Let the coronation begin.
With his win Sunday (Sept. 3) at the BITNILE.com Grand Prix at Portland International Raceway, Chip Ganassi Racing pilot Alex Palou clinched the 2023 NTT IndyCar Series championship. It’s been a dream season for the 26-year-old Spaniard, who became the first driver since 2005 to take the title home with one race still remaining on the schedule.
Just four seasons and 63 races into his IndyCar career, Palou has proven that he is a generational talent. Already a two-time series champion – he also took home the Astor Cup in 2021 – Palou has already piled up nine wins and 23 podiums.
Five of those wins and nine of those podiums have come in 2023, but taking a deeper dive into Palou’s season shows there is a lot more to it than just winning races. Breaking down his championship run into all of its parts shows how Palou put together a dominant campaign in one of the most competitive racing series on the planet.
Here’s how it all shook out:
Winning races is what the sport is all about, but it takes more than wins to take a title. Just ask Josef Newgarden, who has won a series-high nine races over the last two seasons, including his first Indianapolis 500 win back in May.
That hasn’t been enough, though. Last year, the talented Tennessean won five times, but finished second in the points to teammate Will Power, who won just once to capture his second IndyCar championship. This year, Newgarden has won four times, but has finished 15th or worse on another four occasions, including recent back-to-back 25th place results at the Indy road course and at Gateway.
That leaves him heading into the finale this weekend at Laguna Seca third in the standings, a whopping 148 points behind Palou.
Palou, meanwhile, has never finished worse than eighth and has 12 top-five finishes. Winning is great, but piling up points when it isn’t your day matters just as much.
The backbone of Palou’s championship rests on a run he went on early in the summer, starting in early May when he won in dominant fashion on the Indy road course. In a span of six races, Palou reached Victory Lane four times, then came home second and fourth in the other two races.
In those six races, Palou piled up 295 of his 618 points on the season, with the key coming in his qualifying efforts.
In those six races, he won two poles (Indy 500 and Detroit) and only started outside the first two rows once, when he went off 16th at Toronto but came back to finish second behind first-time winner Christian Lundgaard.
Overall he has only started worse than eighth twice, and in both of those races still found his way to the podium when the checkered flag flew, and has an average starting position of 6.06.
You don’t have to start from the front to get a good result in an IndyCar race, but it sure does help.
One of Palou’s biggest assets is that he doesn’t make many mistakes. Like his teammate Scott Dixon, he makes you beat him, not the other way around.
Palou is very patient behind the wheel, and knows when to pick his spots. He’ll throw his elbows out when it’s necessary, but prefers going the route of calculated precision. Despite his multiple wins and podiums, Palou has led just 15.1 percent of the laps in competition this season.
When he gets to the front, he closes, but he lets the race come to him and has a high racing IQ.
Oh, and this is where we also give props to strategist Barry Wanser and Palou’s crew. Wanser’s strategy calls have been on point all year, and Palou’s over-the-wall guys have been nearly flawless. Make no mistake, races are won and lost in the pits, and Palou’s group has been nearly flawless.
Call it luck, fortune, mojo, karma, whatever, Palou has had it this year.
Of course, that doesn’t diminish what he has done, but let’s face it, Palou faced very little adversity this season. Well, on-track at least. His off-track battles with McLaren may go well on into the darkness of winter.
Lots of things can go wrong in a race that is completely out of a driver or team’s control. Mechanical issues are first and foremost, of course, but so many things can happen in the course of the race that is completely out of a driver’s hands.
This year, Palou was rarely a victim of bad luck, and when he was, the damage was minimized. He never blew an engine, didn’t have any sort of mechanical issue, never cut a tire, and was never caught up in another driver’s accident.
That’s almost unheard of in racing. And when he did have an issue, he and his team were able to bounce back and make the most of the situation.
At the Indianapolis 500, Palou was one of the more dominant cars in the first 200-plus miles, but contact in the pits with Rinus Veekay just short of the midway point pushed him as far back as 26th place, but he rebounded to finish fourth.
Then at Toronto in July, contact with Helio Castroneves’ spinning machine on a restart caused damage to Palou’s front wing, but his team decided to race on instead of pitting to replace it. With the wing assembly hanging on by its final threads of carbon fiber, Palou somehow managed to notch another podium finish.
In the razor-thin word of IndyCar, those two incidents going his way are the difference between sleeping well and enjoying a relaxing weekend on the California coast, and stressing his way all the way to the final lap of the season on Sunday (Sept. 10) afternoon.
Palou’s run to the 2023 title was about as smooth as it could get. While his off-track issues with McLaren will likely go through the courts and potentially put a sizeable hole in his wallet, it seems that as all the dust settles, he will end up at CGR in 2024 and beyond.
There’s no doubt that Dixon still has a lot in the tank and has earned the right to be one of the leaders at CGR for as long as he chooses, Palou is well on his way to becoming the face of IndyCar, and looks settled in for the long haul.
In other words, there are more seasons like this to come.
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