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.