Alex Palou breaks through for first IndyCar victory in season opener at Barber

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Alex Palou broke through for his first NTT IndyCar Series win Sunday, winning the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park in his Chip Ganassi Racing debut.

The 24-year-old Spaniard, who started third (tying a career-best qualifying effort), capitalized on a two-stop pit strategy while the front row of Pato O’Ward and Alexander Rossi opted for three stops.

Palou’s team had planned the same until the race started with two early cautions left eight of the first 11 laps under yellow and opened the window for completing 90 laps on two stops.

STATS PACKAGE: Full results and points standings after the season opener

“The first plan was to do a three-stop,” Palou said. “I think to do a two-stop you had to go really, really slow just because of fuel mileage, but as we got two yellows, it was clear. Like as soon as the first yellow came I was already thinking on two stops. I was trying to save as much fuel as possible there.

Alex Palou jumps from his No. 10 Dallara-Honda in victory lane at Barber Motorsports Park (Chris Owens/IndyCar).

“To be honest, I saw that Rossi and Pato, they were not saving that much fuel. I was like wondering are they going to just not even try to do it or do they just know how to do it and not me. I was surprised that they didn’t go for a two-stop because I think it was fairly easy after the two yellows. But hey, I didn’t call a two-stop.

“It was the team that they just told me, Now it’s a time to push. Do 15 more laps and this is the target for fuel mileage that you have to do. So that’s what I did, and it worked.”

O’Ward, the pole-sitter who also was seeking his first victory, rebounded for fourth after a brief mid-race collision with Bourdais. The Arrow McLaren SP driver led 25 laps and turned the race’s fastest lap in his No. 5 Dallara-Chevrolet.

“Track position was everything today,” O’Ward said. “I feel we executed on what we went for in strategy, unfortunately it was the wrong one, but I’ve got to give it to these guys. We were the fastest car on track today. We’ve been the fastest car all weekend. Unfortuantely, we weren’t on the right strategy and weren’t quick enough to do it on a three stopper and catch the guys in front. Congrats to Alex on the first win.

“We got good points here, would have loved to have gotten the win, but we’ve got another shot next weekend, and we’re going to be going for it. I’m 100 percent sure when St. Pete comes, we’ll be ready to give it all. We’ll be ready for St. Pete. We have a fast car. We have a great team behind me. We’re ready to give it our all.”

Palou led a race-high 56 of 90 laps (including the final 34), fending off the pursuit of past series champions Will Power and Scott Dixon, his teammate.

It was the 15th career IndyCar start for Palou, who is in his second full season after racing last year for Dale Coyne Racing.

It was the 114th IndyCar victory for team owner Chip Ganassi and his first at Barber (where Dixon has finished second or third nine times).

Palou also became the 14th driver to win for Ganassi, who said he knew his new driver had potential in offseason testing.

“(Palou) was quick all day long at these tests,” Ganassi told NBC Sports’ Marty Snider. “One test, quicker than Dixon. We thought, ‘Wow!’ We knew the potential was there, but you don’t know where you’re at relative to other teams or relative to a race situation.

“It’s very nice. The guys worked hard in the offseason. The other teams are trying to knock us off after you have Dixon winning the championship last year, and it’s just a challenge to know where you’re at until you get to the first race.”

“We knew we had the best team, the best car,” Palou told Snider in victory lane. “Yeah, it was possible. Ricky, my chief engineer, told me we can not win them all, but let’s win the first one.

“We did it. It’s amazing. Chip, all the team did an amazing job. We had the best cars. It’s amazing to be part of the winning drivers and starting strong.

“It was one of those days when everything went well. We got good fuel mileage, good tire management and good pace.”

Power, the series’ best driver on road courses, closed within 2 seconds in the closing laps but couldn’t catch Palou.

“Just blew my mind how fast Alex was in that first stint,” Power told NBC Sports’ Kelli Stavast. “I had absolutely nothing for him. He just pulled away. So I figured he was doing a three-stop race.”

Sebastien Bourdais finished fifth, and Rinus VeeKay, Marcus Ericsson, Graham Rahal, Alexander Rossi and Romain Grosjean (in his IndyCar debut) rounded out the top 10.

Seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson finished 19th, three laps down, in his IndyCar debut with Ganassi.

The race got off to an inauspicious start shortly after the green flag when three-time Barber winner Josef Newgarden spun in Turn 5 on Lap 1, triggering a multicar crash that also collected Colton Herta, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Felix Rosenqvist and Max Chilton.

“I wanted to just get rolling,” Newgarden said. “I felt like we had so much potential. We had a really good car underneath us, and the team worked really hard and was ready to show that. I made a mistake. I got loose in traffic coming up the hill.

“So just feel bad for causing a big wreck and anyone who was involved because of me. It’s tough to have a mistake like that.”

Johnson brought out the second yellow with a single-car spin on Lap 9, but he kept his No. 48 Dallara-Honda rolling without damage.

Heather Lyne, Dennis Erb Jr. make history in the World of Outlaws Late Model Series

Lyne Erb Outlaws Late
Jacy Norgaard / World of Outlaws
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More than two decades in the making, the pairing of Heather Lyne and Dennis Erb Jr. produced a historical milestone in Dirt Late Model.

Last month, Erb and his long-time crew chief Lyne won their first World of Outlaws Late Model Championship and with this achievement, Lyne became the first female crew chief to win in a national late model series. Their journey together goes back 21 years and tells the story of hard work, persistence and belief in oneself.

After a career-best season with the World of Outlaws, Erb and Lyne secured the points championship at US 36 Raceway in Osborn, Mo. with three races remaining in the season. The consistency and success of their season came down to pinpoint focus. Lyne and Erb are a team of two living out a David vs. Goliath tale. In order to be as successful as possible this year the duo knew they had to do as much as possible with the resources they had.

“It’s always a challenge when you only have two people, both at the racetrack and at the shop,” Lyne told NBC Sports. “I also work full time, so during the day, Dennis has to do a significant amount of work so that when I get down there I can start working and maintaining. It’s planning ahead. It’s having that system in place and making sure that you’re prepared ahead of time.

“When you have a problem at the track, making sure you have all that stuff ready so it’s a quick change and not a lengthy process to make a repair. We had zero DNFs in the World of Outlaws, we had only one DNF out of 96 races [combined among all series].”

Dennis Erb clinched his 2022 championship before the World of Outlaws World Finals. Jacy Norgaard – World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Taming Time

This was not an easy feat. Between a full travel schedule and Lyne’s full-time job as an engineer, time comes at a premium. What they lack in time and resources they made up for in patience and planning.

“We buckled down, and we got all the equipment that we needed back, motors freshened, and things of that nature,” Lyne said about the mid-point of last season. “We were able to keep up with that. We just had a higher focus. I tried to reduce my hours at my day job as much as I possibly could while still maintaining what I need to get done at work. I got rid of a lot of the other distractions and got a more refined system in place at the shop.

“We did certain tasks on certain days so we had time to recover. We were on the road a little bit more, as opposed to coming home to the shop. So we had to be more prepared to stay out on those longer runs. It was just really staying on top of things a little more. It was a heightened sense.”

This was Lyne and Erb’s fourth full season with the Outlaws, but they’ve been on the road together for the last 21 seasons starting in 2001. Their partnership began with Lyne’s bravery. When one door closed, she was quick to open another. In 2001, Lyne’s dad was ready to stop racing. Her mother wanted to regain her weekends, but Lyne knew this was her life path and wasn’t prepared to lose it.

“I’ve always been a tomboy at heart,” Lyne said. “I watched racing with my dad. Growing up he watched NASCAR. In high school, I got tired of playing at the lake house, so I went to the local dirt track and fell in love with it. I just couldn’t get enough. It took a year for me to convince my dad to come to the track with me. He finally did and we sponsored a car that year, the following year he started to race limited cars. He ran hobby stocks and limited late models.”

At some point, Lyne and her father’s level of commitment drifted apart.

“He did it for about five years,” Lyne said. “And then my mom said: ‘I’m done racing. I want my weekends back. It’s just not fun anymore.’ I wasn’t ready to hang up my wenches and Dennis raced out of the same hometown so I, on a dare, went down and introduced myself; told him if you ever need any help, I’ll drill out rivets, I’ll help wash, whatever you need. Twenty-one years later here I am.”

Heather Lyne became the first female crew chief to secure a national touring late model championship in 2022. Paul Arch / World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Breaking Through

Lyne entered a male-dominated job in a field that is also male-dominated – and where there were few examples of women creating these places for themselves. In this way, Lyne became a blueprint for other women as they strive to find a place for themselves in racing and in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) overall. She has her mother to thank for providing a strong role model, her father for sharing her passion, Erb for taking a chance on an unknow entity and most importantly herself.

“I was raised to believe that I can do anything, I want to do, as long as I put my heart and soul into it.” Lyne replied when asked about role models in the sport growing up. “My parents did not raise me to have that limitation. But from a racing role model perspective, I went in there completely green and just introduced myself to Dennis, the fact that he was brave enough to take that risk and bring a girl to the racetrack. Someone he didn’t know at all speaks volumes for him.”

Lyne and Erb have learned how to survive and succeed with each other on the road. They do this by leveraging decades of combined experience and an ability to adapt to the everchanging landscape of dirt late models. Next year the World of Outlaws visits nearly a dozen new tracks and Lyne sees it as an opportunity for continued success.

“I just want to do it again,” Lyne says going into next season, “I’m looking forward to the competition, I always do. I wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t competitively driven.

“There are some new tracks on the schedule that I’m looking forward to trying for the first time that I haven’t been to myself,” Lyne said of the 2023 season, “Dennis seems to do well on those first timers. We won out at Marion center, we finished second at Bloomsburg. We have a good solid notebook of information to tackle them over the last three years with these rocket race cars that we’re running. It’s good to have that information and leverage it to try some new things.”