VeeKay had been running fourth in the second stint, behind Romain Grosjean, Jack Harvey and Palou but the Ed Carpenter Racing-Chevrolet driver made an early second stop for a set of scrubbed reds – Firestone’s softer, faster alternate compound.
Palou left his second stop – for Firestone primaries – until Lap 40, which coincided with that of his Chip Ganassi Racing-Honda teammate Jimmie Johnson, who he was coming up to lap. They emerged from the pits together, and although Johnson tried to wave Palou ahead on pit exit, the Spanish sophomore fell in line behind the seven-time NASCAR champion, electing to pass him on the back straight.
His politeness had cost him enough momentum that VeeKay got a run on both the Ganassi cars. Johnson moved right to keep out of the way, Palou swung left to defend the inside line for the long drag down to the next corner, left-handed Turn 7. But VeeKay kept his foot on the throttle and drove between them, completing the pass around the outside of Palou into T7.
“Man, that was close!” said Palou, who won the opening round of the season at Barber Motorsports Park. “That was close, but that was a good move by him.
“We were on the out lap on black tires and he was, I think, like six laps already with the reds, so … I knew I couldn’t brake as late as him. Yeah, that was exciting. He was there in between Jimmie and I, so I just gave him enough room so he could fit there, and I was covering the inside. That’s all I could do I thought at that moment…
“When you’re on the out lap on blacks and he’s already with the reds, you cannot do anything.”
Palou went on to pay tribute to his pal, saying: “Yeah, I’m super happy for him. I’m really good friends with him, and… he’s been super strong through FP1, FP2, qualifying, and I don’t know why he didn’t get into the Fast Six. I was like super slow compared to him [but Palou qualified fourth]. But that gave him an advantage today with two sticker sets of red tires [one set was slightly scrubbed].
“But he did an amazing job. I think he’s going to keep being up there. He’s been really consistent this year, but hopefully he doesn’t do it too often!”
Regarding his own weekend, Palou described himself as “really happy” given the fact that he missed first practice due to a water leak.
“I was super happy yesterday being in the Fast Six without feeling super, super good and comfortable with the car, and today we made some progress during the warmup.
“I think the race was pretty good. We had some issues with some lapped cars that made things really exciting. I think we didn’t maybe do the perfect strategy with the red tires, the black tires, but we are on the podium, we started P4, and it was a good day for us, for the #10 and the American Legion car. I’m happy that this is the first race for them with us, and we got a podium.”
Palou and the #10 team adopted a unique tire strategy, starting on reds, and then running blacks for the remaining three stints, in a race when only six of the other 24 drivers ran more than one set of primaries and no others ran three. He nonetheless was able to fend off Josef Newgarden’s Penske-Chevrolet over the final stint to claim the final podium position.
Asked whether running at least one more set of reds might have enabled him to stay ahead of VeeKay, Palou responded: “It’s tough to say. Now that we’re done, I would say, yeah, 100 percent we should have gone on the reds.
“But yesterday when we did the Fast Six we were lacking a lot of pace on the used reds, so that’s why we said, ‘Man, these tires, for us, don’t really work. I think we were like five or six tenths from Romain [Grosjean, polesitter] [and], they run quicker than me on the sticker reds, so if we played the same game as them today in the race, we know that we are not going to go faster.
“So we tried different stuff. We didn’t lose, we just lost some track time, which was fine, but it was too exciting with Newgarden coming with the reds and lapped cars and I was with the blacks. I was like, ‘Oh my God, no!’ But it worked out at the end.
Reflecting on his season so far and how positive he is about his prospects, given that he’s second in points after five races, only 13 behind teammate Scott Dixon, Palou said: “It’s super early still, and you can see that one race can change the standings a lot. Winning a race means a lot here in IndyCar.
“But yeah, we did a good start so far. We are 1-2 in the championship. That means Chip Ganassi and all the crew did an amazing job during the preseason and during the races. We didn’t start like super smooth – we had some issues at St. Pete, we didn’t have super clean races at Texas – but we’re still here, we’re still fighting, and that’s a good thing.
“Hopefully we can keep it going the month of May. I think it’s going to be awesome. I had a good month of May until I crashed last year. I’m not going to do that again. I love the place. I love the race.
“I know that with experience I have this year, running the race last year and also Texas, the two races, I’m feeling super confident, and now especially coming out of a podium, I’m going to be pretty excited.”