By David Morgan, Associate Editor
NEWTON, Iowa – Sometimes the best offense is a good defense.
Heading into the weekend at Iowa Speedway, current NTT IndyCar Series points leader Alex Palou knew it was going to be one of his vulnerabilities in being able to win a second championship.
Though he carried a daunting 117-point lead over teammate Scott Dixon into the duel 250-lap races, ovals have not been his forte and lurking in the weeds was the master of the Iowa oval – Josef Newgarden.
Palou knew he would have to withstand anything Newgarden threw at him and hopefully come out the other side unscathed. For a while, it looked as if a significant chunk of his points lead would have evaporated by the time the checkered flag flew on Sunday’s HyVee One Step 250.
Newgarden did what Newgarden always does at Iowa and swept the weekend with back-to-back wins, while Palou finished seventh on Saturday and was trending toward another finish in the bottom half of the top-10 on Sunday.
But the driver of the No. 10 Honda was able to work his way into the top-five in the latter stages of the race, which would pay dividends when the yellow flag flew with 10 laps to go, leaving only five drivers on the lead lap.
Once the race restarted with just three circuits remaining, Palou took advantage of the situation, jumping Felix Rosenqvist and Scott McLaughlin to ascend to third-place, where he would finish the day.
While 37 points vanished from his points lead over the weekend, the Spaniard considers the result a win, having clawed back some of his lost points with that last gasp.
“I expected Josef to win because, as Will [Power] said, the last races that he finished on an oval, not including Indy 500 this year, yeah, but the past, he has won,” Palou said.
“So, we were counting on that, and it was up to us to try and minimize the damage. So, yeah, 100% didn’t expect to be on the podium today. Yeah, I’m happy to be here.”
Five races remain in the 2023 campaign, consisting of a street course, three road courses, and an oval, which Palou still considers his biggest weak point still out on the horizon. After all, Newgarden has been the master of the oval tracks recently and is the defending winner at Gateway.
“I hope that before getting to Gateway, it’s not as bad as Iowa in the past, but it’s not been great. I think I feel a bit more comfortable there, and also we have a bit more performance from the car,” Palou said of his oval program.
“But this guy, I count him on winning there, so I need to do the work in Nashville and Indy Road Course before getting there. If we cannot because it’s part of the sport in INDYCAR, and then we’ll have to figure out.
“I’m glad we have those points in the bag, but I’m not comfortable, honestly. I will be comfortable if we won the championship already. We know in INDYCAR with the big swing you can make in only one weekend just by winning and having a bad race, yeah, you can never give up.”
Newgarden also pointed to the oval race at Gateway as another key to taking the fight to Palou, but stressed that his team needs to get better across the board to really have a chance at taking him down.
“It’s a complex schedule on the way out. We’ve got to do street course, road course, oval, back to two road courses, and yeah, it is a question mark,” Newgarden said. “We definitely have to elevate our game on where we’ve been the first half of the year. There’s no doubt.
“I think that Alex and his crew, they’re in a really good spot. They’ve had what appears to be a pretty consistent program. We’ve got to elevate to their level and just execute.
“You just never know what’s going to happen. I think if we can be excellent on the back half of the schedule, then anything is possible.”