Alex Palou rides two-stop strategy to first win in dominant day for Ganassi at Barber

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Nathan Brown, Indianapolis Star
·7 min read
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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Chip Ganassi Racing has helped produced another first-time IndyCar series winner. Eight years after CGR driver-turned-driver coach Dario Franchitti stepped away from his legendary racing career, the team may have finally found his replacement.

Second-year driver Alex Palou prevailed in the Ganassi team's two-stop strategy during the 90-lap race at Barber Motorsports Park. The win came in his debut race with the team, which hired him after Felix Rosenqvist left for Arrow McLaren SP. The 24-year-old did it by holding off new teammate and fellow two-stopper Scott Dixon (3rd), and Will Power (2nd).

Pole-sitter Pato O'Ward, who went for a three-stop strategy, finished fourth and remains winless with two poles early in his IndyCar career. In just his fourth race with the team, Sebastien Bourdais put together his second consecutive top-5 for A.J. Foyt Racing in fifth. Rinus VeeKay, Graham Rahal, Marcus Ericsson, Alexander Rossi and Romain Grosjean rounded out the top-10.

Alex Palou landed his first IndyCar victory Sunday at Barber Motorsports Park, riding a two-stop strategy to edge out Will Power.
Alex Palou landed his first IndyCar victory Sunday at Barber Motorsports Park, riding a two-stop strategy to edge out Will Power.

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Palou joined Ganassi this offseason after first meeting the team's namesake following his Fast Nine appearance in August's Indianapolis 500, where he started seventh but ultimately crashed out in 28th. The speed, though, left a lasting impression.

“I just said, ‘This is Alex. Someday, I would like to drive for you,’” Palou told IndyStar in October. “I think it started there."

Two years ago, he was the young, little-known rookie in Japan's Super Formula series, a one-race winner who took third overall in 2019 before landing a seat with Dale Coyne Racing as a 22-year-old who instantly became the least-know driver in the series. He landed an early podium at Road America last year in Race 1, but only two more top-10s would follow. In October, he told IndyStar he was uncertain if he find a 2021 ride.

But when Rosenqvist bolted, the process went quickly.

“Chip has a great eye for talent, and Alex has that spark, that intangible, that when you combine it with talent, it’s a lot of fun, a great exploration, because you’re exploring how far you can go," CGR managing director Mike Hull told IndyStar last year.

Added Ganassi on Sunday: "One test, (Palou) was quicker than Dixon. Wow. We knew the potential was there, but you don't know relative to other teams where you are."

Alex Palou landed his first IndyCar victory Sunday at Barber Motorsports Park, riding a two-stop strategy to edge out Will Power.
Alex Palou landed his first IndyCar victory Sunday at Barber Motorsports Park, riding a two-stop strategy to edge out Will Power.

But right out the gates Saturday, three of CGR's four cars (minus CGR rookie Jimmie Johnson) were up near the top of the practice leaderboards, with Palou leading the field at the end of Practice 1. The team put three cars in the Fast Six, with Palou starting third. As O'Ward and Rossi moved to a three-stop run early-on, Palou began to gap the field -- up more than six seconds on second-place before his first stop.

"It blew my mind how fast Alex was that first time he pulled away," Power said. "I figured he was on a three-stop race.

"But we've had a pretty bad start to the year the last four years, so it's awesome to get a good start to the season. If we do this week-in-and-out, I promise you we'll have a great chance to win the championship."

Added Dixon: "What a start, a double-podium for us. Huge congrats to Alex. I feel so happy for him to get the start they deserve."

Palou pitted for the final time on Lap 61 and retook the lead on Lap 67, when O'Ward took his final of three stops. What was a 10.8-second lead on Power at the halfway mark had shrunk to 2.3 and got down to 1.1 seconds before the white flag. Power tried to use a sizable push-to-pass advantage in the closing laps, but couldn't quite get around.

"I knew it was possible. I knew we had the best team, the best car," Palou said. "The team kept telling me on the radio, 'Keep doing it like you're doing it,' and I said, 'I'll hit (the fuel mileage mark). I'll hit it. I'll hit it.'

"It was just one of those days where everything went well."

Josef Newgarden, the winningest IndyCar driver at Barber, started the Lap 1 chaos. Starting eighth, Newgarden drifted onto the grass, and when he corrected back onto the pavement near Turn 5, got too loose, sending him sideways right into the heart of the field. Ryan Hunter-Reay, who started 17th, nailed the Team Penske driver head-on, assuring both their days were finished, with the Andretti Autosport driver in 24th and Newgarden 23rd.

"I thought I had the car, but I touched the grass and it pitched me sideways," Newgarden said after exiting the car. "I feel bad for anyone that got invovled. It's a shame. I feel like I had a really good car. Just 'coulda, woulda', shoulda'. Just got to bounce back for the next one."

Josef Newgarden caused a Lap 1 crash during Sunday's IndyCar season-opener at Barber Motorsports Park, taking out both him and Ryan Hunter-Reay
Josef Newgarden caused a Lap 1 crash during Sunday's IndyCar season-opener at Barber Motorsports Park, taking out both him and Ryan Hunter-Reay

Colton Herta, who started just one position behind Newgarden, took damage to his front wing, and he lost nearly 40 laps while his and Hunter-Reay's crews made the necessary repairs to try and get him as many points as possible. He finished 22nd.

"Man, that just sucks," Herta said on pit lane while as his team began initial repairs to his No, 26 Honda. "I just was waiting for (Newgarden) to find a direction to spin. That sucks. I'm ready to get out of here and get going to St. Pete.

"It's such a competitive year. Guys are going to have bad races, but now it sucks for us cause we're on our back foot."

Carlin's Max Chilton clipped a spinning Newgarden, sending him sideways into Rosenqvist, who was forced to start near the back on Sunday due to a spin during qualifying yesterday.

Chilton and VeeKay, who also was caught up in the tail-end of the carnage, both went to the pits and ultimately didn't have to make any repairs and settled for new sets of tires, but were forced to return to the field in the back due to entering a closed pit lane. Rosenqvist fell more than 10 laps down while making repairs but returned to the field to take 21st.

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Moments after the race returned to green, Jimmie Johnson spun on Lap 9 in Turn 13, but kept his car out of the wall and away from any competitors and was able to return to the track. The seven-time NASCAR Cup champion finished 19th after starting the day 21st following a qualifying session where he finished faster than Dalton Kellett.

"I didn't expect that coming in," Johnson, the newest Chip Ganassi Racing driver, said on Saturday. "I'm just stacking pennies in these experiences. It really has exceeded expectations and the fun I thought I would have.

The contentment continued, following finishing 87 of the race's 90 laps.

"I'm very happy just to have finished," he said. "Just a lot of learning in that experience, but I'm thankful for the chance Chip gave me.

"And huge congrats to Alex. That kid is on it, and he clearly showed he can get it done today. Just an amazing guy, to be his age, with so much talent and wisdom."

Email IndyStar motor sports reporter Nathan Brown at nlbrown@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter: @By_NathanBrown.

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: IndyCar: Alex Palou holds off Will Power, Scott Dixon for first win