Youth, speed, and a perfect race strategy came together at Barber Motorsports Park on Sunday as Alex Palou earned his first NTT IndyCar Series win for Chip Ganassi Racing.
Palou joins heady company as the only the third driver to win on debut for CGR, following Michael Andretti in 1994 and the late Dan Wheldon in 2006.
Qualifying third in the No. 10 Honda, the 24-year-old Spaniard was flawless throughout the 90-lap contest and crossed the finish line in front of Team Penske’s Will Power in the No. 12 Chevy and teammate Scott Dixon in the No. 9 Honda.
“No waaaay!” Palou shouted after crossing under the checkered flag. “Oh my God. Thank you, team, you are amazing. Thank you for the opportunity, everybody.”
At his first test for the team in November, team leaders and mechanics alike spoke favorably of Palou, who had a promising rookie year with Dale Coyne Racing with Team Goh. But with a single podium and a 16-th place finish in the championship, most said they had high hopes for their new driver but didn’t know what to expect in terms of where he’d perform once the season got under way.
At Barber, he provided the answer with an emphatic victory.
“I mean, it was possible, because we had the best team and the best cars,” Palou added. “We did it. It’s amazing. It was one of those days where everything went well. Come on, what else can I ask for?”
First race with @CGRindycar ✅
First career INDYCAR win ✅
That’s enough to celebrate 😆@AlexPalou | #INDYCAR pic.twitter.com/gWGNaHRTEf
— Chip Ganassi Racing (@CGRTeams) April 18, 2021
Power was relentless in his pursuit of Palou, but was unable to catch IndyCar’s newest winner, finishing just 0.4s behind.
“I did have to save some fuel, but it just blew my mind how fast Alex was in that first stint,” he said. “Super happy to get onto the podium, so it’s awesome to have a good start to the season. If we do this, week in, week out, we’ll have a great chance of winning the championship.”
Although Dixon didn’t have the pace to get past Power or Palou, he’s leaving Barber in a great place to chase his seventh title.
“What a start, double podium for us, huge congrats to Alex,” he said. “It was a track position race, but hat’s off to the team. Thanks to all the fans here.”
The end result of the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama was set in motion on Lap 20 as race leader Pato O’Ward and second-place Alexander Rossi were called to the pits by their teams, which set them on a three-stop strategy. Their fates were sealed with that decision.
The closest challengers went in the opposite direction as their teams countered by keeping them out until just after Lap 30, which put the likes of Palou, Power, Dixon, and others on a two-stop strategy. followed. Undeterred, O’Ward drove like an animal to gain time on the two-stoppers, knowing he’d have an extra visit to the pits to pay. His No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP Chevy kept charging until he reached fourth, 3.9s behind Palou.
“Track position was everything today,” he said. “I feel we executed on things strategy-wise, but it was the wrong one. We were the fastest car all weekend. Got great points here, and would have loved to win. I’m 100 percent sure when St. Pete comes in a couple of days, we’ll be ready.”
Sebastien Bourdais with a little hip check action on Pato O'Ward! 😳😬#INDYCAR // @NBC pic.twitter.com/lfWmYaMVdU
— IndyCar on NBC (@IndyCaronNBC) April 18, 2021
Behind O’Ward, A.J. Foyt Racing’s Sebastien Bourdais salvaged a poor result in qualifying by racing his way from 16th to fifth in the No. 14 Chevy. Ed Carpenter Racing’s Rinus VeeKay and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Graham Rahal made similar long-distance treks, with VeeKay’s No. 21 Chevy motoring from 14th to sixth and Rahal’s No. 15 Honda leaping from 18th to seventh.
While Bourdais, VeeKay, and Rahal went forward in the race, the rest of the top 10 went in the opposite direction as CGR’s Marcus Ericsson fell from sixth to eighth in the No. 8 Honda, Rossi dropped from second to ninth in the No. 27 Honda, and Romain Grosjean slipped from a seventh-place starting spot to 10th in his first IndyCar race.
Grosjean was also the top rookie at Barber, heading off Team Penske’s Scott McLaughlin in 14th place in the No. 3 Chevy, and Jimmie Johnson who persevered through adversity to earn 18th in the No. 48 CGR Honda.
AS IT HAPPENED
It was instant drama to open the season when Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden spun on the first lap and collected Colton Herta, VeeKay, Felix Rosenqvist, Max Chilton, and Ryan Hunter-Reay after cresting the hill at Turn 4.
All drivers have been seen and cleared from the medical center after this incident on Lap 1 at @BarberMotorPark.
Watch LIVE on @nbc.#INDYCAR // #HIGPA pic.twitter.com/MFopDJQzQM
— NTT INDYCAR SERIES (@IndyCar) April 18, 2021
Less than 30s into the new championship run, two of the leading title contenders – Newgarden and Herta – were sitting on the sidelines as the Andretti Autosport driver had nowhere to go but into the side of the No. 2 Chevy with his No. 26 Honda. Newgarden and Hunter-Reay were done in an instant and credited with P23 and P24, respectively. Meanwhile, Herta’s team repaired his car which allowed him to turn a few laps and take P22. AMSP did the same for Rosenqvist, who placed P21 and Chilton, with faster repairs, was four laps down in P20.
“I got loose coming over the hill, I thought I had the car, but touched the grass,” Newgarden said. “Any of the cars that got involved, I’m sorry.”
“Man, that sucks,” Herta added. “Just waiting for him to find a direction to spin in. Sucks for us because we’re on the back foot. I don’t know what else I could have done there.”
Jimmie Johnson was fortunate to miss most of the Lap 1 danger, but wasn’t as fortunate on Lap 10 when he spun on his own at Turn 13 and brought out a yellow flag. Holding 17th at the time, VeeKay passed Johnson and took the spot entering the rolling complex. Johnson returned in 19th after paying a visit to the pits, commenting, “Learned a lesson about being in dirty air, sorry guys.”
Early in his first race, rookie @JimmieJohnson spins at @BarberMotorPark.
Watch LIVE on @nbc.#INDYCAR // #HIGPA pic.twitter.com/aypw3sTLnV
— NTT INDYCAR SERIES (@IndyCar) April 18, 2021
The Lap 13 restart featured a top seven that was unchanged from qualifying with O’Ward leading Rossi, Palou, Power, Dixon, Marcus Ericsson and Grosjean.
The first round of pit stops among the leaders came on Lap 20 as O’Ward and Rossi traded their worn Firestone alternate tires for fresh primary rubber while committing to a three-stop strategy. Inheriting the lead, Palou stayed out and pushed until Lap 31 where he built a 6.5s gap over Power to make use of a two-stop plan, and was rewarded as O’Ward and Rossi emerged in the middle of traffic that neutralized the benefit of their new tires. Palou emerged in P6 with O’Ward in P8, and within a lap, O’Ward passed Jack Harvey to take P7.
By Lap 35, O’Ward was on the hunt and challenged Palou entering the Turn 5 hairpin. With a strong run exiting the corner, he drag raced the Ganassi driver to the next corner and took the position. Owing to the different fuel strategies at play, O’Ward was in maximum attack mode to build a lead on Palou.
O’Ward stretched the lead to five seconds or so before he was called into the pits on Lap 42. His progress was slowed on Lap 44 when Sebastien Bourdais ducked down the inside of Turn 5 to execute a pass and made side-to-side contact with O’Ward, which allowed Graham Rahal to sneak by as well. VeeKay was next to pass O’Ward as he slid down to P8 just past the halfway point of the 90-lap race.
Considering this was me in Lap 1, I wouldn’t have thought I’d end up 6th. Thanks @ecrindy for the great car, she feels good… @IndyCar pic.twitter.com/3udRcocJ8M
— Rinus VeeKay (@rinusveekay) April 18, 2021
Palou pitted from the lead on Lap 62 and had Dixon in tow; Ericsson was in the previous lap. O’Ward pitted on Lap 66 and watched as Palou flashed by on the front straight as he sat stationary as fuel flowed into the No. 5 Chevy. Once his tires were up to temperature, O’Ward faced a 9.9s deficit to Palou while holding fifth. Palou held 2.2s over Power on Lap 71 with Dixon 3.5s behind in third. With the top three running in formation, O’Ward took fourth off of Ericsson on Lap 75 as Palou maintained a 9.8s advantage over the AMSP driver.
The margins changed slightly among the top four in the remaining laps as Palou got stuck behind Conor Daly, but it wasn’t not enough to alter their positions. Bourdais took fifth from Ericsson, then VeeKay took sixth from the Swede, and from there, the race was settled.