With his third win of the season at Portland last Sunday, the NTT IndyCar Series sophomore pulled a 25-point margin over erstwhile points leader Pato O’Ward of Arrow McLaren SP-Chevrolet and 34 ahead of two-time champion, Team Penske-Chevrolet’s Josef Newgarden.
And now with a 49-point margin over Ganassi teammate Scott Dixon, Palou needs only to finish ahead of the six-time champion in this weekend’s race at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca to eliminate him from title contention.
Despite that, Palou has insisted he’s following the old adage of taking one session at a time and not forecasting the ultimate results. He has not raced at Laguna Seca nor Long Beach due to both races being canceled due to COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, but he has tested at the former and been encouraged by the team’s pace. A strong race there, he agrees, will leave him more ‘comfortable’ on the streets of Long Beach.
“We think about the race, and until the last pit stop at Long Beach, we’re not going to think about what do I really need to do to win this championship,” he said. “Laguna Seca… it’s going to be good for us. We tested there. I feel strong there.
“It’s a road course. I think we’ve been fighting for all the road course races this year, so feeling pretty strong about that.
“Long Beach is going to be interesting and exciting, but nothing I can do about it. Never been there. All my competitors have been there and won races there, so it’s a bit scary, but hopefully I can do a good job at Laguna so I can be a bit more comfortable at Long Beach.
“This year I think we struggled a bit on the first couple of races on street courses, but we got a podium at Detroit and we qualified P3 at Nashville. Yeah, we are fast on street courses, too.”
Despite his focus being on individual sessions and races, Palou admitted thoughts of the title have crossed his mind, but that two misfortunes prevented him from getting ahead of himself.
“At Indy Road Course [last month] when I was running fourth, I was like, ‘This is really good for me, this is really good for us,’ – and then suddenly the engine blows up. Gateway you start 21st, you are top 10 and you say, ‘OK, we got it,’ and then you get a crash.
“You never know. IndyCar I think is so competitive and especially this year it’s super close where in this one race we went from being 10 points back to 25 points ahead.
“I think we are in the fight – clearly we are in the fight! But until Long Beach we are not going to know really who’s what.”
Referring to Portland, where he lost the lead due to Turn 1 chaos and then faced draconian punishment for missing the chicane, allowing O’Ward into the lead, he said, “I think that many people after the first lap thought that Pato was going to win and that we were going to lose 40 points, and it was the opposite.
“That’s why IndyCar is IndyCar, which is really good. I think that makes the racing super exciting and the championship super exciting until the end.”
Palou gave credit to his seven-time NASCAR championship-winning teammate Jimmie Johnson for giving him tips regarding how to mentally focus on the short-term – each individual session.
“I think that mentally when things are going good, it’s super easy [to focus],” he said. “You don’t need to overthink or do something different. Everything is going good, right, so I don’t think it’s super hard. As long as I continue performing on track, everything is going to take care of itself. At the moment I’m not struggling.
“Maybe I’ll struggle a bit at Long Beach, but at the same time, Jimmie has been a really big help for me, I have to say. After the Indy road course, I sat with him and he was telling me that in his NASCAR career he had moments like that and that he still won.
“He told me some tricks. He did the same after Gateway. And hopefully we can get a championship home.”
Palou, who has now won on two tracks he never encountered in his rookie season (Barber Motorsports Park and Portland) credited his success there to the team.
“They gave us a really good car. Got my first pole in IndyCar. Scott finished third [at both Barber and Portland]. So having two cars on the podium shows that we had a good car.
“I think we do a really good job at the simulator at HPD together with Honda, and we work really hard. Yeah, it’s working out, and it’s paying off on track, so we’ll keep on doing what we’re doing…
“We need to try and take some advantage of Laguna. We know we have a good car there, and I say that because I tested there, that car. I know the track, and I know we can be strong there.
“So we’ll try and take it a session at a time and try and score really big points at Laguna. Hopefully we get another win, and then we’ll see what happens at Long Beach.”