Alex Palou finally got his hands on the prestigious Astor Challenge Cup again Sunday for winning his second NTT INDYCAR SERIES championship in three years. But he nearly received two No. 1 trophies on this gorgeous day at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca.
It isn’t a stretch to say that only an untimely yellow flag kept him out of victory lane. Palou led 52 of the race’s first 58 laps of the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey before being dealt one of his few bad cards of the season. The other: Being struck on pit road by Ed Carpenter Racing’s Rinus VeeKay midway into the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge.
Otherwise, it was a near-perfect day in what was the Spaniard’s near-perfect season. Palou finished 78 points ahead of Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Scott Dixon to give Chip Ganassi’s organization its 15th series championship.
“It’s been an amazing year,” Palou said. “Five wins, I don’t know, 10 podium (finishes) and today was going to be a really good (finish), as well.
“The yellows didn’t help us, but it was a fun race.”
The caution on Lap 58 forced Palou down to 15th in the order after he pitted. The driver of the No. 10 The American Legion Honda fought back to finish third, allowing him to complete one of the most consistent seasons in NTT INDYCAR SERIES history. Palou finished in the top eight of all 17 races, with the 10 top-three and 13 top-five finishes. He also won a pair of NTT P1 Awards as the top qualifier in events.
“Everybody at Chip Ganassi Racing did an awesome job giving us the car we needed and, yeah, super happy to get our second championship this year,” Palou said.
McLaughlin Makes Big Jump
Team Penske’s Scott McLaughlin started and finished Sunday’s race in the second position, but everything in between was mayhem.
There was contact, a drive-through penalty, more contact, even more contact and what he described as “a mega restart.” It added up to gaining two key positions in the final standings.
McLaughlin finished as the NTT INDYCAR SERIES’ highest-finishing Chevrolet driver, which also put him atop the Team Penske lineup despite competing against a pair of two-time series champions (Josef Newgarden and Will Power).
McLaughlin’s crazy-but-productive season-ending performance allowed him to jump from fifth to third in the standings, finishing only behind Palou and Dixon.
“There was stuff I could have avoided, couldn’t have avoided,” McLaughlin said of the wacky 95-lap race that ended with only Dixon ahead of him. “That was peak INDYCAR right there.
“You think your day’s done (with a penalty), you come back. But I had a mega restart with like the second-to-last restart – I passed like six or seven cars to get behind Dixon there.”
Consider this is only McLaughlin’s third full season in the series, and he finished ahead of veteran teammates who have combined to win 70 races and four championships in this ultra-competitive series.
“It’s just nice to be, I guess, best of the rest there (behind the Ganassi drivers), and we’ll keep working with Team Chevy and Team Penske,” he said. “To be the best (from those organizations), I’m really proud of that.”
McLaughlin had only missed out on his fifth career NTT P1 Award by .0097 of a second – Arrow McLaren’s Felix Rosenqvist edged him – and he was in trouble just two corners into the race as Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Christian Lundgaard hit the curb and then his No. 3 XPEL Team Penske Chevrolet. McLaughlin found himself driving through the Turn 2 gravel, returning to the track in 19th place.
In what was easily the most action-packed race of the season, McLaughlin was involved in his share of excitement, the most dramatic being contact that sent Santino Ferrucci on a wild ride through the dirt on the front straightaway. If it wasn’t one thing in the race, it was another. How McLaughlin avoided disaster after rookie Benjamin Pedersen slowed in front of him – they had solid contact – is mindboggling.
“Yeah, super proud,” McLaughlin said. “Third in the championship – that’s an absolute bonus.”
Penske Trouble Everywhere
Behind the Lundgaard-McLaughlin tangle on the opening lap was a mess that collected, among others, Rahal Letterman Lanigan drivers Graham Rahal and rookie Juri Vips, and Newgarden. In front of them, Dixon bounced off VeeKay, which was trouble of its own and led to Dixon being penalized for avoidable contact (Lundgaard also was penalized).
So, after only a few seconds into the race, McLaughlin and Newgarden were disadvantaged, and Power soon would be. He and McLaughlin were penalized for pitting after series officials had established the order for the restart.
While Newgarden’s No. 2 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet suffered too much damage to be a factor in the race – he finished 21st of 27 drivers – Power, like McLaughlin, kept digging. By race’s end, last year’s series champion surprisingly was in the fourth position.
“(These are) the days when you just hang in there,” the driver of the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet said. “You get a drive-through penalty, get put to the back. Yeah, just one of those days, I think.”
Power said he wasn’t surprised that this race went in such a wayward manner, with drivers off track, stuck in the gravel, damaged by contact, others penalized for initiating it.
“In the few days leading up to (the race) we kind of thought that this would be the case because it was just very easy to make a mistake and go off (track),” he said. “It’s sort of an inviting track to drive up the inside (on another car).
“(I’m) pretty happy to get back to fourth. Tough year, but that’s how it goes.”
Power finished seventh in the standings.
Odds and Ends
- Callum Ilott (No. 77 Juncos Hollinger Chevrolet) ended his second full NTT INDYCAR SERIES season as it started – with a fifth-place finish. Teammate Agustin Canapino (No. 78 Juncos Hollinger Chevrolet) also had his best day in the series, getting all the way to second place before fading in the closing laps due to a broken right front wing. He finished 14th.
- The race didn’t go as planned for Rosenqvist. His last race in the No. 6 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet went south after contact from fellow Swede Marcus Ericsson in Turn 2. Two corners later, Rosenqvist slid into the gravel with a tire that was flat.
- Ericsson was making his final start with his current team, too. Ericsson is stepping out of Chip Ganassi Racing’s No. 8 Huski Ice Spritz Honda to join Andretti Autosport. Rosenqvist is leaving for Meyer Shank Racing. Ericsson finished 15th, Rosenqvist 19th.
- Somehow, Helio Castroneves’ final series race as a full-time driver ended in the 13th position despite two complete spins in Turn 4 in MSR’s No. 06 AutoNation/SiriusXM Honda.
- Sting Ray Robb ended his rookie season with his best series finish, a 12th in the No. 51 biohaven Honda of Dale Coyne Racing with RWR.
- Romain Grosjean’s final race with Andretti Autosport’s No. 28 DHL Honda ended in 11th, but he drove to the front, passing Pato O’Ward (No. 5 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet) for the lead on Lap 74.
- Ferrucci had the save of the year after contact from McLaughlin. How he kept the No. 14 AJ FOYT/SEXTON PROPERTIES Chevrolet off the front straightaway wall despite a wild ride through the gravel was proof of his fast hands.
- Marcus Armstrong (No. 11 Ridgeline Lubricants Honda) gave Chip Ganassi Racing a record-breaking season with the top two point gainers (Palou and Dixon) and the Rookie of the Year. Armstrong finished 34 points ahead of Canapino in the rookie battle despite not participating in the season’s five oval races.
- Ryan Hunter-Reay’s 10th-place finish was the second top-10 result for Ed Carpenter Racing’s No. 20 BITNILE.COM Chevrolet this season. Conor Daly finished eighth in the “500.”
- The race featured the following INDYCAR SERIES passing records for this track: Most on-track (432), most in the top 10 (101) and most in the top five (36).
- Christian Rasmussen capped his INDY NXT by Firestone championship season by leading all 35 laps and winning Sunday’s finale at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca. The driver of HMD Motorsports with DCR won by 17.8813 seconds, with series runner-up Hunter McElrea of Andretti Autosport second.