Alex Palou added his name to the ranks of NTT IndyCar Series champions while Colton Herta claimed an extraordinary race win in an eventful season-finale on the streets of Long Beach on Sunday.
Palou came into the weekend needing little more than to get through the race without any nasty surprises to secure the title, and his wish was mostly granted. The closest thing he had to a scare came right at the start, and not only did he escape unscathed, but the incident neutralized his biggest threat.
The field was launching into Turn 11 on the second lap when Ed Jones made a poorly-judged lunge on title contender Pato O’Ward, tagged the rear of the Arrow McLaren SP Chevy, and pitched it into a spin that dumped the Mexican all the way to the rear of the field. Palou, running immediately behind Jones at the time, smacked the Dale Coyne Racing car’s rear with his nose, but escaped unscathed.
O’Ward’s exit didn’t mean Palou could relax entirely — Josef Newgarden, who was the only other driver in mathematical contention for the crown, was running up front and could still spring a miracle if Palou’s afternoon went completely off the rails. But Palou did his bit by staying out of trouble, and got an assist in the second half of the race when Herta took Newgarden’s place in the lead. A straightforward run to fourth behind teammate Scott Dixon was more than enough to cement Palou’s place as IndyCar’s first Spanish champion.
“What a race,” he said after channeling former Ganassi great Alex Zanardi with some victory donuts. “What a year. What a season. This team is amazing. I don’t know what to say. Super happy. Thank you to everybody who made this possible. Amazing. I’m super-proud to be a champion. Now, we’ll keep it going.”
The moment @alexpalou will never forget.
— NTT INDYCAR SERIES (@IndyCar) September 26, 2021
O’Ward was initially able to continue on after the impact, but the full ramifications of the impact became clear 16 laps later when his car ground to a halt on the front straight with a broken driveshaft. Second in the championship had already been lost to Newgarden, but facing the threat of being relegated to fourth in the points by Scott Dixon, he rejoined the track again on lap 54 before parking the car for good 21 laps later.
“It’s not the first time (Jones) has hit us,” O’Ward said. “And not the first time he’s done something stupid this season. So I just wish he could use his head a little bit more; at least respect the guys that are fighting the championship. I don’t know what else to say. That corner is kind of just, respect the guy that’s in in front, and then maybe you get a run. I mean, I’m not telling him not to race me, but don’t be stupid about it.”
While the fight for the season’s main prize was playing out around the fringes, the fight for the race win was a different story. Herta came into the day looking to prove a point after dominating the early part of the weekend only to mess up qualifying and line up 14th, but it quickly became apparent that his faith in the pace of the No. 26 Andretti Autosport Honda was well-founded. He ran a different tire strategy to most of the other frontrunners, and made stellar use of the softer red tires in the early and middle phases of the race to carve through traffic and establish himself towards the front of the field. That left him needing to run the final stint on the harder compound while everyone around him was on the reds, however it seemed to make little difference. The gap to second-placed Newgarden was more than 11s before a caution closed everyone up for a restart on lap 66, and when the green flag waved, Herta was gone. Newgarden, running slightly more downforce, was able to keep the No. 26 in sight, and even got close enough around the fountain to flirt with the idea of possibly trying something, only to lose touch again as soon as the corner opened back out onto a straight.
“This feels amazing,” Herta said. “Great car, great team, and this has been on the bucket list for so long. So happy. What a way to cap off the year. We had a great car: reds or blacks (alternate or primary tire compounds), we seemed to have the pace. I can’t believe it. Just lost for words.”
After issues yesterday during qualifying, @ColtonHerta is showing how fast his car truly is.
— NTT INDYCAR SERIES (@IndyCar) September 26, 2021
Newgarden felt the cards could have fallen differently had the yellows not landed as they did.
“The yellow didn’t work for us,” he said. Colton did a great job so congrats to him, he was on the right tire and the right fuel. If there were no yellows I think we would have been OK, but that’s the way it goes; sometimes it doesn’t go your way. We fought hard, but just came up a little short this year. Couple of things go different, it could have been a different outcome for us. We just came up short. It’s incredibly disappointing. Just have to start over again next year.”
Romain Grosjean made an aggressive push for Rookie of the Year honors with a flamboyant run through the first two-thirds of the race, but his day came undone when he clipped the wall at Turn 8 and did just enough damage to put himself out of the race. Instead, the ROY prize landed in the arms of Penske’s Scott McLaughlin, who finished 11th.
Elsewhere, Sebastien Bourdais did well to climb back to eighth after being hit by another car and stalling at the start, while Jones recovered from his indiscretion and consequent drive-through to finish 12th.
In addition to the cautions for the Jones/O’Ward clash and the later retrieval of O’Ward’s damaged car, Marcus Ericsson prompted a yellow when he attempted to go side-by-side with Alexander Rossi at Turn 10 and ran out of road on the exit, burying the No. 8 Ganassi car in the tires. Much later, a scrap between Conor Daly and Oliver Askew ended with Daly in the runoff and Askew in the wall, triggering a caution that set up the final restart of the race.