Palou continues to impress without being exceptional

(Photo: AP/Darron Cummings)

For many years, Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon won championship after championship without ever being flashy and rarely in completely dominant fashion. Dixon’s high-water mark for victories in a season was six en route to his 2008 IndyCar Championship, the second of his career. Most seasons, however, Dixon generally won his championships on the strength of three or four wins and a whole boatload of podium and Top 5 finishes, always capitalizing on days when he could push the car and minimizing lost points when his car wasn’t at its peak.

Other drivers have come and gone from championship contention over the years, but no driver in many decades has had the staying power of Dixon. I’m starting to believe the next version of Scott Dixon is lurking right next door within the Ganassi camp.

In Dixon’s rookie year of 2001 in CART, he found victory lane in just his third career start, that coming on the short oval at Nazareth, PA. The rest of the year saw a handful of good races but nothing that would suggest Dixon was destined to become one of the legends of the sport. Even the following year, when PacWest shut down midseason and Dixon moved over to Chip Ganassi’s squad after the third race of the season, Scott managed only a single podium finish. It wasn’t readily apparent – yet – that Dixon was about to follow in the footsteps of Alex Zanardi and Juan Montoya as Ganassi’s next star plucked from the unknown.

Fifty wins and six championships later, Scott Dixon doesn’t need to flash his credentials to anyone anymore. We might be starting to see the same thing with young Alex Palou.

In his rookie IndyCar campaign with Dale Coyne Racing in 2020, Palou had a few moments throughout the season that really made us think he had some serious skills. Though a third-place finish at Road America was the best result for the season, Palou’s year was a perfect example of the results really not telling the whole story. Bad luck, and a few bad decisions, ended up resulting in a 16th place finish in the final standings. However, watching how he ran from race to race, it was clear this was not just another Dale Coyne ride buyer. There was some real talent behind the wheel.

When Felix Rosenqvist chose to seek greener pastures after 2020, Ganassi used the opportunity to pluck the young Spaniard from Coyne and put him into the #10 entry for 2021. It is no secret that the #10 car had been underperforming for most of the second half of the previous decade since four-time series champion Dario Franchitti was forced from the cockpit following his terrifying 2013 crash in Houston. In fact, the #10 car only found victory lane twice between 2014 and 2020, and Rosenqvist’s sixth place finish in the final 2019 standings was the best the entry did after Dario’s 2011 championship season.

Results for Palou came immediately as he was victorious in his maiden outing with the team at Barber. While it was a good story to kick off the season, few people considered him yet to be a title contender. There was just no way the young driver would beat his legendary teammate, who was fresh off his sixth championship and still on top of his game, much less all the Penske, Andretti, and the rejuvenated Arrow McLaren SP squads. A 17th place finish at the next race in St. Pete showed that Alex had clearly come back to earth and that the 10 car was about to fall back to its sadly now-familiar position.

Things started to change, though, as the calendar turned to May. Palou started off the month with a pair of strong finishes – seventh and fourth – at the twin bill at Texas and then finished a strong third on the road course at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. At this historic Indianapolis 500, Palou likely would have found victory lane if he was battling with any other driver than the most experienced in the field. Palou fought and pushed Helio Castroneves to the end, but ultimately the second-year driver fell just short to the now four-time champion in his 21st start.

Nonetheless, even in the disappointment of finishing second, it was starting to become obvious that Alex Palou had the chops and the skills to contend for a series championship. Alex left Indianapolis with the points lead and rarely looked back the rest of the season.

Bad luck finally caught up to Palou later in the season at back-to-back races. Leading the championship when the series returned to IMS for the IndyCar-NASCAR doubleheader weekend, Palou was running strong late in the race when his Honda engine expired in a plume of blue smoke, relegating him to a 27th place finish. One we later, an overzealous move by fellow second-year driver Rinus Veekay ended Palou’s race against the Turn 1 SAFER Barrier in 20th position.

This proved to be the make or break moment for Palou and when we came to see that Alex was not just another up-and-down young driver. While others might have lost their cool, and their championship hopes, pushing too hard to make up for disappointments beyond his control, Palou quickly settled back into championship form by winning the next race at Portland. He now had the title in his sights and within his grasp, but none of the pursuing drivers were ready to concede the championship yet.

Palou was unflappable though. He followed up his victory at Portland – his third of the season – with a second at Laguna Seca and a fourth at Long Beach. Though he was pushed, he never wavered or made a mistake coming down to the wire to close the season.

Looking back at the 2021 NTT IndyCar Series season, there were a handful of highlights for Palou that really stood out – winning his first race at Barber, the strong second at the Indianapolis 500, the strong win at Portland – but it seemed like most of his championship run was fueled by consistency over the course of the season, maximizing the good days and minimizing loss on the less-than-stellar days. Who does that sound like?

As we looked toward 2022, many were asking whether Palou would be able to back up his championship or was he going to be a one-hit wonder.? Was Palou heading toward the career path of Scott Dixon and many future championships or would he be more like Ryan Hunter-Reay – winning his lone championship and then never able to find that form again.

Qualifying 10th for the season opener probably wasn’t exactly what Alex and his #10 team had in mind to start their championship defense. His race was mostly unspectacular. Yet, he slowly climbed up the leaderboard throughout the race, got good pit stops, and worked his way to second by lap 73 of 80. He pushed eventual winner Scott McLaughlin but didn’t have enough to get by for the victory. Palou maximized what he was able to do and brought the car home second to give himself a good kick off to his title defense.

Fast forward a few weeks when the IndyCar Series hit the 1.5-mile oval at Texas and we see another unspectacular qualifying effort leaving Palou starting 11th. On a treacherous track with little room to maneuver, starting right in the middle of the pack is the exactly place you don’t want to start!! Once again, Palou managed to keep his nose clean, and though he never cracked the Top 5, he rarely fell outside of the Top 10, finishing a respectable, though not particularly impressive, seventh.

Last week’s Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach saw yet another display of Palou being in championship mode. Starting third, Alex led 22 laps through the middle portion of the race before ultimately coming home third behind Josef Newgarden and Romain Grosjean.

In summary, Palou’s 2022 season has been start 10th/finish 2nd, start 11th/finish 7th, start 3rd/finish 3rd. Those results are good. Those results are not spectacular. And yet, Alex Palou finds himself now third in the championship standings only 15 points out of the lead. He is truly impressing the masses without being particularly impressive in any one area.

And that is exactly the type of consistency that is needed to win multiple championships. That is exactly the type of driving that had led Scott Dixon to a legendary career. Sure, some drivers might be flashier and other drivers might be able to rattle off three or four wins in a row. But few drivers take a mediocre weekend and turn it into a decent finish better than Alex Palou has done this past year. Few drivers come from seemingly nowhere to quietly rack up a sizeable chunk of points week in and week out.

It’s no secret that Chip Ganassi has struggled to find consistency for the #10 car since the forced retirement of Dario Franchitti. Four mostly disappointing year with Tony Kanaan ended with both parties openly questions the other’s commitment to the program. Ed Jones one and only year in the seat in 2018 was the low point for the #10 entry before Felix Rosenqvist showed the car really did have potential.

I don’t think anyone would argue Alex Palou was Chip Ganassi’s first choice for driving the #10 car when the 2020 season wrapped up. Rosenqvist was expected to return and continue the upward momentum. His departure, however, opened the door for Palou, and Palou has taken every advantage of the opportunity.

Now it seems that Alex Palou is well on his way to becoming a star in the NTT IndyCar Series. While other young guns like Colton Herta and Pato O’Ward seem to garner the lion’s share of the media attention, Palou has let his driving do the talking for him. He has shown to be a strong contender on nearly all the required IndyCar disciplines (though he is, as of yet, unproven on short ovals) and is now a threat to win at every track the Series visits.

Do I think Alex Palou will repeat as champion of the NTT IndyCar Series this year? It is just too early to say, especially with what appears to be a vastly resurrected Team Penske trio. However, unless Ganassi Racing completely get lost in practice, Palou will being amongst the three to five favorites to win the 106th Indianapolis 500 next month and a real contender to repeat as series champion. His strong run last year suggested there is a very strong possibility his face will eventually adorn the Borg-Warner Trophy, and I am quite confident in saying 2021 will not be Palou’s only IndyCar Championship. He might not end up with the legendary career of his teammate, but Alex Palou is the closest thing his generation has to another Scott Dixon.

5 thoughts on “Palou continues to impress without being exceptional

  1. Not surprisingly, I’m not ready to crown Alex Palou as the next Scott Dixon. Granted, he doesn’t seem to bring the drama that Herta, O’Ward and even VeeKay seem to surround themselves with. But let’s see how he performs when facing adversity. If he has two DNFs for whatever reason, then follows that slump with three podium finishes – then I may change my tune. But I have my doubts that Palou can sustain this level of consistency and win a second consecutive championship. I predict a significant falloff for Palou later this season. I’m still not sold.

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    1. You mean like exactly as I described when he had the blown engine and then was taken out by Veekay at IMS and Gateway last year, then followed that up with a 1st, 2nd, and 4th to wrap up the season?

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    1. I’m trying to think of another driver (besides Dixon) that Palou reminds me of but am coming up blank. Maybe a bit of Rick Mears? It’s like Palou excels at just hanging around, quietly keeping out of trouble while others shoot themselves in the foot, and suddenly ends up in the Top 5 after the last pit stop over and over again.

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