Could a driver who definitely lost the Indianapolis 500 actually be its biggest winner?
It’s a bold question.
The Race has charted Alex Palou’s meteoric rise in great detail from his under-the-radar excellence on his oval debut at Texas Motor Speedway last year through to taking a maiden IndyCar win on his Chip Ganassi Racing debut at Barber Motorsports Park in March.
He was outfoxed by wily veteran Helio Castroneves in the closing stages of an Indy 500 he could have won on Sunday, but there are plenty of signs that this was a massive win in other ways for Palou.
He crashed last year
Palou had never raced on an oval before 2020, and did a great job in a condensed, one-day schedule at Texas on his debut last year.
Entering the 500 he made the coveted ‘Fast Nine’ in qualifying before crashing out of the race after making a mistake.
However, his performance across the month of August (as it was last year) was what really impressed Chip Ganassi Racing and encouraged the famous team owner to sign him.
Palou made good on that by delivering the team’s best result this year at the 500, banishing any demons he had from his 2020 exit.
He needed it, as he had crashed in qualifying, and it was only the sterling efforts of his mechanics that got his car repaired and ready to compete in the ‘Fast Nine’ the next day. He bought the crew doughnuts to say thank you and promptly qualified sixth, one spot better than in 2020.
— IndyCar on NBC (@IndyCaronNBC) May 22, 2021
“I think the experience I got last year was that you cannot relax here,” said Palou when asked by The Race about Indy 2020.
“I did relax a little bit last year and I ended up in the wall. This year I was with high tension all the time. This place is amazing. That’s why it’s so special.”
Wait, he has how many points?!
The Indianapolis 500 – stupidly, as I’ve written before – awards double championship points, so a second place while his team-mate and closest rival in the standings Scott Dixon struggled to 17th means Palou now leads by 36 points.
Alright, there’s only six races in the books and still 10 to go, but Palou has been a top 10 runner all year apart from in St Petersburg, where he lost some places early and was on to finish 13th before a mechanical issue.
There’s also the fact that the double points race is out of the way so there are no comparable opportunities for his competitors to score a big chunk.
And his next closest rival is in his own team, where he can see exactly what he’s up to.
“I think when you start thinking about the championship, if you’re not executing on track, there’s no point,” adds Palou.
“If you are executing on track, it makes no point either.
“We just try to take it session by session as we’ve been doing. If we keep doing what we’ve been doing everywhere, I think we’ll be able to fight until the end for this championship.
“For sure it’s good to get a little bit of a [points] gap now after the 500.
“We’ve been able to get a lot of points in our, let’s say, weaker places like Texas and here. Super proud about that. Cannot wait to go to my area, let’s say. I’m more comfortable there.”
He needed to build this gap as the second half of the season features many returning races that weren’t on the calendar in his rookie year. However, Barber wasn’t, and he won there after all.
When he refers to places he’s comfortable at, there’s places like Road America where he scored a podium last year and Mid-Ohio where he qualified well.
He’s learned from the best
The last person to secure four Indianapolis 500 wins was Rick Mears back in 1991, well before 24-year-old Palou was even born.
The point being: we all witnessed something special with Castroneves’ win in 2021, and Palou got the best view of anyone.
Asked about whether it was a lack of experience that cost him the win, Palou said: “I need to ask him if he was going all out the last 15 laps or if he was waiting for the last four to overtake me.
“If he was waiting for the last four, then that was experience. If he was just going all out, he had better timing today.
“If he has 18 or 19 more starts than I do, he has a bit more experience.
“But I had a lot of fun. I was able to really get the experience and learn a lot from him.”
Sure, Palou was hurt by the loss, but do you think, put in that position again defending from Castroneves, that Palou would make it that easy?
— NTT INDYCAR SERIES (@IndyCar) May 30, 2021
Palou has had the benefit of dicing for well over 100 laps with the most successful driver of his generation at the Speedway. It’s that kind of experience you can’t buy and there’s no doubt Palou will have learned greatly from this.
Also just putting together 200 clean laps with no mistakes means he can add to the learning he started but couldn’t finish after last year’s crash.
His reputation will be boosted
Young rapid drivers come and go in IndyCar. But Palou is showing some real consistency and resilience, and his performance up against Castroneves is only going to improve how people look at him.
He has to prove he can win races and championships regularly if he’s going to become a great, but even just the boost he’ll receive from this 500 will help with things like increasing his fanbase and selling him to all-important US sponsors.
The most successful foreign imports into IndyCar do well at the 500 and drive key US-based sponsorship through that.
He’s forcing people to talk about him now, in a good way.
It’s also vindicated Ganassi’s faith in Palou, and other drivers will take note of his achievement here when racing and analysing him as a prospect in the future.
He’ll also be hoping that the level of interest in IndyCar from his native Spain improves as well, something he has felt is relatively lacking aside from the few loyal media members who have followed his journey throughout.