This time last year, Alex Palou was in the midst of a mixed rookie season as the second driver at the eternal IndyCar underdog Dale Coyne Racing. When Felix Rosenqvist left Chip Ganassi Racing, he got the call to join one of the category's top teams. From that moment on, Palou has been nothing less than the best driver in the series.
Palou's two wins this season are the most for a teammate of Scott Dixon at CGR since Dario Franchitti in 20TK. The team has always been competitive simply by virtue of employing Dixon, but his spectacular individual success has successfully hidden a team that has struggled to consistently produce competitive second and third entries since Franchitti retired after the 2013 season. Palou changed that singlehandedly the moment he joined the team, winning his first IndyCar race in his first day in CGR's No. 10 car.
More impressive than that has been the consistency. While fellow young drivers Colton Herta (seventh in the standings) and Pato O'Ward (second to Palou in the standings) have been exceptional some weeks, Palou has been exceptional most weeks. He has finished outside the top four just three times all season, racking up six podiums in just ten races and three in the last three. He was the only serious title contender to run well the entire Indianapolis 500; a significant chunk of his championship lead coming from a second place finish in that race.
But Palou has a few threats to his title hopes. Biggest among them is his own inexperience: The 24 year old Spanish driver is in just his third season of senior-level competition anywhere, his second in IndyCar after one in Japan's prestigious (and near-equivalent to IndyCar) Super Formula series. He finished a stunning third in that ultra-competitive championship as a rookie, but that experience running at the front was against a very different pool of competition in a very different kind of open wheel car. With six races to go this season, he is the one the entire field is chasing. All pressure will be on him to tie together strong finishes to end the season. If he cannot, plenty of other drivers are going to be in the hunt.
And that is his biggest issue. Pato O'Ward, another young and inexperienced driver, is second in the standings, but Scott Dixon and Penske's Josef Newgarden are also within striking distance with six races remaining. Dixon and Newgarden represent eight career championships, including each of the last four. To win a title, Palou is going to need to put together his own strong finishes while ensuring that none of O'Ward, Dixon, or Newgarden get on a string of wins. The only way to guarantee that, of course, is to win those races himself.
Palou has six races left in his second IndyCar season: Three on permanent road courses, one on an intermediate oval, and two on street circuits. He will need to excel on all three types of tracks to win a championship. If he does, it will be a monumental moment in a young career that is already more successful than anyone would have guessed at any point in the past three years.
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