Palou is entering rare IndyCar title territory

Palou is entering rare IndyCar title territory
Palou is entering rare IndyCar title territory

At his current rate of production, Alex Palou is all but guaranteed to win his second NTT IndyCar Series championship.

Granted, we aren’t handing the Spaniard his second crown in a span of three years quite yet, and there’s still plenty of time for things to go wrong for the driver of the No. 10 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda. But on his present trajectory, Palou is flying in territory that hasn’t been explored in 18 years.

Following Road America, where he arrived with a 51-point gap to teammate Marcus Ericsson and left with 74 points over the Swede, Palou is second only to the late Dan Wheldon on the all-time list with regard to the size of his championship margin with nine races left to run.

In 2005 with Andretti Autosport, Wheldon had a 76-point lead over teammate Tony Kanaan with nine races remaining on the calendar and held onto that advantage to earn his first and only IndyCar Series title. Palou, with a comfortable pad of 74 points over Ericsson, is amid an epic run where he’s finished fifth or better at the last seven races; the opening race of the year where he placed eighth is his worst so far of 2023. Altogether, his average finishing position of 3.5 is nothing less than amazing.

Ericsson (5.9) and third-placed Josef Newgarden, who is 81 points adrift (7.8), simply aren’t earning enough points at each race to bother Palou unless the CGR driver finds some of the adversity he’s been fortunate to avoid.

And history, as the research of independent IndyCar statistician Scott Richards suggests, is on Palou’s side. From 77 seasons since 1956 (there were three that didn’t have enough races to do a proper nine-races-left-to-run accounting), 44 drivers leading with nine rounds remaining won the championship, which gives Palou a 57.2 percent chance to do the same.

Dan Wheldon was the only driver to ever hold a bigger points advantage with nine races to go than Palou does now. History shows that the late Brit’s 2005 campaign worked out pretty well for him… Lesley Ann Miller, Motorsport Images

CGR has another history maker in its ranks with six-time champion Scott Dixon who owns the record for overcoming the biggest points deficit with nine races left. Dixon was victorious in 2013 after going into the last nine races while holding seventh in the standings, a full 92 points behind Team Penske’s Helio Castroneves.

In another interesting Dixon note, he also holds the record for mounting the most title-winning runs with nine races to go, having overcome various point deficits in 2003, 2013, 2015, and 2018 to overhaul whomever was leading the championship while nine races out and crown himself as the best driver of the season.

As noted, Palou is by no means safe, and he has IndyCar’s No. 1 destroyer of championship leads sitting across from him in the CGR engineering office. Where Palou’s won three of eight races this year, Dixon’s chasing his first and goes into the final nine sitting fifth in the standings, 98 points back from Palou, which isn’t too far removed from the 92 he erased in 2013 to beat Castroneves.

Also of interest with Dixon is that he’s mirrored Palou as a vision of consistency. Through the opening eight races, his average finishing position is identical to Newgarden (7.8), but that figure is skewed thanks to finishing last at Long Beach after the tangle with Arrow McLaren’s Pato O’Ward. In every other race, he’s finished seventh or better with an average finish of 4.4, which nicely shadows Palou’s average of 3.5.

Palou’s also in good championship company with his current finishing average. Per Richards, since 1956, there have been eight drivers — including Palou – whose average finish was 3.5 or better through the first eight races, and from those seven completed seasons, six drivers went on to win the title, led by AJ Foyt (1.5 in 1975), Johnny Rutherford (1.75 in 1980), Tony Kanaan (2.9 in 2004), Wheldon (2.9 in 2005), Dario Franchitti (3.1 in 2007), and Dixon (3.1 in 2020). The only driver to miss out was Castroneves (3.3 in 2008), who lost the title to Dixon.

The engraver for the Astor Cup would be wise to get Palou’s name ready for the final race in September at Laguna Seca, but this is IndyCar, where almost nothing we expect will come true. Ericsson, Newgarden, O’Ward, Dixon, and others have designs on displacing the current championship leader, and when the series reconvenes on July 2 at Mid-Ohio, the wrestling match for IndyCar dominance will continue.

With a maximum of 54 points available at every race, Palou and his 74-point advantage are guaranteed to leave Ohio with the lead, but will it expand or contract? Let the chasing begin.

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