It’s Nashville or bust for anyone wanting to reel in Palou

It's Nashville or bust for anyone wanting to reel in Palou
It's Nashville or bust for anyone wanting to reel in Palou

NTT IndyCar Series championship leader Alex Palou held a record lead of 117 points after the 10th round in Toronto, but his history-making run was interrupted at the doubleheader in Iowa where the gap to his closest challenger was trimmed to 80 points.

As the field gets ready for Round 13 this weekend in Nashville, the Chip Ganassi Racing driver remains in good company on that all-time-lead list. After 12 races, he’s no longer atop that category, but he’s currently second, right behind the late Dan Wheldon, who had a 90-point advantage over Sam Hornish after 12 races in 2005. In that unforgettable season, Wheldon’s command over the championship never wavered and he went on to win the title for Andretti Green Racing.

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Entering the Iowa doubleheader, Palou looked nearly invincible with that 117-point advantage over teammate Scott Dixon, but Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden aced the event with a pair of wins and carved 37 points from his rival’s lead.

Entering Nashville, Newgarden is the only challenger to get within striking distance of Palou, and while the margin of 80 points to overcome remains daunting, all it takes is for misfortune to strike the Spaniard and the sun to shine on the Penske driver and we’d have a proper title fight on our hands. If fortunes swing in the other direction and Palou avoids the walls and other calamities that kept the pace car busy at the last two Nashville races, he could make life miserable for those who are trying to keep touch in the standings.

From the four street races run this year, Palou’s won one, taken second in another, earned fifth, and placed eighth at the other. Nobody else has come close to matching his street race form, which is why Nashville could widen Palou’s lead if the cartoon anvils don’t pay a visit to his car.

Newgarden’s charge in Iowa demoted Dixon to third in the standings; the Kiwi falling from 117 down to 120 points behind Palou. And that’s the story for the rest of those who have fading hopes of catching the No. 10 CGR Honda driver.

If there’s a major point to understand as Nashville gets under way, it’s how every contender from Dixon on back has lost ground to Palou after Iowa, and unless they can turn the tables this weekend, most will be out of the championship conversation. They might not be ruled out mathematically, but look to Marcus Ericsson who lost five points to Palou at Iowa and is 147 behind in fourth. That’s almost three full races of maximum points to find in five races.

Penske’s Scott McLaughlin and Arrow McLaren’s Pato O’Ward are next, tied with a 148-point canyon to Palou, and Penske’s Will Power, in seventh, trails the leader by an untenable 161 points. Andretti Autosport’s Colton Herta, in eighth, is the first driver with more than 200 points to find — 201, to be precise — to draw even with Palou, and there’s no chance that will happen.

Simply put, unless it’s Newgarden, or maybe Dixon if he wins everything left on the schedule, some wild swings in luck and adversity are needed to make the championship more than a two or three driver show across Nashville, the second Indy GP, World Wide Technology Raceway, Portland, and Laguna Seca. And using history as a guide, ‘Crashville’ is more than capable of delivering that drama.

Similar but counter to Palou, two rookies are also producing history-making runs in the championship. The plights of Dale Coyne Racing with Rick Ware Racing’s Sting Ray Robb and A.J. Foyt Racing’s Benjamin Pedersen also serve as reminders of how making history isn’t necessarily a good thing.

Under the modern points structure, they hold the record for the fewest points scored by full-time drivers after 12 rounds, with Robb at 92 and Pedersen at 90. They also have the unfortunate distinction of being the only two full-season IndyCar drivers to have double-digit points; all the other full-timers have 100 or more points, with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Jack Harvey being the closest to the rookies at 124 points taken from St. Petersburg through Iowa.

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