Saturday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway saw another championship drive for NTT INDYCAR SERIES points leader Alex Palou and another disappointing result for what has been his nearest title challenger, Josef Newgarden.
But while the drama for the season championship is all but gone for 2023 – Palou leads the field by a nearly insurmountable 101 points with only three races to go – the silly season drama for 2024 is in high gear.
Will Palou be back with Chip Ganassi Racing to defend what surely will be his second series championship in three years? Will he be in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES at all? And what to make of Arrow McLaren Racing’s driver lineup for next year?
All of that is for another moment in the story and the year, in general.
Palou, who already was in command of the standings, padded his lead with a seventh-place finish in the Gallagher Grand Prix as Newgarden finished 25th after being collected in a first-lap incident. Palou’s gain on the road course was 17 points.
The moment of the race occurred just after the green flag. Palou went to the inside on a four-wide approach to Turn 7, and the initial contact involved the front of Palou’s car hitting the rear of the No. 11 IU Simon Comprehensive Cancer Center Honda of CGR teammate Marcus Armstrong.
Palou was able to slow his No. 10 The American Legion Honda enough to avoid further contact, and he left the scene relatively unscathed as others couldn’t. Behind Palou, Scott Dixon got knocked around and spun into the grass by the No. 28 DHL Honda of Andretti Autosport’s Romain Grosjean. But the real trouble was Armstrong’s car turned sideways in the racing line.
Newgarden had started in the back of the 27-car field due to a poor qualifying session and a six-grid spot penalty for a fifth engine change of the season. As a result, he found himself scrambling to avoid Armstrong’s car and couldn’t. Newgarden braked hard but landed the No. 2 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet on top of Armstrong’s car, and the time it took to get him rolling cost him a lap down to the field.
While there were still 84 laps to run, it effectively secured Palou’s pursuit of another championship. Finishing ninth or better in each of the final three races will earn him the crown, regardless of how Dixon, Newgarden and others finish those races. But here’s the thing: Palou hasn’t finished that low in any race this season, and he is riding a streak of 15 consecutive races over the past two seasons with finishes eighth or better. Palou has completed all but one lap over the past 13 months dating to last year’s Gallagher Grand Prix.
To further add to Palou’s comfort, he has won races at two of the remaining venues: Portland International Raceway, site of the BITNILE.com Grand Prix of Portland on Sunday, Sept. 3 and WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, where the season-ending Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey will be held on Sunday, Sept. 10.
Newgarden fell to third in the standings as Dixon overtook him with the race win. Newgarden trails Palou by 105 points and his chance to make a stirring title comeback likely hinges on winning a fourth consecutive Bommarito Automotive Group 500 presented by Axalta and Valvoline on Sunday, Aug. 27 at World Wide Technology Raceway.
Not everything in Palou’s world was rosy, and that’s the other story of the moment. Less than 24 hours before Saturday’s race, news broke that Palou does not want to join Arrow McLaren Racing for next season, as expected. The Associated Press was the first to report that Arrow McLaren principal Zak Brown sent a letter to his employees about Palou’s surprising intentions.
Brown said he was “extremely disappointed” that Palou does not intend to honor his contract “with us in IndyCar in 2024 and beyond.”
CGR owner Chip Ganassi made a rare comment on his driver’s contract status.
“Alex Palou has been a part of our team and under contract since the 2021 season,” he said. “It is the interference of that contract from McLaren that began this process and ironically, they are now playing the victim. Simply stated, the position on McLaren INDYCAR regarding our driver is inaccurate and wrong; he remains under contract with CGR.”
Monaco Increase Management, which helped Palou orchestrate his agreement with Arrow McLaren, issued a statement saying it was “bitterly disappointed” to learn of Palou’s change of course.
“Together, we had built a relationship that we thought went beyond any contractual obligation and culminated in winning the 2021 IndyCar crown and tracing a path to F1 opportunities,” the company said. “Life goes on and we wish Alex all the best for his future achievements.”
That might soon include another NTT INDYCAR SERIES championship.