PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Alex Palou has been on cruise control all season as he's chased a second IndyCar championship in three years. He's had almost no bad luck — save for a pit lane incident that likely cost him the Indianapolis 500 — and has packed four wins into this impressive season.
The Spaniard hasn't had a single mechanical problem, has completed all but two laps this season and hasn't finished lower than eighth through 15 races.
So the math headed into Sunday's penultimate race of the season is clear: A podium finish at Portland International Raceway secures Palou the title no matter what happens with Scott Dixon, his Chip Ganassi Racing teammate and the only other driver who can claim the championship.
With a 74-point lead and two races remaining on the season, if Palou leads Dixon by 54 points at the end of Sunday, he will cruise into next week's finale in Monterey, California, with his second title already in hand.
The problem? It's Dixon, the six-time IndyCar champion and greatest driver of his generation, chasing him. And Dixon is riding a two-race winning streak into Portland, where he has never won in four career starts but has had back-to-back third-place finishes.
“I would say Scott Dixon is the worst driver you can have chasing you," Palou said. "If it was someone else, they might not handle the pressure. But Scott was in a bad position last week in the first stint (at Gateway) and ended up winning, and he was in a bad position at the Indianapolis road course and he ended up winning.
“When everything goes well for him, he wins. When everything goes bad for him, he makes it stick. He is obviously the worst driver to have in this position.”
Dixon wasn't even thinking about the title picture, preferring to wait to see where he stands after Sunday. The career Ganassi driver — he's in his 22nd season with the organization — was more pleased with the overall position of the race team. No matter what happens, a Ganassi driver will be champion this year.
“It's a pretty relaxed weekend and we're just getting back to basics and trying to win some more races. That's all we can do, right?” Dixon said. “It's just very cool that it can only be a Ganassi car winning the title. That's exciting.”
The Ganassi team has motivation for a strong performance the final two weeks. Barry Wanser, a longtime Ganassi executive and strategist for Palou, was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma last month and had surgery earlier this week in Indianapolis.
He will miss the final two races of the season and team manager Mike O’Gara will call the races for Palou. It's been unsettling to the longtime Ganassi employees because Wanser and his family have suffered serious heartbreak already.
In 2011, just one week after former Ganassi driver Dan Wheldon was killed in the IndyCar season finale, the Wanser's 6-year-old son, Michael, died of leukemia. Wheldon had been a frequent hospital visitor for “Iron Man Mike,” who had received a bone marrow transplant from his younger brother during the grueling treatments.
“To lose a son to cancer, and now have your own battle, nobody wants to see that pain for anybody,” Dixon said. “When we lost Michael, we lost Dan, as well, and it was a very strange time for the IndyCar community. So we're all just thinking about Barry and (wife) Laurie and sending them all the best while we try to make him proud.”
Dixon will start fourth on Sunday, one spot ahead of Palou.
RAHAL REBOUNDS AGAIN
Graham Rahal will start from the pole on Sunday as he continues to rebound for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing following a disastrous Indianapolis 500.
Rahal failed to qualify for the race and was only able to compete as an injury replacement for Stefan Wilson. The team has made several behind-the-scenes personnel changes, fired driver Jack Harvey with three races remaining, and has shown some improvement on the track.
Rahal's pole-winning run was the second of the season and second in three weeks. He's in a contract year with the team that is owned by his father, 1986 Indianapolis 500 winner Bobby Rahal.
“It’s nice to have two poles at the end of the year,” Rahal said. "Everyone has pushed so hard to get our team back to this point, it’s nice to have two poles at the end of the year. Hopefully we can finish this deal off. That’d be pretty sweet.”
Rahal is seeking his first victory since June 2017 when he swept the weekend in Detroit. He edged defending race winner Scott McLaughlin of Team Penske by less than four-hundredths of a second.
Colton Herta qualified third for Andretti Autosports, followed by Ganassi drivers Dixon and Palou and Pato O’Ward of Arrow McLaren Racing.
The final pieces of the 2024 IndyCar grid are slotting into place, with Felix Rosenqvist vowing to make an announcement about his future within the next week. Although McLaren technically has a seat open now that Palou has no plans to join the organization next year, Rosenqvist is believed to have already signed with Meyer Shank Racing as Simon Pagenaud's replacement. ... Romain Grosjean has confirmed he's not returning to Andretti Autosport next season. He could try to go back to Dale Coyne Racing, where David Malukas is leaving at the end of the season, or focus only on sports car racing. ... Both Malukas and Callum Ilott are jockeying for the now open McLaren seat. ... Juri Vips is driving the final two races of the season for RLL in what could be a tryout for a full season ride.
PALOU CONTRACT LATEST
Palou is trying hard not to discuss 2024 and the drama over him backing out of a deal to move to McLaren, which is now suing him for more than $20 million for his change of mind.
Palou received about $1 million up front as a salary advance and coverage of his legal fees last year when he battled with Ganassi over his desire to move to McLaren, plus he's been the reserve F1 driver for McLaren and tested for the team.
The Associated Press asked Palou if his change of heart on moving to McLaren meant the 26-year-old is no longer trying to make a move to F1. He said his efforts are on pause.
“I would say after the year we've been doing (with McLaren) and not really getting a good, like a real chance, it's going to be tough,” Palou told AP. “Which is OK. I mean, I got my chance. Like, I tested in a real FP1, which was great and I got a lot of experience from there, but it's on pause now.”
There is speculation that Honda pitched in to Ganassi to keep Palou from jumping to Chevrolet with McLaren, and Honda is returning to F1 in 2026 as the engine supplier for Aston Martin. The team fields a car for Fernando Alonso, who is already the oldest driver on the F1 grid and will be 44 at the start of the 2026 season.
It could be that Palou is in line to replace his fellow Spaniard, who was not on good terms with Honda the last time Honda powered Alonso.
AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing