INDIANAPOLIS – Alex Palou and his team chose to begin the GMR Grand Prix on offense, and the rest of the NTT IndyCar Series field paid the price.
Taking advantage of an aggressive strategy by starting on the faster alternate tire, Palou went from third to first on the opening lap with an overtake of pole-sitter Christian Lundgaard in Turn 12 on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.
The Chip Ganassi Racing driver was in control from there, leading the final 21 laps for his first victory of the season and the fifth of his IndyCar career (all on road courses). Palou, who led a race-high 51 laps, romped to a victory by 16.8006 seconds over Pato O’Ward.
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Of the top seven on the starting grid, Palou’s No. 10 Dallara-Honda was the only car to opt for beginning the 85-lap race on the softer alternate red tires that are faster but wear out more quickly.
“What an amazing job by the 10 crew,” Palou, who entered the race as the top-ranked driver in NBC Sports’ IndyCar power rankings, told NBC Sports’ Marty Snider. “Super happy. We honestly knew we had a fast car since (practice) yesterday. Once we knew we were starting on reds, we were going to fight for a win. Amazing work by these guys. I just had to execute.”
Palou said he was surprised more drivers elected to start on the primary black tires (which last longer but have less pace). His team initially considered starting on used reds before trying new alternates.
Couldn’t ask for a better way to kick off the Month of May. Had a rocket ship today, can’t thank my team enough! 👊@CGRTeams @AmericanLegion #Winners #BeTheOne pic.twitter.com/dFNwlIVEEg
— Alex Palou Montalbo (@AlexPalou) May 14, 2023
“For us, it was clear,” Palou said. “We were struggling a little bit more than some of the guys on used reds in the warmup. That’s why we started on new alternates, try to get the lead, try to get a big gap, like 2 to 4 seconds, then work on our pace on blacks.
“Once I saw the starting grid with the tires, we were like, ‘OK, we’re in a good place. Still you have to do it. If you get stuck behind Lundgaard on reds, your race is over, because then you’re always stuck in traffic on the same strategy as his. We knew we were on the right strategy for the 10 car, but you still had to do it on track.
“We knew that since practice, honestly, that we wanted to start on reds. I was surprised that not other people at the front started on reds. But it worked for us, so yeah.”
The 2021 IndyCar Series champion also took the lead of the title standings for the first time in a year, leading by six points over O’Ward entering the 107th Indianapolis 500.
Arrow McLaren placed its three Dallara-Chevrolets in the top five with Palou and teammates Alexander Rossi (third) and Felix Rosenqvist (fifth).
It was Palou’s first victory since the 2022 season finale at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, where he won by 30.381 seconds
“Man, hats off to (Palou and his team), they were just extremely strong today,” O’Ward told NBC Sports’ Kevin Lee after his third runner-up finish this year.
“Congrats to Alex and Chip Ganassi. For us, (finishing) two three and five as a team is pretty fricking phenomenal. The guys gave us a great race car.”
Rossi and Rosenqvist earned their best finishes of 2023.
“That’s a huge testament to the organization and a big confidence boost and good momentum into the most important race of the year,” Rossi told Lee. “We haven’t quite executed completely. The pace in the car is there. It’s a lovely race car to drive. We just have to find a way to extract a little more performance for optimal lap time on the 7 car.”
Lundgaard led 13 laps and finished a season-best fourth from his first career pole position, coming up short in his bid to become the second first-time winner this season.
“I’m satisfied with a fourth,” the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing driver told Snider. “(The car) wasn’t as quick today. There was a point I felt we weren’t going to finish in the top 10, to end up fourth is a win right now. We need to look at the perspective of how great performance-wise we’ve been.”
Palou became the fifth winner in five IndyCar races this season, joining Marcus Ericsson (St. Pete), Josef Newgarden (Texas), Kyle Kirkwood (Long Beach) and Scott McLaughlin (Barber) in the parade to victory lane.
The focus now turns to the 2.5-mile oval at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which will open Tuesday for four days of practice leading into two days of qualifying for the Indy 500.
The 107th running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing will be held May 28 (coverage will begin at 9 a.m. ET on Peacock, moving to NBC at 11 a.m.), and the podium of Sunday’s race has many reasons to be confident.
Rossi won the 500-Mile Race at the Brickyard in 2016, and O’Ward finished second last year when McLaren had the strongest Chevys.
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Palou finished runner-up to Helio Castroneves in 2021 and was in contention to win in ’22 before being caught out on fuel by an ill-timed caution flag.
“We had an amazing test,” Palou said of the April 27 session on the IMS oval. “It can not be a better start than what we’ve had so far. We had the car the last three years. We’ve just been close. We’ll keep digging, and hopefully it’ll be our day.”
Said O’Ward: “Historically this hasn’t been the best of tracks for us. So this is awesome to see just the massive step forward we’ve taken here in race pace. Super happy to see that.
“Rolling with some great momentum into our Super Bowl. Indy is different. We’re not really going to know what we’ve got up until we put all the fast bits on the car, we see where we stack up.
“Obviously last year the Ganassis were the different benchmark. They’re the ones that we’re chasing. We’ve been putting so much hard work. I know the engineers have spent endless hours of just time in all the different ways that we can find lap time for Indy.
“I’m just so excited to see what we can do. We’ve continuously put ourselves into good positions the past few years. I think I can do it again for all of us. Hopefully, we get that opportunity and go that one more step that we want to do.”
Rossi said Arrow McLaren’s performance was important from a mental aspect.
“Man, this is a momentum game,” he said. “We talk about it a lot. Performance here doesn’t translate (to the oval), but you know you’ve got the ability to have the results across all three cars. When everyone is relaxed and just doing what they know how to do, the confidence in their abilities is when the performance comes.”