LONG BEACH, CA — After winning on his Chip Ganassi Racing debut back in April, Alex Palou capped off the 2021 NTT IndyCar Series season by winning his first series championship by finishing fourth in Sunday’s (September 26th) Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach.
After starting 10th, Palou managed to keep himself out of danger to finish fourth while other title contenders tried their best to overcome their deficit to the Spaniard to no avail.
“What a race, what a year, what a season,” Palou said. “This team is amazing, I don’t know what to say. I’m super proud to be part of Chip Ganassi Racing, […] super happy, can’t thank enough everybody that made this possible, Chip Ganassi especially, but my family, everybody, management team, it’s amazing.”
Pato O’Ward was the closest title contender to try and take the title away from the No. 10 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda but his race was practically over almost as soon as it had started.
O’Ward spun coming out of the final corner on the first lap of the race after some light contact at the right rear of his car with Ed Jones’s front wing. After pitting for new tires, O’Ward kept racing, but driveshaft failure on lap 18 all but ended O’Ward’s championship hopes.
Despite the No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet team’s efforts to repair the car and get O’Ward on track, the 2018 Indy Lights champion completed 43 laps before calling it a day, finishing 27th of 28 cars.
“I think we’ve had a great season so far,” O’Ward said. “I’m proud of the team. I’m proud of myself. Obviously, it wasn’t the perfect of seasons, but I think that’s just how it’s going to be. You have to learn from the little mistakes that you might have made and then, I feel like that gets you stronger. I’m looking forward to next year. I think we have a great baseline to start off from and see if we can get some more wins and challenge for a chance for another title.”
The only other driver eligible for the championship was Josef Newgarden and the No. 2 Team Penske Chevrolet did everything he could to win the race but fell short to Colton Herta by just under six tenths of a second.
Newgarden started from pole position and led 18 of the race’s 85 laps, but failing to clinch the most laps led bonus points combined with the retirements of several drivers put his championship hopes to rest.
Despite losing the championship, Newgarden was complimentary of Palou
“I think [Palou]’s done a good job about maximizing his opportunity, right? Coming up, we all dream of having that type of team around you,” Newgarden said. “Certainly within your second year, that’s a dream opportunity. So he’s certainly got all the resources and people around him to make it happen.
“He’s done the job clearly. He’s been solid all year, been well within the fight. I said earlier in the year I think from the young crop of drivers, he looks the most complete. Maybe that’s just because he has a couple more years on a lot of the other younger guys. He’s definitely been very complete all year. Seems to be very Dixon-esque in a lot of ways. Scott has been sort of the measure over the last couple decades of how you be a champion. Alex seems to embody that pretty well.”
For Palou, 2021 was about as good of a sophomore season as he could have hoped. The Spaniard won the season-opening race at Barber Motorsports Park in April in a dominating fashion and was in the right place at the right time at Road America in June when Newgarden’s car had a shifting malfunction on the final restart to score the win.
After a penalty for cutting the first corner chicane at Portland, Palou fought back with an alternate strategy to win that race as well and giving this year’s Indianapolis 500 runner-up a 25 point lead going into the final two races.
A lead that Palou would not relinquish. Palou is the first Spanish IndyCar champion and the first champion under 25 years old since Scott Dixon back in 2003. Palou is also the first driver to score his first race win and first championship in the same season since Sam Hornish Jr. in 2001.
The 2021 IndyCar season has concluded and the next race will be in February, 2022 on the streets of St. Petersburg.
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