Pruett’s cooldown lap: Indy road course

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Pruett’s cooldown lap: Indy road course

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Pruett’s cooldown lap: Indy road course

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From beating on his teammates at Nashville to beating up the field at Indianapolis, we just witnessed a classic Will Power turnaround at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course. The Team Penske veteran went from being placed on a week-long timeout by The Captain to earning the redemption required to stay in Roger Penske’s good graces. And despite his long tenure in the series, Power’s spirited performance was reminiscent of the dominant drives that marked the earlier stages of his career.

Once he got clear of polesitter Pato O’Ward, Power fell into a familiar place, leading 56 of the 69 laps remaining; only Andretti Autosport’s please-don’t-lap-me entry driven by James Hinchcliffe slowed his march to victory lane.

What was the takeaway from the 40-year-old’s output at Indy? Never underestimate the fire that resides within the Australian. Despite all of the eccentricities that fill the man’s social media timelines, the same burning desire — more of a raging need to win — has not waned.

Yes, he’s always been prone to making a few too many gaffes, but his sheer intensity and skills are just as sharp and cutting today as they were in Champ Car and those early days as a Penske stand-in. A lack of consistency has been the bane of Power’s time in IndyCar; he improved from P11 to P9 in the standings with the road course win, but hopes of earning a second title set sail months ago.

Turning his first win of the season into a hot streak over the last four races would prime Power and the No. 12 Chevy for another run at the championship when the series reconvenes in 2022, and with his history, wins tend to come in clusters. It might not be back-to-back victories, but Power usually adds a second or third win once he has a breakthrough.

And if you’re points leader Alex Palou, cheering for Power to go on a race-winning rampage might not be the worst thing on the days where the No. 10 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda is unable to secure victories at Gateway, Portland, Laguna Seca, or Long Beach.

If you can’t stand the heat…

The second major takeaway from Indy was how close Alex Palou came to staking a greater claim on the championship. Prior to his Honda engine’s expiration, Palou was in a happy place as those holding the most valuable positions weren’t in the championship hunt. Capturing a third win on the season would have been great, but in the absence of glory, having Power, Romain Grosjean, and Colton Herta preventing Pato O’Ward — his main contender — from earning a big points haul was the next-best option.

With engine issues from the start of the race, Palou was forced to run a lean fuel mixture which robbed power and possibly contributed to the unintended mangling of internal components. Nonetheless, the Spaniard charged up to P6 by lap 36, directly behind O’Ward, and by lap 61, he took P4 from the Arrow McLaren SP driver and was on pace to extend his championship lead. He was carving into Grosjean’s gap when it all went sideways on lap 68.

Up from a 42-point lead over O’Ward to 50 prior to the kerblammo, Palou is left sitting on a tiny 21-point margin as World Wide Technology Raceway beckons. And is there a better driver in the field (not named Scott Dixon) to deal with that pressure?

Palou took a painful blow to his title aspirations in stride. IMS Photo

That’s the real takeaway here. O’Ward was on pole, drove off in the first stint, was reeled in by Power and others in the second, and with his main title protagonist in sight, Palou dialed up the aggression, tracked him down, got him, and then went after Grosjean for P3. And when it was all lost and he was left with P27 — worst finish of the year — Palou took it in stride.

Within CGR, Palou’s hailed as a 24-year-old with the same kind of poise and composure that Dixon has used to such devastating effect. Seeing a 42-point lead cut in half would send some drivers off the deep end, but not Palou.

As much as it might seem like the right time to tap into his inner spirit animal (the gorilla, for those who don’t know) and go wild at WWTR to recoup his points loss, look for Palou’s exceptional maturity to lead the way. He’s built to absorb pressure and deflect desperation. Even so, how will he respond to all-out attacks from O’Ward, Dixon, Josef Newgarden, and Marcus Ericsson as they try to wrest P1 from his hands? That’s the fascinating subplot that awaits us a few days from now under the lights at WWTR.

Respect

A quick note that after a few years of modest results and lowered expectations, Dale Coyne Racing deserves more respect for becoming a legitimate threat almost everywhere it goes with Romain Grosjean in the No. 51 Honda.

Romain Grosjean and his Dale Coyne Racing with RWR Honda were on great form again at Indy. Barry Cantrell/Motorsport Images

The partnership with Rick Ware Racing has flourished, and thanks to the natural talents of Grosjean and his race engineer Olivier Boisson, there’s every reason to expect the DCRwRWR entry to be near the front in qualifying and again at the end of races. Despite missing out on three ovals — with a combined 200-plus points on offer — Coyne, Ware, Grosjean, and Boisson have the No. 51 Honda holding P15 in the championship.

On its own, P15 is meaningless without context applied: A team with fewer dollars and overall resources than all but one or two of its rivals sits directly in front of two Andretti Autosport drivers and others from larger organizations who didn’t miss three races. Better still, Grosjean is only eight points out of overtaking Meyer Shank Racing’s Jack Harvey and Team Penske’s Scott McLaughlin in the standings. Andretti’s Alexander Rossi is farther up the road — 40 points — in P12, but it’s not an insurmountable deficit to overcome.

All while he’s learning every track, finding the right setups, and preparing to do his first oval race. If Grosjean and Boisson have done this within a tight budget, imagine how the year would have gone in a resource-rich environment. Depending on how negotiations pan out, there might not be a need to imagine in 2022.

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