It literally has been years since the NTT INDYCAR SERIES has seen a drive as dominant as the one Alex Palou delivered Sunday in the season-ending Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca.
2021 series champion Palou not only showed why Chip Ganassi Racing and McLaren Racing are in a legal fight for his services next season, but he put the entire field on notice for 2023.
If Palou performs as he did Sunday – he won by 30.3812 seconds – watch out.
“We struggled a bit in some races, especially the last couple of races,” said Palou, who even overcame a six-spot grid penalty for an unapproved engine change after qualifying Saturday and started 11th. “Today was awesome. An awesome job by the team; strategy was on point, and it’s good to finish a season with a win.”
The win was his first since last year’s penultimate race at Portland International Raceway, a span of 18 races. The 25-year-old Spaniard now has four career series wins.
Palou offered no insight as to where he drives next season -- it’s likely he doesn’t know – but this victory was sweet. He took the lead on Lap 16 and pulled away from there, leading 67 of the final 80 laps. Yes, Josef Newgarden had a fast car in the No. 2 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet, but he was no match for the No. 10 NTT DATA Chip Ganassi Racing Honda.
Entering the finale, the combined margin of victory for the season was 26.161 seconds. Palou smashed that in a single race.
The last similar series beatdown was by Alexander Rossi in the 2019 race at Road America. He won that race by 28.4391 seconds.
Newgarden’s Gallant Effort Falls Short
The mistake of the weekend happened in the first round of qualifying, but Newgarden did his best to make amends for it.
Newgarden and Team Penske used an excellent four-stop strategy and the benefit of having an additional set of new Firestone Firehawk tires to climb from 25th on the grid to finish second. But despite winning a series-leading five races in 2022, Newgarden finished 16 points short of capturing his third series title.
“I hate to say it, but in a lot of ways it’s been a really tough year,” he said. “So, in a lot of ways it’s going to be a welcome offseason. Mentally it’s been a taxing season. We’ve had a lot of highs, but we’ve had a lot of lows. To just ride the roller coaster this year has brought me to a breaking point at a couple points in the year.
“But ultimately, I’m proud of the team. This is a big day for everybody to win the championship. Huge congrats to Will and the entire team. This is an effort by everybody, whether it’s the 2 car or the 12 or the 3. We all take a lot of pride in it. All these crew members work on every single car.
“The ultimate goal is to win a championship for Team Penske, and we did that.”
Newgarden called hitting a deterrent at the top of the Corkscrew in qualifying, which led to a spin and a red flag that ended his session, “a heartache.”
“We came back, we fought, we nearly got there,” he said. “I’m proud of the effort.”
McLaughlin Does His Job
While the cameras and the attention were focused on Will Power on the last lap, his teammate was making an impact on the final standings.
After pushing Marcus Ericsson aside a few laps earlier, Scott McLaughlin dispatched of Romain Grosjean on Lap 95 to tie Palou for fourth in season points. McLaughlin received the position due to owning the tiebreaker – more wins, three to one.
McLaughlin was able to earn something for himself after doing what Team Penske needed him to do earlier in the race. His task was to mirror the pit strategy of championship contender Scott Dixon, which means each time Dixon came to pit road for service on the No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda, McLaughlin did the same with the No. 3 XPEL Team Penske Chevrolet.
Once the final pit stop was in the books and Dixon was effectively eliminated from title contention, McLaughlin was let loose to drive for himself. He and Ericsson waged a heated battle in the waning laps, with each bumping the other wide into the dirt in Turn 3.
McLaughlin finished the race in sixth place; Ericsson was ninth. Ericsson settled for sixth in the final standings, but his season was highlighted by a victory in the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge.
Lundgaard Wins Rookie Title
Christian Lundgaard quietly delivered one of his best performances Sunday – he finished fifth – to capture the season’s Rookie of the Year Award.
Lundgaard’s margin over David Malukas was 18 points as Malukas finished 13th in the race after losing significant track position in the second stint when he couldn’t make the used set of alternate tires last beyond 10 laps.
“I think actually this race today might have been one of the better races we’ve had all year,” Lundgaard said. “We weren’t really competitive all weekend; we were sort of there but not really there. We didn’t qualify well enough (16th). We were good on the (primary) tires, but as soon as we put on the (alternates), there was just no pace.”
Lundgaard’s performance in the No. 30 PeopleReady Honda of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing also allowed him to slide past former series champion Simon Pagenaud for 14th place in the standings. Malukas finished 16th in the No. 18 HMD Honda of Dale Coyne Racing with HMD.
“You only get one shot at the rookie championship, so getting it was a big achievement for me,” Lundgaard said.
Odds and Ends
- Power said his wife, Liz, predicted during the offseason that he would break Mario Andretti’s longstanding pole record and win the series championship. “It actually gave me confidence that I could do it,” he said. “That’s how much confidence I have in her gut feel.”
- Power scored his second series title eight years after his first. That is the third-longest span between crowns in series history. Mario Andretti won titles 15 years apart (1969 to 1984), Al Unser won in 1970 and then again in 1983. A.J. Foyt also won titles eight years apart (1967 to 1975).
- Power became the sixth driver to win multiple INDYCAR championships with Team Penske. The others: Rick Mears (three) and Tom Sneva, Al Unser, Gil de Ferran and Newgarden with two each.
- Proof of the competitiveness at the top of the order, the top six drivers all finished with more than 500 points. Last year, only two drivers did, although there was one fewer race.
- Today's race featured 361 on-track passes, with 286 for position, 26 in the top five and 81 in the top 10. All are WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca highs since INDYCAR started tracking these statistics starting with the 2019 race here.
- Power and Dixon completed all the laps during the season, with Dixon becoming the first to do that twice in his career.
- Rossi ended his seven-year stint with Andretti Autosport by finishing 10th in the No. 27 NAPA AUTO PARTS/AutoNation Honda, but he left with a part of the car signed by all his crew members.
- Andretti Autosport ended the season strong in Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, first with Sting Ray Robb winning his first series race Saturday and Christian Rasmussen capturing Sunday’s race. In the latter, Robb and Matthew Brabham finished second and third, respectively, to give Michael Andretti’s team a podium sweep of the season finale. Series champion Linus Lundqvist of HMD Motorsports with Dale Coyne Racing finished fourth.