By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
In a feat that hasn’t been done since the 2008 merger, Alex Palou locked up the INDYCAR championship with a round remaining last Sunday at Portland.
With just four seasons under his belt, Palou has two championships in his young career with only an Indianapolis 500 victory alluding him. While he’ll have to wait until next May to see if his fifth 500 attempt is the one he wins big, all eyes are on his incredible title campaign as his win in Portland marked his fifth win of the season.
For Chip Ganassi Racing, Palou’s second title marked the team’s 15th American Open Wheel Racing championship, with four of those coming in the last six seasons.
Palou also joined an elite company of racers who’ve won multiple titles for Ganassi. Those men being Scott Dixon with six, Dario Franchitti with three, and Alex Zanardi winning both of his CART titles for Ganassi.
“It’s been an amazing season,” said Palou. “We just had fast cars everywhere, and we’ve been able to maximize our results even on the bad weekends, and to finish here at Portland with a win feels amazing.
“We have one race left that we won there last year, so feeling pretty confident. And obviously, clinching the championship makes you feel a little bit more relaxed obviously.”
Not bad company for the Spaniard who is leading several categories in 2023: Wins (5), poles (2), podiums (9), top-fives (12), top-10s (16) and laps completed (2161).
The last two being noteworthy as Palou’s worst result all season is eighth on two occasions and has completed all but two laps this entire championship trail.
Certainly, Palou’s second championship will be remembered for a long time as being a dominant campaign.
“The guys screwing the car together know what they’re doing,” said Ganassi. “The guys engineering the car to make it fast know what they’re doing. And the guys calling the strategy know what they’re doing.
“When you pair that with a driver that knows what he is doing, it’s a formidable combination that’s tough to beat. Even our own team, it’s tough to beat even within our own team. We have great guys on the team, and it’s tough for them to do.”
While many people like to gossip about the contract drama Palou has had for half of his INDYCAR career. Whether it’s the drama of leaving Ganassi after 2022 or speculations of Formula One being on his radar, Palou remained laser focus on the race weekends at hand.
One step at a time, Palou and his No. 10 team have proven they’re tough to beat in a sport where parity is common ground. Now with the title locked up, Palou can relax a little bit as his intention is staying in INDYCAR where he hopes to continue re-writing the record books.
At 26 years old and with a newborn on the way, the door for Formula One is closing and it’s fine by him. When it’s all set and done, the decision to race in INDYCAR was Palou himself.
“I said it many times that (INDYCAR) was not my fully focus. Then when an opportunity came, I had to go for it, I felt,” said Palou. “At the same time I know I’m not 21 or 19. I’m already 26, which is good. I’m not saying I’m old, but I mean, it’s not that I’m super young.
“Next year I’ll be 27. If an opportunity comes in the future, which is like really, really small chances, I’ll think about it for sure, 100%. But I’m happy honestly. As long as I keep on winning championships and races or battling for championships I think I’ll have a great career.”
With now 15 championships, where does 2023 end up for Chip?
At the end of the day, it’ll be a 1-2 points finish for CGR as Dixon locked up runner-up in points after finishing third in Portland. Safe to say, this campaign will rank up there as one of Ganassi’s finest INDYCAR seasons as an owner. But it’s always been the standard he hopes from his racers, win and win often.
“That was the standard set a long time ago, whether it was with Zanardi and (Jimmy) Vasser or Dario and Dixon. That’s kind of the standard around here, so we’re always trying to beat our own records,” said Ganassi.
“I guess this is pretty high up there since we won two before the last race, so I have to say it’s right up there.”
Ganassi also made it clear that while he’s had seasons where his drivers were fighting for titles, there’s never been a true number-one and a number-two driver. It’s not run like a Formula One team despite right now witnessing Palou on the rise and Dixon still on top of his game.
No matter who the driver is or how they perform, Ganassi sees each of his racers as number-one. As long as they don’t run into each other, there’s no restrictions in how they race on the track.
“It’s not hard at all to manage professional drivers. They know what they’re doing, and we don’t have any No. 1 driver in our team. We have all No. 1s, and we’ve always said that,” said Ganassi.
“We’ve always run the team that way. We don’t tell who gets in front of who or when or what. They just race each other. Obviously the only rule is don’t hit each other, but we let them race on this team, and they know that.”
Managing director Mike Hull is also no stranger in winning championships. He and Dixon have proved it together, but he’s also had his hands on the overall growth of the INDYCAR program since joining CGR in 1992.
With Palou and his team director Barry Wanser working so well, Hull is very proud of the No. 10 team bringing CGR another championship. But also with the entire organization in contributing to their success all season long.
“It’s fantastic, but that’s an understatement. Working for Chip for as long as I have and to do what we’ve done 15 times. If anybody would have said that at the start, I would have probably quit on the spot,” said Hull.
“Proud to work for Chip. Proud to represent a lot of people. I talked to Barry by phone when I went back to the truck a few minutes ago and told him that we were going to dust the entire team for fingerprints because his are all over what we do with.”
Not only that, Hull noted how in all 16 rounds completed, three out of the four cars have finished in the top-10 each time.
“That’s how you win a championship,” Hull commented. “You work together to win, and that’s what we do. Really proud of the effort of everybody doing that.”
Wanser wasn’t present at Portland as he underwent surgery after being diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma. The No. 10 team made sure Wanser was there in spirit and wouldn’t let his work go unnoticed.
“(Barry) is managing the whole team across the four cars and even other series, but he’s the director, and he calls pretty much everything on the 10 car,” said Palou. “He’s a very big piece on our stand, but unfortunately, he couldn’t be here. Everybody is really sad that he’s not here, but I think he’s even more sad.
“He’s recovering well. We know that. He’s a strong guy, and hopefully he’ll be back with us very soon.”
Another unsung hero in Palou’s championship is crew chief Ricky Davis, who was hired by Hull in 1994. Sunday marked his fifth championship, two of those being with Palou.
“He’s done some fantastic things for us,” said Hull. “At his advanced age, like mine, it’s really good still to be working in this business, and what a great contributor.”
All that’s left is Laguna Seca this Sunday as Palou hopes to cap off 2023 with a sixth win and repeat his dominance from a year ago where he won by over 30 seconds.