursuit is as strong as the series has seen in 18 years.

With four races remaining, Palou leads Newgarden by 84 points, which effectively is two full races. Avoid disaster, and Chip Ganassi Racing’s driver is again the series champion.

“We’ve been lucky sometimes, like today,” Palou said of his season. “We have to say that.”

Palou started Sunday’s race from the fourth position, but his strategy took an interesting turn during an early caution period. His team’s decision to get off the alternate Firestone Firehawks on Lap 14 appeared to be the right one, especially when the rest of the frontrunners disregarded the opportunity. But the race that has been the most contact-filled of any on the calendar the past two seasons largely ran clean, and that became a problem for Palou.

Long stretches of green-flag action forced Palou into massive fuel savings in the second half of the race. He called getting to the finish without an extra pit stop “improbable.”

“It was not the right call,” he said, which promoted his survival reference. “We made it work.”

Newgarden did his best to take advantage of Palou’s tense moments, but he couldn’t overtake the Spaniard on the restart with four laps to go. So, the hometown driver of the No. 2 PPG Team Penske Chevrolet settled for a day without championship progress. Time is certainly running out on the driver who is already a two-time series champion.

“I’m disappointed with fourth – we’re never happy unless we’re leaving with a win,” Newgarden said. “I felt like we ran a really good race. There was a little more opportunity that just didn’t materialize in the beginning – typical street-course stuff. You get used up a little bit at times. That’s what we always see. It gets tight, as everybody knows.”

The last time this series didn’t have a championship battle at the season’s final race was in 2005, when Dan Wheldon had the title secured. Palou is on pace to do that, as well.

Malukas’ Trouble Approaching Turn 9

David Malukas had one of the strangest incidents of the season when, approaching Turn 9 at the end of the Korean War Veterans Memorial Bridge, the support for his car’s rear wing broke.

Malukas wasn’t sure what contributed to the issue, but his race in the No. 18 HMD Trucking Honda of Dale Coyne Racing with HMD was over as he drove the car into the run-off area without further damage.

“I don’t know if it was the rear wing that failed or something internally that caused a lot of heat because … we also lost the gearbox,” he said. “I couldn’t shift or anything, and I (got out) and there was a massive fire. As soon as I hit the brakes, I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t downshift.”

Malukas had qualified fifth, tying his highest such effort on a street circuit in his two-year INDYCAR SERIES career, and he was in the sixth position at the time of the incident.

“It’s really unfortunate,” he said. “I think we had a good strategy going, and we had some pace.”

Lundqvist Issue Strange, Too

Linus Lundqvist had a memorable first race in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES, running as high as third before late-race wall contact in the No. 60 AutoNation/SiriusXM Honda of Meyer Shank Racing relegated him to 25th in a 27-car field. Lundqvist was serving as the stand-in for Simon Pagenaud, who has not been cleared since his July 1 flip at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

INDYCAR had mandated an aeroscreen cooling duct to force air into the cockpit amid steamy conditions: 86 degrees ambient temperature at the green flag with 70 percent humidity and rising figures throughout the race. But sometime during the opening stint, Lundqvist’s car lost its cooling duct, forcing the 24-year-old Swede to continue without the aid.

Still, Lundqvist was running an impressive 13th when he got off-line – barely – and hit the outside wall in Turn 11. The right-front impact with 10 laps to go was fierce.

“I am so sorry,” Lundqvist twice told the crew on the team’s radio.

That wasn’t the only issue of the caution. During it, Jack Harvey hit the Turn 8 barrier in the No. 30 Kustom Entertainment Honda of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. That impact broke his front wing, requiring a change.

Next Up: IMS Road Course

The NTT INDYCAR SERIES gets back to work this week with the Gallagher Grand Prix as part of the Brickyard Weekend on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.

The action begins Friday with the first practice at 9 a.m. ET followed by NTT P1 Award qualifying at 12:30 p.m. ET. A final practice will be held at 4 p.m. ET. Peacock and the INDYCAR Radio Network will broadcast all sessions.

Saturday’s race will be at 2 p.m. ET on USA Network, Peacock and the INDYCAR Radio Network. Alexander Rossi won last year’s race while driving for Andretti Autosport.

INDY NXT by Firestone and NASCAR’s top two divisions, the Cup and Xfinity Series, also will stage races.

Odds and Ends

  • After 17 cautions in the first two races held on this Nashville street circuit, there effectively were three Sunday (for the incidents involving Malukas, Lundqvist and the three-car stack-up involving Felix Rosenqvist and rookies Agustin Canapino and Benjamin Pedersen).
  • 2012 series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay showed why he is a true veteran. When the red flag came with five laps to go, he parked his No. 20 Chevrolet of Ed Carpenter Racing on the right side of pit road in the shade of a nearby tree.
  • Scott Dixon (No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda) made it official Sunday when he started his 318th consecutive NTT INDYCAR SERIES race, tying former Ganassi teammate Tony Kanaan for the all-time mark. The start was Dixon’s 381st overall, which ranks fourth. Helio Castroneves (No. 06 AutoNation/SiriusXM Honda for Meyer Shank Racing) earned his 387th career start, No. 3 on the list.
  • The race of Colton Herta (No. 26 Gainbridge Honda of Andretti Autosport with Curb-Agajanian) took a difficult turn on the restart at Lap 15. He was third but had to check up just ahead of the green flag waving, and that hesitation opened the door for five drivers to pass him, several with side-by-side contact. Herta’s car got pushed to the escape road, and soon thereafter he came to pit road for adjustments. The rest of the race wasn’t much better, with a couple of wall glances contributing to a 21st-place finish.
  • Rossi and Rinus VeeKay had contact approaching Turn 4 at the end of the bridge. VeeKay’s right rear wheel hit the front of Rossi’s left rear wheel, and VeeKay couldn’t make the corner. Rossi had to pit for repairs, and VeeKay was issued a drive-through penalty as the instigator.
  • Christian Rasmussen led all 35 laps of Sunday’s INDY NXT by Firestone Music City Grand Prix for his third victory of the season and padded his series lead over Nolan Siegel, who finished fourth. Their separation heading to Friday’s race at IMS is 45 points. Driving the No. 6 entry of HMD Motorsports with DCR, Rasmussen finished with a 1.1594-second advantage over Andretti Autosport’s Hunter McElrea for his second consecutive race win.