Alex Palou hints at return to Chip Ganassi Racing next season after winning finale

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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.”

Chip Ganassi leans into the No. 10 cockpit to congratulate Alex Palou after his victory in the 2022 IndyCar season finale at Laguna Seca (Travis Hinkle/Penske Entertainment).

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.

“Maybe tomorrow.”

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.”

Alex Palou celebrates his first IndyCar victory in a year Sunday in the Grand Prix of Monterey at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca (Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY Sports Images).

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.”

‘It’s gnarly, bro’: IndyCar drivers face new challenge on streets of downtown Detroit

IndyCar Detroit downtown
James Black/Penske Entertainment
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DETROIT – It was the 1968 motion picture, “Winning” when actress Joanne Woodward asked Paul Newman if he were going to Milwaukee in the days after he won the Indianapolis 500 as driver Frank Capua.

“Everybody goes to Milwaukee after Indianapolis,” Newman responded near the end of the film.

Milwaukee was a mainstay as the race on the weekend after the Indianapolis 500 for decades, but since 2012, the first race after the Indy 500 has been Detroit at Belle Isle Park.

This year, there is a twist.

Instead of IndyCar racing at the Belle Isle State Park, it’s the streets of downtown Detroit on a race course that is quite reminiscent of the old Formula One and CART race course that was used from 1982 to 1991.

Formula One competed in the United States Grand Prix from 1982 to 1988. Beginning in 1989, CART took over the famed street race through 1991. In 1992, the race was moved to Belle Isle, where it was held through last year (with a 2009-2011 hiatus after the Great Recession).

The Penske Corp. is the promoter of this race, and they did a lot of good at Belle Isle, including saving the Scott Fountain, modernizing the Belle Isle Casino, and basically cleaning up the park for Detroit citizens to enjoy.

The race, however, had outgrown the venue. Roger Penske had big ideas to create an even bigger event and moving it back to downtown Detroit benefitted race sponsor Chevrolet. The footprint of the race course goes around General Motors world headquarters in the GM Renaissance Center – the centerpiece building of Detroit’s modernized skyline.

INDYCAR IN DETROITEntry list, schedule, TV info for this weekend

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Motor City is about to roar with the sound of Chevrolet and Honda engines this weekend as the NTT IndyCar Series is the featured race on the nine-turn, 1.7-mile temporary street course.

It’s perhaps the most unique street course on the IndyCar schedule because of the bumps on the streets and the only split pit lane in the series.

The pit lanes has stalls on opposing sides and four lanes across an unusual rectangular pit area (but still only one entry and exit).

Combine that, with the bumps and the NTT IndyCar Series drivers look forward to a wild ride in Motor City.

“It’s gnarly, bro,” Arrow McLaren driver Pato O’Ward said before posting the fastest time in Friday’s first practice. “It will be very interesting because the closest thing that I can see it being like is Toronto-like surfaces with more of a Long Beach-esque layout.

“There’s less room for error than Long Beach. There’s no curbs. You’ve got walls. I think very unique to this place.

PRACTICE RESULTS: Speeds from the first session

“Then it’s a bit of Nashville built into it. The braking zones look really very bumpy. Certain pavements don’t look bumpy but with how the asphalt and concrete is laid out, there’s undulation with it. So, you can imagine the cars are going to be smashing on every single undulation because we’re going to go through those sections fairly fast, and obviously the cars are pretty low. I don’t know.

“It looks fun, man. It’s definitely going to be a challenge. It’s going to be learning through every single session, not just for drivers and teams but for race control. For everyone.

“Everybody has to go into it knowing not every call is going to be smooth. It’s a tall task to ask from such a demanding racetrack. I think it’ll ask a lot from the race cars as well.”

The track is bumpy, but O’Ward indicated he would be surprised if it is bumper than Nashville. By comparison to Toronto, driving at slow speed is quite smooth, but fast speed is very bumpy.

“This is a mix of Nashville high-speed characteristics and Toronto slow speed in significant areas,” O’Ward said. “I think it’ll be a mix of a lot of street courses we go to, and the layout looks like more space than Nashville, which is really tight from Turn 4 to 8. It looks to be a bit more spacious as a whole track, but it’ll get tight in multiple areas.”

The concept of having four-wide pit stops is something that excites the 24-year-old driver from Monterey, Mexico.

“I think it’s innovation, bro,” O’Ward said. “If it works out, we’ll look like heroes.

“If it doesn’t, we tried.”

Because of the four lanes on pit road, there is a blend line the drivers will have to adhere to. Otherwise, it would be chaos leaving the pits compared to a normal two-lane pit road.

“If it wasn’t there, there’d be guys fighting for real estate where there’s one car that fits, and there’d be cars crashing in pit lane,” O’Ward said. “I get why they did that. It’s the same for everybody. I don’t think there’s a lot of room to play with. That’s the problem.

“But it looks freaking gnarly for sure. Oh my God, that’s going to be crazy.”

Alex Palou of Chip Ganassi Racing believes the best passing areas will be on the long straights because of the bumps in the turns. That is where much of the action will be in terms of gaining or losing a position in the race.

“It will also be really easy to defend in my opinion,” Palou said. “Being a 180-degree corner, you just have to go on the inside and that’s it. There’s going to be passes for sure but its’ going to be risky.

“Turn 1, if someone dives in, you end up in the wall. They’re not going to be able to pass you on the exit, so maybe with the straight being so long you can actually pass before you end up on the braking zone.”

Palou’s teammate, Marcus Ericsson, was at the Honda simulator in Brownsburg, Indiana, before coming to Detroit and said he was shocked by the amount of bumps on the simulator.

Race promoter Bud Denker, the President of Penske Corporation, and Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix President Michael Montri, sent the track crews onto the streets with grinders to smooth out the bumps on the race course several weeks ago.

“They’ve done a decent amount of work, and even doing the track walk, it looked a lot better than what we expected,” Ericsson said. “I don’t think it’ll be too bad. I hope not. That’ll be something to take into account.

“I think the track layout doesn’t look like the most fun. Maybe not the most challenging. But I love these types of tracks with rules everywhere. It’s a big challenge, and you have to build up to it. That’s the types of tracks that I love to drive. It’s a very much Marcus Ericsson type of track. I like it.”

Scott Dixon, who was second fastest in the opening session, has competed on many new street circuits throughout his legendary racing career. The six-time NTT IndyCar Series champion for Chip Ganassi Racing likes the track layout, even with the unusual pit lane.

I don’t think that’s going to be something that catches on where every track becomes a double barrel,” Dixon said. “It’s new and interesting.

“As far as pit exit, I think Toronto exit is worse with how the wall sticks out. I think in both lanes, you’ve got enough lead time to make it and most guys will make a good decision.”

It wasn’t until shortly after 3 p.m. ET on Friday that the IndyCar drivers began the extended 90-minute practice session to try out the race course for the first time in real life.

As expected, there were several sketchy moments, but no major crashes during the first session despite 19 local yellow flags for incidents and two red flags.

Rookie Agustin Canapino had to cut his practice short after some damage to his No. 78 Dallara-Chevrolet, but he was among many who emerged mostly unscathed from scrapes with the wall.

“It was honestly less carnage than I expected,” said Andretti Autosport’s Kyle Kirkwood, who was third fastest in the practice after coming off his first career IndyCar victory in the most recent street race at Long Beach in April. “I think a lot of people went off in the runoffs, but no one actually hit the wall (too hard), which actually surprised me. Hats off to them for keeping it clean, including myself.

“It was quite a bit less grip than I think everyone expected. Maybe a little bit more bumpy down into Turn 3 than everyone expected. But overall they did a good job between the two manufacturers. I’m sure everyone had pretty much the same we were able to base everything off of. We felt pretty close to maximum right away.”

Most of the preparation for this event was done either on the General Motors Simulator in Huntersville, North Carolina, or the Honda Performance Development simulator in Brownsburg, Indiana.

“Now, we have simulators that can scan the track, so we have done plenty of laps already,” Power told NBC Sports. “They have ground and resurfaced a lot of the track, so it should be smoother.

“But nothing beats real-world experience. It’s going to be a learning experience in the first session.”

As a Team Penske driver, Power and his teammates were consulted about the progress and layout of the Detroit street course. They were shown what was possible with the streets that were available.

“We gave some input back after we were on the similar what might be ground and things like that,” Power said.

Racing on the streets of Belle Isle was a fairly pleasant experience for the fans and corporate sponsor that compete in the race.

But the vibe at the new location gives this a “big event” feel.

“The atmosphere is a lot better,” Power said. “The location, the accessibility for the fans, the crowd that will be here, it’s much easier. I think it will be a much better event.

“It feels like a Long Beach, only in a much bigger city. That is what street course racing is all about.”

Because the track promoter is also the team owner, Power and teammates Scott McLaughlin and Indy 500 winner Josef Newgarden will have a very busy weekend on the track, and with sponsor and personal appearances.

“That’s what pays the bills and allows us to do this,” Power said.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500