By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
Two days of practice for the Indianapolis 500 are in the books and one man has shown impressive strides where he might have become a dark horse contender for this year’s Greatest Spectacle in Racing. And that dark horse contender is rookie Alex Palou.
The Spaniard hasn’t let the Indianapolis Motor Speedway intimidate him as he’s been among the top-10 fastest in not just overall speed, but on average lap runs as well.
This was the case Thursday when Palou’s No. 55 Dale Coyne Racing with Team Goh Honda ran 119 laps with his fastest speed of 224.971 mph (taking place on his 111th lap) being good enough for fifth overall.
The story doesn’t end there, though, as Palou was third quickest on 15-lap average runs (218.799 mph), trailing only former Indy 500 champions Will Power and Scott Dixon, who happened to be the fastest overall driver at 226.102 mph Thursday.
Additionally, Palou’s 30-lap average speed of 217.982 mph was strong enough to be the best among the 33-car field.
An incredible start certainly brought boasts of confidence for Palou, who felt the six-plus hour session went really smooth after getting over the hump of running the 2.5-mile oval for the first time Wednesday.
While it was swell of a day, Palou admitted that work had to be done in order for his afternoon ending up positive.
“I think we went into a direction with the setup that I didn’t really like as much as yesterday,” said Palou. “Then in the afternoon we just came back, recover speed, work a lot on traffic.”
Once those adjustments were made, racing traffic became one of the highlights of Palou’s remarkable session, especially on the aforementioned long stints.
“I think the pace with traffic, it’s good. But I think especially the pace during long stints, it’s really, really strong,” Palou added.
With the 104th Indianapolis 500 next Sunday (August 23 at 1:00 p.m. EST on NBC), overtaking became a hot topic among the paddock because of rising concerns that it’ll be harder than ever before to improve their track position.
Therefore, how a driver qualifies this weekend is vital as Fast Friday (11:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. EST on NBC Sports Gold) will be an early indicator how a driver’s 200-lap odyssey will fare next Sunday.
Palou is looking forward to Friday’s session where his Honda will be boosted with an additional 80 horsepower and for the next three days, qualifying for a strong starting position is on his mind. Once that’s over with, he’ll shift his focus back to the race, knowing it won’t be an easy task to work his way towards the front should he start deep in the field.
“I think we saw that it’s not easy to overtake here this year,” said Palou. “It’s never easy, but especially this year at the moment feels like it’s going to be a lot of track position race, maybe some strategies if you can go longer on fuel. For sure if you can start up front, it’s always going to help, but especially this year. So we’ll try and do that.”
Only 33 cars accepted the challenge to compete at Indy this year, thus zero competitors will back their bags and head home.
When asked about his stress levels of running the 500 without worrying about the endangerment of missing the race, Palou said it’s a relief because he’ll able to go and attack more in qualifying, but there was a honest catch to his response.
“I would love to feel that fear of not making the show, having so many people having pressure. I think that’s what drives us. I think that’s what makes this thing so special,” said Palou. “Yeah, it’s just a shame that my first experience in Indy 500 is going to be like that, not the full experience.”
The 23-year-old Spaniard added that even if there’s no bumping, he’s going to give it 100% and if Thursday was an early indicator of what he’s capable of doing in the NTT IndyCar Series, where he’s already scored a podium at Road America Race No. 1, it’s only just the beginning.
“We’re going full. I think I’m in a situation where I need to get my future going. I want to stay in INDYCAR,” said Palou. “I didn’t have enough races to show everybody I want to stay here. We showed some sessions that we can be there, but I didn’t had enough races. We need to go.”
Now more than ever, Palou must deliver if he wants his racing career to really flourish. Confident he may be, but remains self-aware that outcomes like Thursday doesn’t fully reflect how his race will pan out where he hopes a top-10 run can be achievable.
“Today I think the results doesn’t really show where we are. I think they are too optimistic,” said Palou. “I know we are not top five. We’re not going to fight for the pole position. But we’re going to try to do our best. We have to try to be the first rookie. It would be awesome if we could be top 10, then try to get as much experience as we can on the race.