Fifth Gear: BITNILE.COM Grand Prix of Portland

  • Racing News
Chip Ganassi Racing No. 10 crew

Alex Palou went all Babe Ruth on Sunday at Portland International Raceway. You know, he called his shot and won the NTT INDYCAR SERIES race that he had predicted.

Actually, Palou said it was team owner Chip Ganassi that emphatically set the goal for Sunday’s BITNILE.COM Grand Prix of Portland. Palou just executed it.

“Honestly, I knew we had a really, really fast car, especially after (Saturday’s final practice),” the 26-year-old Spaniard said. “I felt really, really good.

“Then Chip, before the race, we did a meeting, and he was very aggressive on telling us that we had to win. So, I was like, all right, let’s win then.”

Then Ganassi appeared to backtrack, which didn’t set well with Palou.

“Before jumping into the car, he was with me and said, ‘All right, let’s have a good and a clean race (and) just manage your position.’ I was like, ‘No, Chip, you told us to win, so I’ll go ahead and I think we can win it.’”

Said Ganassi: “I told him, ‘Hey, let’s go wrap this up with a win,’ and he said, ‘OK, great.’ He called his shot.”

Historically, the starts of races on this 12-turn, 1.964-mile permanent oval is one of the trickiest of the season given the tight right-handed first turn that often swallows competitors. It made a mess of the first lap of Sunday’s INDY NXT by Firestone Grand Prix of Portland, collecting seven cars. Two years ago, Palou and Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Scott Dixon relinquished their front-row starting positions when they were forced into the run-off in that corner.

Palou was determined not to have calamity happen to him Sunday, and whether by design or the way the field approached the corner, it was perfect for him. Starting fifth, Palou seemed to create a gap behind Colton Herta, then he watched as Herta got bogged down in Turn 2 behind second-place-starting Scott McLaughlin in the left lane. Palou shot the gap, passed Dixon (his only title challenger) and came out of the corner in the third position.

That was part of the masterful afternoon that saw him score his series-leading fifth win of the season and the ninth of his career.

“It was honestly one of those races where I knew we had everything we needed to win the race, that we had something else that could separate us from our competitors,” Palou said. “It was true, and we were able to maximize it.”

Palou will take a 91-point lead over Dixon into this weekend’s Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca. His second series championship in three years is secure.

And if all of this wasn’t enough good news for Palou, he announced after the race he and his wife, Esther, are soon to welcome the birth of their first child.

Check Out These Facts

The numbers at Chip Ganassi Racing are certainly piling up.

This championship is the 10th for the Indianapolis-based organization since the sport unified in 2008. That’s 10 titles in 16 seasons, and Ganassi has 15 series championships since ’96. Both are the most for a team owner by a lot, and this title is the team’s third in four years.

With Dixon assured of finishing second in the standings, CGR will have drivers finishing 1-2 for the first time since 2009 when Dario Franchitti edged Dixon by 11 points. Palou is the fourth driver to win multiple titles as a Ganassi driver. The others: Alex Zanardi (two), Franchitti (three) and Dixon (six).

According to CGR research, Palou will become the 22nd driver in the 100-plus-year history of the sport to have won multiple season championships, but he is just the fifth to accomplish the feat before turning 27. The others: Louis Meyer, A.J. Foyt, Sam Hornish Jr. and Sebastien Bourdais.

The 2009 season is the last time a Ganassi driver won five races in a season -- both Franchitti and Dixon did it that year. Palou will try to win a sixth race of the year this weekend at Laguna Seca, where he won the 2022 race by more than 30 seconds.

Piling on the Points

Sixteen races into this 17-race season, Palou has more points than in his 2021 series championship year, which had 16 races. He scored 549 points that year; he has 618 this year.

With another race to go, the driver of the No. 10 The American Legion Honda is within striking distance of having the most points since Dixon had 678 in 2018 and remember that there were two races that year that paid double the usual number of points -- there are no such races this year, although he earned nine points for winning the NTT P1 Award as the fastest qualifier for the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge.

Proof of how strong Dixon’s season has been in the No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda – he has 15 top-seven results – he only has 22 fewer points than Palou’s first title year.

The Rookie Race

This one got interesting late in Sunday’s race.

Marcus Armstrong appeared to have the Rookie of the Year Award well in hand until he didn’t. Pitting from the fifth position on Lap 80 (of 110), Armstrong stumbled out of pit box as the crew had failed to secure his right rear wheel. He quickly stopped the car and required a push back.

That mistake opened the door for Agustin Canapino, who entered the race 20 points behind Armstrong. But almost as soon as Armstrong’s No. 11 Ridgeline Lubricants Honda left pit road with four connected wheels, Canapino’s No. 78 Juncos Hollinger Chevrolet went spinning off course.

When the dust literally settled, Armstrong had the 19th finishing position, with Canapino out of the race in 26th place. Instead of a possible showdown at Laguna Seca, Armstrong has a nearly insurmountable 36-point lead.

Canapino is all but assured of finishing second among the rookies.

What Happened to Rahal?

Graham Rahal was riding high Saturday after winning his second NTT P1 Award in three events, and he felt his race car was even stronger than it had been in qualifying. But things didn’t play out well.

The driver of the No. 15 PeopleReady Honda finished 12th, one position behind Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing teammate Christian Lundgaard in the No. 45 Hy-Vee Honda.

“I was at the wrong place at the wrong time a lot,” Rahal said of his race. “Every time we came out of the pits, we were in a gaggle of (lapped) cars … that cost us a lot of time. The Canapino (spin) cost me four or five seconds on an in lap, which cost me three spots.

“On the last stop, we had a little fueling issue and that cost us. We should have been well ahead of (Scott) McLaughlin and instead we were four cars behind by the time everything had cleared.”

Rahal’s said his car was loose on alternate tires in the first stint, which got him off to a slow start, although he did lead the first 21 laps and turned his fastest lap of the race on Lap 10.

“Shoulda, coulda, woulda,” he said. “We could go on about this all day.”

McLaughlin, who had started on the front row with Rahal and battled him through most of the race, finished ninth in the No. 3 Freightliner Team Penske Chevrolet.