By David Morgan, Associate Editor
LONG BEACH, Calif. – When Alex Palou climbed behind the wheel of the No. 10 Honda for the first time during an offseason test at Barber Motorsports Park and bested his more experienced teammates, Chip Ganassi Racing’s newest hire caught the eye of his team owner.
With speed right out of the gate, the team knew they had something special in the 24-year-old Spaniard, but didn’t know just how special of a season they were in for.
“It’s pretty interesting,” Ganassi said of that first test. “All four cars were there. He ended up quickest. We were like, geeze. But we were trying a lot of things. You never really know at a test on a particular day, time of the day, tires, whatever. You always find some rationalization for why a guy was fast or wasn’t fast.
“We kind of just took it with a grain the salt I would think. Then of course we show up for the race, he was fastest in practice. We said, Okay, great, that’s nice, but we have qualifying, a race, plenty of talent around the paddock. Then he was, of course, fastest in qualifying, then won the race.
“He had Will Power and Dixon breathing down his neck the whole day. He showed there that he could stand the pressure. He could win.”
Even with the early season speed, never did Ganassi expect that Palou would wind up hoisting the NTT IndyCar Series championship trophy at season’s end, but Sunday, he did just that, delivering a title in just his second year in the series after a fourth-place finish in the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach.
“You’re seeing a young man that’s going to set a lot of records in this business, and he’s already starting,” Ganassi added. “What a great year we’ve had. I’ve got to be honest with you: It has surprised us when he came in the door and the job he’s done. My hat’s off.”
Prior to coming to Ganassi, Palou had just one season of IndyCar experience under his belt in 2020 with Dale Coyne Racing, scoring just one podium finish during that first year.
Palou noted that him even getting a shot at driving for Ganassi is something he is thankful for. Especially now that he has been able to bring home the ultimate prize.
“I think what for me is impressive is that they saw something,” Palou said. “I don’t know what they saw. They trusted me. They gave me the opportunity to drive a championship-winning car. They gave me the opportunity to fight for this championship. That’s what impresses me.
“Now obviously everybody is super happy. But he saw something. Not only him, but all the crew. They had to do a big investment. They just got somebody that scored a podium, that’s it. I didn’t win any race. I didn’t score any pole. I didn’t do crazy stuff. I was just driving and doing my best.”
After parlaying the speed from the Barber test into a dominating weekend in Alabama, Palou never fell lower than third in points as the 2021 campaign progressed. Though there were some speed bumps along the way, the 24-year-old never relented and stayed in the fight until the very end.
Even a two race stretch with finishes of 20th or worse at the Indianapolis Grand Prix and Gateway failed to derail Palou from his intended path. The following week in Portland, he was back in Victory Lane for the third time to reclaim the points lead, making a statement that the championship would have to go through him and the No. 10 team.
By the time the season reached the championship finale in Long Beach, the math was simple for Palou – a finish of 12th or better and the title was his.
In Sunday’s race, he did exactly what he had to do, staying out of major trouble en route to his championship clinching top-five on the 11-turn, 1.968-mile street course, which was not an easy feat starting five rows back when the green flag flew.
Palou managed to escape a crash on the first lap that sidelined his championship rival, Pato O’Ward, without damage and from that point on it was a leisurely Sunday drive with the Astor Challenge Cup awaiting him at the finish line.
“What a season,” Palou said. “I cannot really believe it. I’m super happy. We worked so, so hard. Getting into the season finale, this place, didn’t know the track, but the guys gave me a really good car. They gave me good strategies.
“Just amazing, super happy. I think all the season we were super consistent. Feels amazing to be a champion. I want to do it again now.”