LONG BEACH, Calif. — In just his second full-time season in the NTT IndyCar Series, Alex Palou has won his first series championship.
In finishing fourth behind race winner Colton Herta at the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach, Palou secured enough points to clinch the title. Not only is it his first championship, but it is also the second title in a row for Chip Ganassi Racing.
“Oh my God, what a race and what a year,” Palou said. “I’m so proud to be a part of Chip Ganassi Racing. I’m super proud to be a champion and to win for these guys.”
“You’re seeing a young man that is just going to set a lot of records in this business,” said car owner Chip Ganassi of Palou.
Colton Herta won the race after starting 14th thanks to some bad luck in qualifying. It is his second consecutive win after taking the checkered flag at Laguna Seca just a week ago.
“It feels amazing to get the win,” Herta said. “It took a lot of work. We had a great car and we seemed to have the pace. Didn’t know if we’d be able to do to from as far back as we were, but I’m so happy.”
The championship fight was between Palou, Pato O’Ward, and Jose Newgarden coming into the day. Newgarden started on pole, which gave him an extra bonus point and some help with his remote mathematical chance of clinching the title. O’Ward also had some qualifying misfortune and started eighth.
On the opening lap, O’Ward was bumped from behind by Ed Jones, causing him to spin and damage his drive-shaft. The part would eventually give out about 18 laps later and force O’Ward to pit for repairs, dashing his chances of winning the championship.
“It’s a bummer man,” O’Ward said. “But, I’m super proud of what were able to do this season.
O’Ward would head back out at around Lap 52 to try and salvage a third-place finish in points.
With O’Ward’s misfortune, all Palou had to do was not finish 24th or worse. While Herta and Newgarden battled for the race win upfront, Palou sat comfortably behind his teammate, Scott Dixon, in fourth the entire second half of the race.
As for the battle for the win, Herta inherited the lead early on after Newgarden led the opening laps, but had to switch to the slower black tires on his second stint. This allowed Herta to take the lead and pull away to a massive advantage before switching to the black tires himself on the next pitstop.
A late caution involving Conor Daly and Oliver Askew bunched the field back up, threatening Herta’s advantage, but the pace in his Andretti Autosport car was unmatched, even on the blacks and in spite of a late charge by Newgarden.
“Colton took advantage of that late caution,” said Newgarden, who finished second both in the pointed and in the race. “He had a good strategy with the tires. If there were no cautions we probably would have had a better result. But, I think we fought hard, but we just came up a little short this year. We fought all year long.
Palou won three races this season at Barber, Road America, and Portland and overcame a tough stretch in which he lost the championship lead late in the season with bad finishes at Indianapolis in July and Gateway the weekend after.
But he followed that up with his win at Portland, a second-place finish at Laguna Seca, and then a fourth-place result at Long Beach.
“The team got me here,” said Palou. “The dream is complete now. Let’s get another one now. We just kept things smooth all season and we kept believing. Even before Barber we know we could fight for it.”
Palou is the first Spaniard to take the Castor Challenge Cup. It is also Chip Ganassi Racing’s 14th championship since the team began competition in 1990.
Team Penske driver Scott McLaughlin was the highest-scoring rookie in the points this year, making him the recipient of Rookie of the Year honors over Romain Grosjean, who had to retire early from the race with a bent tow-link after slapping the wall.
The race at Long Beach Grand Prix marked the end of the 2021 NTT IndyCar Series season, which was able to get all but one of its races completed. Only the Honda Indy Toronto race could not be run because of COVID restrictions in Canada.
The 2022 season will kick off in March at St. Petersburg.
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