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Friday, December 3, 2021

Palou’s championship solidifies changing of the guard for IndyCar

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I vaguely remember what life represented in my early 20s. Still looking for the perfect job and routinely raiding my father’s refrigerator come to mind, but I certainly wasn’t wheeling a race car around in a dominant fashion.

As someone who has followed IndyCar racing for more years than I’m inclined to admit, I never dreamed I’d witness the youth movement that has overtaken the sport, and while I was reluctant to embrace it initially, I am, as they say, all in with it now after watching Alex Palou soar to championship heights at the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach. He secured his first driver’s title and officially put the competition on notice that it’s clearly the sign of things to come in the series.

The 24-year-old Spaniard made it look rather easy this year by capturing three race victories along with nine podium finishes and, just for good measure, three pole positions en route to securing his first NTT IndyCar Series championship. It was somewhat of a formality for the always polite and energetic Palou, as he headed to the last race of the season with a 35-point margin over fellow young gun Pato O’Ward.

There are, however, no such thing as easy races in this series, and when he put a bow on a remarkable sophomore season by driving tactically and finishing fourth to clinch the title, he was quick afterward to give all the credit to Ganassi Racing for the opportunity and to his crew for providing him with great race cars the entire season.

“I don’t know what Chip (Ganassi) saw in me my rookie season, but I’m so grateful,” the elated Palou said in his post-race comments.

Ganassi countered by saying Palou had broken a long dry streak for the No. 10 car and his young driver reminded him of six-time IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon.

Fitting statements indeed from both parties to summarize Palou’s maiden voyage with the team and to further cement the fact that IndyCar now belongs to young guns, much to the chagrin of the many talented veteran drivers.

Notes from the Paddock:

While Palou’s meteoric rise is remarkable, 22-year-old Pato O’Ward came close to capturing the title, finishing second in driver points by virtue of a stellar season for Arrow McLaren, which saw him capture four poles and two wins, and is among the favorites to win it all in 2022.

Speaking of incredible performances by young drivers, perhaps no one’s future is brighter than Colton Herta, who won the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach in a dominant fashion after doing the same the week before at Laguna Seca. While he’s barely old enough to legally drink the Victory Lane champagne, he too is a force to be reckoned with and will only continue to improve next season driving for Andretti Autosport.

Despite all the aforementioned talk of the youth movement being served, there were some interesting stories at Long Beach regarding veteran drivers on the move next year.

2019 Indianapolis 500 winner Simon Pagenaud ran his last race for Team Penske and will join the ranks of Meyer Shank Racing next season.

Ryan Hunter-Reay ended his phenomenal run at Andretti Autosport and is now a free agent. He has offers on the table to drive both IndyCars and sports cars next season.

Like Pagenaud, he is still capable of winning races.

Yours truly had the distinct pleasure of riding in a pace car at speed before the race this past Sunday. Let’s just say I’m glad I didn’t eat any breakfast before taking the hot lap. My sincere thanks to Acura Motorsports for letting me experience the rush on track.

Danny Bridges, who has officially embraced the youth movement in his beloved IndyCar Series, can be reached at 317-370-8447 or at bridgeshd@aol.com.

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