MONTEREY, California – As Alex Palou smiled in the winners circle at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, Chip Ganassi was smiling just a few feet behind him.
On its face, the scene was extraordinarily normal: Palou had won his first race of 2022 in the Grand Prix of Monterey season finale, and Ganassi naturally was sharing in the celebration as the team owner of the No. 10 Dallara-Honda.
But there haven’t been many happy moments between Palou and Ganassi this season. Their relationship turned frosty after a contract dispute erupted July 12 when Palou revealed he had signed with McLaren Racing after Ganassi announced an extension of the defending series champion’s contract.
All seemed forgotten after a gorgeous Sunday drive in which Palou led 67 of 95 laps and won by an astounding 30.3812 seconds over Josef Newgarden.
Have fences been mended between a driver and team owner who seemed destined for a permanent split after this season?
“Yeah, things are moving good, so we’ll see what can we tell, but yeah,” Palou told NBC Sports’ Kevin Lee after being asked if this was his last race in the No. 10. “We’re going to enjoy the moment now and we’ll see what happens.”
There were many other hints Sunday that things surprisingly could be returning to normal for the duo.
In the news conference after his fourth career NTT IndyCar Series victory, Palou disclosed he and Ganassi had talked Sunday morning at Laguna Seca and also before last Sunday’s race at Portland.
“Yeah, we talk,” Palou said. “So … “
Are you talking about the 2023 season?
“Obviously,” he said with a smile.
So there’s a chance you could be driving again next year for Chip Ganassi Racing, which currently is embroiled in arbitration with Palou after suing its driver?
“Yeah, we’ll see when I know,” Palou said. “I wish I could tell you guys, ‘Hey, I’m doing this,’ but I don’t have an answer yet.
Despite their current legal entanglements, there were smiles all around for the winning driver and team owner in the @IndyCar season finale at Laguna Seca.
— Nate Ryan (@nateryan) September 11, 2022
It’s a decided shift in tone for the Spaniard, who was adamant July 29 (three days after Ganassi filed its lawsuit) that he would be with McLaren Racing next season in some capacity.
In an interview Sunday morning with a small group of reporters, McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown wouldn’t confirm that Palou still would be joining his organization.
With two of its IndyCar seats filled for next season, Brown said McLaren would need to decide by the end of this month whether its third car will be driven by Palou or Felix Rosenqvist, who is being courted by other teams.
“It’s still a work in progress,” Brown said. “What I would say is I’m very happy with Felix. He’s done an excellent job this year. He’s been strong all year. We’ll see how that works out. I’d be very happy to have Felix in our car again. “We need to make a decision, because I think he would be picked up by another (IndyCar) team.”
Asked what the likelihood of Palou’s situation being resolved within the next three weeks, Brown said, “hard to tell. I’d say the ball’s in Chip’s court.”
Ganassi hasn’t spoken publicly about the situation since July 12, but if he would have comment on Palou’s performance Sunday, the reviews would have been overwhelmingly positive.
After starting 11th because of a six-position grid penalty for an engine change, Palou made the most of fresh horsepower and some magical setup adjustments to his car that he found in Sunday’s morning warmup.
“It was so tough to drive today and all weekend here at Laguna,” he said. “The grip level from the tarmac is so low so you’re fighting all the time, so it never feels like you have a good car even when you’re leading by that much. But in comparison to others obviously, it was the biggest margin (of victory) that I ever got. It felt really good. Strategy and all pit stops were really good as well. Yeah, it felt amazing. Hopefully it’s not the last car that is as good as what we had today.”
A reporter noted that Palou finished more than 35 seconds ahead of the highest-finishing Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet (Rosenqvist in fourth).
“We’ll see what happens, but I wish I was 35 seconds ahead every race,” Palou said with a smile. “Everything went super well today.”
In the eight races since the contract dispute, the Laguna Seca win marked the second podium for Palou (who also was congratulated by Ganassi after a third at Nashville last month). Despite all the external distractions, he was in championship contention until Portland and still managed to finish fourth in the points standings – not that it was much of a consolation.
“I wish I had that pressure of fighting for the championship and points in my mind,” he said. “I love that. I felt sad coming to this weekend. When I said that going to Portland we were going to have a chance, I really thought I had a chance, and that didn’t happen. I was really sad. I wish that I couldn’t sleep last night because I was thinking about points, but it was not like that this year, so yeah, we’ll try again next year.
“I think we didn’t really maximize the year we had. I knew we were going to have seasons like that. There was a bit more drama than we wanted, but happy to finish here, and hopefully we can start the same way next year.”
Wherever that might be.
“They’re waiting to see what happens, as all of you guys,” Palou said when asked about his state of mind after the win Sunday. “Unfortunately I don’t have anything to share. I think everything is moving in the right direction. I don’t know if it’s going to take one day, one week or one month, but hopefully everything is going to be solved soon.
“I don’t have anything to say clear, but everything is moving the right direction.”