Story By: CURT CAVIN / INDYCAR – LEXINGTON, OH – Things could not be going better for Alex Palou, who on Sunday at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course won his third consecutive NTT INDYCAR SERIES race to extend his championship lead to a staggering 110 points.
Palou’s victory in The Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio Presented by the 2023 Accord Hybrid helped him become only the second driver since the 2016 season to score a three-peat. That other driver was Scott Dixon, the six-time series champion who opened 2020 with such a streak.
And if Palou needed more confidence as the season moves to its second half, he should know that the last three times an INDYCAR SERIES driver won three races in succession – Dixon in in 2013 and ’20, Simon Pagenaud in 2016 – the Astor Challenge Cup followed at year’s end.
Yes, Palou is on a major roll, having won four of the past five races. He even could be riding a five-race winning streak if not for contact on pit road midway through the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge. The incident with Rinus VeeKay dropped the pole sitter to 27th place, and he stormed back to finish fourth.
Palou is humble, but he conceded this stretch of success is “the best moment of my career so far.”
Palou won this race by 5.0242 seconds over Dixon, but it was another Chip Ganassi Racing teammate that helped the series lead swell so large. Marcus Ericsson, who had been second in the standings, ran over the Arrow McLaren car of fellow Swedish driver Felix Rosenqvist on the opening lap, effectively ending his race.
Ericsson’s crew was able to make repairs to the front suspension of the No. 8 Huski Ice Spritz, but it was too much too late. Ericsson finished last in the 27-car field, losing 48 points to the series lead, and he fell to fourth in the standings.
The incident also ended Ericsson’s streak of eight consecutive top-10 finishes to start the season. Guess who is the only driver with a streak that long: Yes, it’s Palou. Considering he won last year’s season-ending race at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, the 26-year-old Spaniard has compiled 10 straight top-eight finishes with nine of them record in the top five.
And it could continue. Palou finished third in last year’s Honda Indy Toronto, the next race on the schedule (July 16).
“I know we can have some good couple of races coming up now, and we’ll still try and maximize (points), do the best we can and win when we can,” the driver of the No. 10 The American Legion Honda said. “So, yeah, try and get (the car) on top.”
Palou trailed NTT P1 Award winner and Andretti Autosport driver Colton Herta (No. 26 Gainbridge Honda) and fellow front-row starter Graham Rahal (No. 15 Fifth Third Bank Honda of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing) through the first segment of the race, but he swiped the top position during the first pit exchange. Herta went to pit road first, on Lap 28, and while Rahal waited a lap to make his stop, Palou conserved fuel behind him.
Herta and Rahal came out of the pits with new primary tires, but Palou switched to the faster alternative compound, allowing him to rocket past them to the lead.
Palou had the field covered the rest of the way. His only difficulty came during a sequence when he took several laps to overhaul the No. 14 AJ Foyt Racing/Sexton Properties Chevrolet of series rookie Benjamin Pedersen. In that stretch, Palou’s 8-second lead was cut in half, but he quickly regained all of that advantage once clearing Pedersen on Lap 55.
After Palou made his second and final pit stop on Lap 54, Herta and Rahal came to pit road on consecutive laps, and both had trouble. Herta’s car nearly got away from him at pit entrance, and the errant momentum caused him to exceed the speed limit, drawing a drive-through penalty. Rahal arrived at his pit box without concern, but trouble mounting the left rear tire led to a slow stop. As a result of those bobbles, the fastest two cars in qualifying dropped to the eighth (Rahal) and 12th (Herta) positions.
Rahal finished seventh, Herta 11th as Palou continued on without incident.
“I had a good car and good strategy, honestly,” Palou said. “We’ve got a really fast car, (but) we knew we needed to try something different to the guys starting up front – that’s why we started on primary (tires). Everything went well. The strategy, the pit stops and our pace was pretty good.”
Honda won its sixth race of the year in nine tries.
Dixon did everything he could to remain in contention for a championship that would tie A.J. Foyt’s al-time record. With Pato O’Ward (No. 5 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet) finishing eighth after a difficult three-stop charge from the 25th starting position, Dixon jumped to second in the standings. Josef Newgarden (No. 2 PPG Team Penske Chevrolet) and Ericsson are 116 and 122 points out of the lead with eight races remain. O’Ward is fifth, 127 points in arrears.
Palou’s competitors will need a lot to happen to catch him.
“Anything’s possible,” Dixon said of overcoming the deficit. “Like we’ve always seen, you’re never out of it until you’re out of it. So, we’ll keep trying as hard as possible.
“I know we tied (in points) with (Juan Pablo) Montoya in 2015, and we thought we were possibly out of it (entering the final race). That’s what’s funny about the INDYCAR SERIES and all of the competition, but you’ve got to give them credit, they’re doing a hell of a job.”
Dixon has won six of these Mid-Ohio races, but this was his first second-place finish. The result also was his best of the season as he seeks to extend his series records for seasons with at least one win (currently 20) and consecutive seasons with a win (18).
Will Power (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet) has similar streaks in play – 18 and 16 years, respectively — and he earned his third podium finish of the season in third place.
Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Christian Lundgaard (No. 45 Vivid Clear Rx Honda) and last year’s Mid-Ohio winner, Scott McLaughlin (No. 3 Good Ranchers Team Penske Chevrolet), finished fourth and fifth, respectively, with David Malukas (No. 18 HMD Truck Honda of Dale Coyne Racing with HMD) sixth.
The 40th INDYCAR SERIES race at Mid-Ohio ran mostly as a clean race with the exception of Ericsson’s contact with Rosenqvist, which drew a penalty for avoidable contact. Andretti Autosport’s Kyle Kirkwood (No. 27 DHL Honda) tried to challenge Palou in Turn 4 on Lap 19 and lost six positions. He finished 17th.
Conor Daly finished 20th while driving the No. 60 AutoNation/SiriusXM Honda as Meyer Shank Racing asked him to stand in for Simon Pagenaud, who endured a wild ride without injury in an accident in Saturday morning’s practice. Pagenaud will be re-evaluated in advance of the Honda Indy Toronto.