Alex Palou clinches IndyCar championship

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LONG BEACH, California — The NTT IndyCar Series christened the reign of a new star as Alex Palou won the 2021 championship with a typically smooth Sunday drive.

The second-year driver won the title in his first year with Chip Ganassi Racing, finishing fourth after starting 10th in the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach. Colton Herta held off Josef Newgarden to win the race, and Scott DIxon finished third.

Palou, 24, became the first IndyCar champion from Spain (in winning the season opener at Barber Motorsports Park, he became the second driver from that country to win in the series). He also is the first champ from a predominately Spanish-speaking country since Juan Pablo Montoya won the CART title in 1999.

Palou celebrated with some tire-smoking donuts on the streets of Long Beach after an emotional radio transmission to his team.

“Oh my God, you guys are the best,” Palou radioed in a quavering voice after winning team owner Chip Ganassi’s 14th title and joining a list of names that already included Jimmy Vasser, Alex Zanardi, Juan Pablo Montoya, Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti

“What a race, what a year, what a season,” Palou told NBC Sports reporter Marty Snider. “This team is amazing. I’m super proud to be part of Chip Ganassi Racing. Super happy, can’t thank everyone enough who made this possible. We’ll keep it going.”

Palou is the seventh-youngest champion in IndyCar history and the first under 25 since Scott Dixon in 2003.

With his father in attendance from Spain, he had a few nervous moments.

He hit the brakes to avoid a Lap 1 spin by championship contender Pato O’Ward, had wheel-to-wheel battles with multiple drivers on the tight street course and survived a close call with James Hinchcliffe on pit exit.

But the Spaniard was in control throughout the 85-lap race.

Newgarden, who entered 48 points behind Palou, started on the pole position and led most of the first half of the race before Herta, who charged to the front from 14th for his second consecutive victory and career-best third of the season.

Coupled with Palou’s title, the victory by Herta, 21, signified IndyCar’s ongoing youth movement.

“It feels amazing,” Herta, a native of Santa Clarita, California, told NBC Sports reporter Kevin Lee. “Great car, great team, and we came with such a great package. Super happy.

Newgarden still managed to move up to second in the points standings with a runner-up finish after the complexion of the championship considerably changed on the first lap.

“If there was no yellows I think we could have been OK today to cruise up front,” he told Lee. “Sometimes it just doesn’t go your way. Proud of our team. I think we fought hard, we just came up a little bit short. A couple of things go different, it could have been a different outcome for us. We were in the fight, which is the No. 1 thing you’ve got to do, is just put yourself in position. We were definitely there. We had a shot at winning. We just came up short.

“It’s very disappointing. I mean, incredibly disappointing. You put everything into a season. You hope to win it, outside of the Indy 500. So, we just have to start over again next year, unfortunately, but we’ve got the crew to do it, and we can bounce back pretty quick. So, I think we can have another run next year.”

After a clean start, O’Ward was clipped in the right rear by Ed Jones, who attempted an optimistic pass into the Turn 11 hairpin.

O’Ward’s No. 5 Dallara-Chevrolet spun and dropped to 27th, but he caught a break as the field immediately was bunched up by a yellow flag.

“Not surprised it was (Jones),” O’Ward told his team on the radio. “What an idiot.”

Jones received a drive-through penalty for avoidable contact.

On Lap 18, O’Ward pulled off to the side with a driveshaft failure, possibly from the contact with Jones. It was a disappointing result for the Mexican driver, who had entered 35 points behind Palou, and for Arrow McLaren SP, whose sister F1 team had a win slip away earlier Sunday in the Russian Grand Prix.

“Yeah, it’s not the first time he’s hit us,” O’Ward told NBC Sports reporter Kevin Lee. “Not the first time he does something stupid all season. I just wish he could use his head a little bit more. At least respect the guys fighting for the championship.

“Yeah, I don’t know what else to say. That corner is just respect the guys in front of him. I’m not telling him not to race me, but don’t be stupid about it.”

With the last-place finished, O’Ward fell behind Newgarden to third in the points standings. He still finished a spot higher than last year and also earned the first two victories of his IndyCar career.

“I think we’ve had a great season,” he said. “I’m proud of the team. I’m proud of myself. Obviously, it wasn’t the perfect of seasons, but that’s just how it’s going to be. You have to learn from the little mistakes you might have made. I feel like that gets you stronger.

“I’m looking forward to next year. I think we have a great baseline to start off from and see if we can get some more wins and challenge for another title.”