By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
Defending NTT IndyCar Series champion Alex Palou came up short of starting the championship trail with a win. Instead of celebrating a win in Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, Palou crossed the line in second.
After a heavy shunt during Saturday’s practice, Palou had his work cut out for. Through perseverance and all-around teamwork, it became an overall positive weekend for the No. 10 Chip Ganassi Racing crew.
“It was a great weekend. We started struggling a lot. Obviously my little contact with the wall in practice 2 didn’t help at all,” said Palou. “But the crew did an amazing job once again like this did last year during the Indy 500 to put a car back together before qualifying, and a fast car, as well. So we had no issues.
“We went out and started in the top 10 today, and we were able to just attack and pass cars one by one with amazing pit stops. Yeah, we’ll try and keep it going. It was a great day. We know that not every day it’s going to be like today, but hopefully we’ll have also easier weekends.”
Rather than going on the attack early, Palou kept his afternoon on the low. It wouldn’t be until the second half of the race when he really stepped up his game.
In typical Palou fashion, long runs were his foray as he slowly cut the gap on Scott McLaughlin, who had the race in control. More so when different pit strategies either worked out like theirs or went by the wayside like Rinus VeeKay, who valiantly finished sixth.
When the race came down to the final 10 laps, not only Palou was under two seconds behind McLaughlin, but lapped traffic played a key role on the finish.
With an assistance from Palou’s teammate Jimmie Johnson, McLaughlin’s lead went down to under a second. Around that time, Palou’s strategist Barry Wanser advise his driver to not consume his push-to-pass (which was over 80 seconds) to save fuel.
The next set of lapped cars they had to deal with were Tatiana Calderon and Devlin DeFrancesco. Calderon wasted no time to let them by, but DeFrancesco fought hard to stay on the lead lap. Palou tried but wasn’t able to get by McLaughlin.
As they entered the final turn, Palou went high but was unsuccessful as McLaughlin, like Palou in last year’s season opener at Barber, scored his maiden INDYCAR win. The Kiwi became the third driver (Graham Rahal ’08 and James Hinchcliffe ’13) to get their first win in St. Pete.
“At the end I have to pass them,” Palou on lapped traffic. “But yeah, I didn’t really like that they were — especially the last three laps, that they didn’t let us pass. You never want a race to be dictated by the slow cars.”
Palou added it was frustrating, but not too much when he couldn’t catch McLaughlin in the closing laps. Along with Wanser’s advise on fuel consumption ringing true.
“I’m up there instead of him going. There was one time where he just pulled a gap of like three seconds and I was like, ‘Oh man, I’m pushing, and I didn’t have anything,'” said Palou. “But I was saving fuel, he was not at that moment, and at the end, yeah, I was trying, and I was able to stay there.
“But the places where he and the car was good, it was the places that avoided him to have any issues on overtaking spots. Yeah, a bit frustrating to be that close, but still, solid result.”
It’ll be another three weeks until Palou has a shot to bounce back from the shortcoming as the series heads to Texas Motor Speedway Sunday, March 20 (3:30 p.m. ET on NBC). In three Texas starts, Palou’s best finish was fourth in the first Texas race last year.