Alex Palou was on an epic charge for most of the season before his championship-leading momentum was halted not once, but twice in a span of two races. His worst finishes of the year ensued with a blown motor in Indy and a crash that wasn’t of his making at World Wide Technology Raceway, which tilted the balance in favor of Pato O’Ward.
And so O’Ward, who wasn’t far behind Palou in the championship, pounced when his rival faced adversity and snatched the points lead from his hands. But in an IndyCar season where nothing’s safe or predictable, Palou reacted by doing the one thing we haven’t seen all year: Taking command of an event.
Palou’s done many impressive things since arriving in 2020, but a big and lingering question remained as to whether he had that fighter’s mentality to box his way out of the corner and win the match. Suddenly, on the back foot to O’Ward, the Spaniard answered with his first IndyCar pole at the precise time when it was needed. Next, it was keeping his cool and dealing with being sent to the back of the field after things got ugly entering Turn 1 on Lap 1. Then it was firing in some wickedly fast laps in the race to eke out an advantage before pitting that moved him ahead of his closest rivals, and performing a series of restarts that made it impossible for those in his wake to take the lead.
He capped the performance by withstanding intense pressure from Alexander Rossi — a man starving for a win — during those final laps and driving straight to victory lane as the season’s first three-time winner. The only thing keeping Palou from executing a perfect weekend was coming up short on getting two bonus points for leading the most laps, but with 52 points in his pocket, the championship lead was returned by O’Ward.
It took his Chip Ganassi Racing team’s decision to pit under that early caution and switch to a three-stop strategy and some friendly yellows to undo IndyCar’s grid re-ordering nonsense, so we can’t overlook the roles that both good and bad fortunes played in the race’s outcome. But when it mattered on Saturday and Sunday, Palou cast aside his risk-averse tendencies, rose to the challenge, and let it be known that he did indeed have the grit to deliver when it mattered.
Entering Portland, I wondered if Palou was going to plummet down the standings as O’Ward, Josef Newgarden, and Scott Dixon — the three game-bred animals in the championship hunt — went on the attack and motored by the too-nice-for-his-own-good sophomore. So much for that dumb idea.
And now it’s time for O’Ward, who had an unexpectedly poor qualifying performance and a strangely ineffective race, to state his case at Laguna Seca. He went into Portland with a 10-point lead over Palou and left with a 25-point deficit. Newgarden’s in the same situation after Team Penske fell apart in qualifying with all four of its cars, and yet, as we’ve come to expect, the two-time champion was able to charge from P18 to P5 by the finish and limit the damage. Shy of the lead by 22 points entering the race, it grew to 34 heading into Monterey.
If Palou showed us something we hadn’t seen prior to Portland, Dixon did the opposite, opening his well-worn playbook and sending yet another reminder of how much fire remains in his belly after passing his teammate on two occasions and taking third at the checkered flag. Even with the podium, his gap to the championship leader slightly expanded from 43 points to 49.
A maximum of 54 points are available this weekend, and again one week later at Long Beach where one of these four drivers will emerge as the newest IndyCar title winner.
With only two rounds to go, Dixon must win and hope trouble falls on those he’s chasing if a seventh championship is going to be earned. Newgarden isn’t quite as desperate, but he’s also far enough out from Palou to need wins — not seconds and thirds — if drama fails to intervene and ease his path to a third championship. And for O’Ward, it’s two more races of maximum attack and praying for his efforts to be rewarded. For Palou, a 25-point lead is by no means something to rest on; a punctured tire or inopportune caution could swing the lead back to O’Ward in an instant on Sunday.
The gift to fans is how these four cannot play it safe, cannot bank on cartoon anvils, and cannot afford to give up an inch of track position. You couldn’t script the final weeks of a season any better than it’s developed on its own.