The NTT IndyCar Series heads north this weekend for the Honda Indy Toronto, and the driver leading in points is one of the hottest pilots in the world who isn’t named Max Verstappen.
Alex Palou’s future beyond 2023 may be up in the air, but in the here and now, at the midpoint of the IndyCar season, he is clearly in the driver’s seat in his quest to win his second Astor Cup. The Spaniard, who won the championship in 2021, is putting together a season for the ages, with wins in four of the last five races and a 110-point lead in the championship standings.
Here are a couple of things that put Palou’s lead into better perspective. If a driver wins the pole, leads a lap and wins the race, they can score a maximum of 53 points. That means, if no one cuts into Palou’s lead, he would wrap up the championship with two races to go in the season.
That just flat-out doesn’t happen in IndyCar, which has seen its championship fight go down to the final race for each of the last 17 seasons.
On the flip side, last place pays five points. That means if Scott Dixon, who is Palou’s teammate at Chip Ganassi Racing and stands second in points, were to win the next two races and score the maximum number of points with Palou finishing last, the younger Ganassi driver would still have a 14-point lead.
No matter what happens, Palou will leave Toronto with a sizeable lead, but how does that compare to recent history? Over the last 10 seasons, the largest advantage a driver has enjoyed with eight races to go has been 80 points, which Simon Pagenaud took away from the doubleheader weekend at Detroit in 2016.
Pagenaud won the title by a whopping 127 points over Will Power that year, and since 2013 the driver leading the points with eight races left has gone on to hoist the Astor Cup on five occasions.
But if you are into a good comeback story, the two drivers chasing Palou have both used late-season pushes to win a championship.
Dixon, who is 110 points back, has had two such comebacks over the last 10 seasons. In 2013, the Kiwi won at Pocono to pull himself within 65 points of Helio Castroneves. He followed that up with three more wins and another podium to capture the championship by seven points.
Two years later, Dixon left the doubleheader weekend at Detroit 63 points behind Juan Pablo Montoya. He eventually battled back to tie Montoya with 556 points, and was awarded the title on a tiebreaker, with three wins to Montoya’s two.
Then there is Josef Newgarden, who heads to Canada 116 points back and in third in the points. After finishing 13th at Texas in 2017, the Team Penske driver was in seventh place, 49 in arrears of Dixon. But then Newgarden went on a hot streak which saw him notch three wins and six total podiums in the final eight races, and squeak past Pagenaud by 13 points to win his first championship.
If there is a comeback to be had, it would most likely come from Newgarden. To catch Palou, a driver is going to have to win some races and pile on the podiums, and that’s what Newgarden has been doing. Dating back to the middle of the COVID-modified 2020 season, Newgarden has won nine times in 35 races and has scored 13 total podiums.
One thing that also plays into Newgarden’s favor is his successes on ovals. Along with winning the Indianapolis 500 in May, Newgarden has won at Texas the last two years, as well as posting wins at Iowa and Gateway in 2022. Don’t forget, he was also dominating the second half of the Iowa doubleheader last July when he suffered a mechanical failure and crashed to come home in 24th place.
Wins and podiums are nice, but at this point, if anyone is going to catch Palou they will need him to have a little misfortune. That’s where it gets a bit tough, because not only has Palou been winning, but he’s also been incredibly consistent.
Since finishing 27th at Road America last June, Palou has only finished out of the top-10 positions twice in the last 18 races. After finishing eighth at St. Petersburg to start this season, Palou has four wins and five total podiums, and has yet tofinish worse than fifth this year.
Is Palou’s lead safe? On paper, sure. But in an uber-competitive series like IndyCar, it’s not a lock. Palou himself understands this, and has said multiple times he’s still racing for wins and not points. There’s still a long way to go in the season and a lot of points still on the table, and anything can happen.
Palou can’t sleep with both eyes closed just yet.
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