Alex Palou came up short of a successful defense in the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park.
The 2.3-mile, 17-turn natural terrain road course was the sight of his maiden NTT IndyCar Series win in 2021, which ignited a magical run to claim the championship.
The 25-year-old Spaniard ended up with a runner-up finish on Sunday, but leaves in similar fashion: leading the points standings.
Like last year’s race, Palou started third. However, this time around he was merely a fixture in the top five and never a threat through the opening two-thirds of the 90-lap race to challenge pole-sitter Rinus VeeKay or eventual race winner Pato O’Ward.
All of that changed when the final run of pit stops began at Lap 60, though. Palou’s No. 10 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda was running fifth at the time, but frontrunners began coming to pit road. On Lap 61, VeeKay led O’Ward to pit road and the two tussled on the out-lap and ended up swapping track position.
Meanwhile, Palou stayed out, extended his stint to 33 laps and rose to the lead before dipping to pit road on Lap 63. When he was finally released from being serviced on pit road, Palou returned to the track and split the leaders to come out in second, dropping VeeKay to third. The combination of Palou in-lap, out-lap and time on pit road for the final sequence netted him 1.599s compared to the leaders.
“I went two laps longer so I knew I could push more,” Palou said. “I didn’t really had to save that much fuel as him. I said, ‘Okay, we’ll have a chance, have plenty of overtake to use.’ I felt really comfortable with the car. Started pushing. He was making the same lap time. I said, ‘Oh, no, that’s going to be tough.’
“I pushed till the end. Caught him on some laps, lost a little bit of time on some others. He was really good. It’s maybe a track where even if you’re a little bit faster, you cannot really pass. It’s so hard. As soon as I would get, I don’t know, a second close to him, I would just lose my front and drop 0.3s back. I was doing that all race at the end.
“But it was fun. I was trying to push him and try and make him to do a mistake or try to make him to push too much, have to save fuel. But, no, he did a good job.”
While there wasn’t enough to take the fight for the win to O’Ward, Palou was still smiling over what is now his third podium through the opening four races of 2022. Additionally, Palou has a three-point advantage over Scott McLaughlin in the fight for the championship.
“It was good,” said Palou. “I was happy with my afternoon. Was exciting there at the end. We almost got Pato. Yeah, super happy. All weekend we had a really good car. I was really comfortable. We were really, really fast.
“I did a couple of mistakes, lost a position on the start with the No. 3 position in the restart with the 27 [Alexander Rossi]. That just cost me a lot of track time, a lot of track position let’s say.
“Yeah, so far so good. We made a risky strategy of staying out a lot more than others, saving fuel. We almost got Pato. Another podium, it’s good.”