Instant Recall: Thermal

  • Racing News
Alex Palou

Note: This new series looks back at major moments and overlooked nuggets from each NTT INDYCAR SERIES event weekend.

Did Alex Palou deliver a wakeup call for challengers to the NTT INDYCAR SERIES championship he is defending this season?

Palou was masterful in The Thermal Club $1 Million Challenge, never headed in qualifying, his heat race or the 20-lap main event where big money was at stake.

You want to catch him? Good luck.

Palou’s performance in the special event near Palm Springs, California, didn’t earn him any points toward claiming a third Astor Challenge Cup in four years, but it set the tone. To that end, it is one of the items to examine in this week’s edition of Instant Recall.

Palou Off to Even Better Start

Palou didn’t just take home the winner’s share of $500,000 by showing pace throughout the weekend and managing his tires in the feature. He started the West Coast weekend by posting the fastest lap in both Open Test sessions Friday, then had the fastest lap among the 27 qualifiers Saturday. Palou’s lap around the 17-turn, 3.067-mile circuit in qualifying was nearly two-tenths of second clear of his nearest challenger.

In the second of the two heat races, Palou was first to Turn 1 and was never threatened, and the same was true in the main event. If this is how Chip Ganassi Racing’s Spaniard will perform in the races to come, including the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach on Sunday, April 21, look out.

Last year, Palou delivered a season for the ages by posting an average finish of 3.7. But here’s something to chew on: He’s off to an even better start this year. A year ago, he finished eighth in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg presented by RP Funding. This time he was sixth in the No. 10 DHL Chip Ganassi Racing Honda.

It’s too early to size up the championship battle, but it wouldn’t be out of the question to say Palou and Josef Newgarden (No. 2 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet) are the favorites.

Newgarden won in St. Petersburg and has captured eight of the past 11 oval-track races over the past three seasons. Seven of the 16 remaining points-paying events this season are on ovals. But Palou is Palou, and he is the series champion until proven otherwise. The precision he displayed in the Southern California desert is something to respect.

Prepping for More Road Racing

It was enjoyable to see race cars in action over the past three days, even if there were no championship points on the line. But don’t discount the significance of this special event as it relates to the six remaining permanent road courses on the schedule.

Teams throughout the paddock spoke of the relevance of The Thermal Club’s flat and flowing circuit as it compares to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, which will host the Sonsio Grand Prix on Saturday, May 11, and Portland International Raceway and its Grand Prix of Portland on Sunday, Aug. 25. Simply put, the nine hours of testing should provide carryover to those and other venues.

If that’s the case, Team Penske’s Scott McLaughlin (No. 3 XPEL Team Penske Chevrolet) and Meyer Shank Racing’s Felix Rosenqvist (No. 60 AutoNation/SiriusXM Honda) should benefit. Both were strong in Sunday’s action, finishing second and third, respectively, in the feature, with Rosenqvist winning his heat.

McLaughlin has won four races over the past two seasons and fancies himself as a title contender after finishing third in the standings last year as Team Penske’s top scorer. So far this year, Rosenqvist, who joined MSR for this season after three seasons with Arrow McLaren, and his team would earn a “most improved” tag if one were offered.

CGR Shows Well with Armstrong, Lundqvist

The teams supporting Palou, McLaughlin and Rosenqvist aren’t the only ones that should be optimistic. There were several other promising drives Sunday.

Chip Ganassi Racing had a nice showing, with Marcus Armstrong (No. 11 Ridgeline Lubricants Chip Ganassi Racing Honda) and rookie Linus Lundqvist (No. 8 American Legion Chip Ganassi Racing Honda) joining Palou in the top six. Lundqvist was the top-performing series newcomer.

Rinus VeeKay (No. 21 Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet) and Agustin Canapino (No. 78 Juncos Hollinger Chevrolet) also advanced to the 12-driver main event, as did all three of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s drivers – Christian Lundgaard (No. 45 HyVee Honda), Graham Rahal (No. 15 Fifth Third Bank Honda) and Pietro Fittipaldi (No. 30 Oakberry PneuStore Honda).

Only one Arrow McLaren driver reached the main event – Alexander Rossi finished seventh in the No. 7 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet. But Pato O’Ward (No. 5 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet) and stand-in Callum Ilott (No. 6 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet) were just as quick in the heat race, and they had a compelling battle. Ilott turned the fastest lap of one of the Saturday sessions.

David Malukas (injured wrist) is expected to return to the No. 6 car at Long Beach.

Struggles for Some

Of course, Sunday’s action didn’t end well for every team, and Ed Carpenter Racing is one surely happy there’s time to prepare for Long Beach.

VeeKay’s car suffered heavy damage when it was struck by the sliding car of Romain Grosjean (No. 77 Juncos Hollinger Chevrolet) at the start of the first heat. Grosjean wasn’t happy to have taken contact from Scott Dixon (No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda) in the incident that saw damage to the cars of Colton Herta (No. 26 Gainbridge Honda), Kyle Kirkwood (No. 27 AutoNation Honda) and Lundgaard.

Will Power had the quote of the weekend. Congratulating himself for avoiding the mess in Turn 1, he told NBC that “I actually saved (Team Penske) a few hundred thousand dollars,” a nod to the event’s overall $1.756 million purse.

Next Up: Testing, Long Beach

Before the return to Southern California for the annual Long Beach street race, all teams will test.

There will be testing of the new hybrid system on the IMS road course this Thursday and Friday, and on April 10-11 the field will gather for an Open Test on the IMS oval. Expected at the latter is 2021 NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Larson, who will compete in his first Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge in May in a joint effort between Arrow McLaren and Hendrick Motorsports.

The season is fully underway.