Palou first Spaniard to clinch IndyCar title

NASCAR

LONG BEACH, Calif. — Smooth and steady, same as he’s been all season, Alex Palou cruised to his first IndyCar championship with an easy Sunday drive at the Grand Prix of Long Beach.

The 24-year-old became the first Spaniard to win the IndyCar championship and pulled it off in just his second season in the United States with a fourth-place finish on the temporary downtown street course that rolls along the Long Beach waterfront.

Colton Herta won the race — Long Beach is considered his home track — for his second consecutive win and third of the season. Josef Newgarden finished second and Scott Dixon, the six-time and reigning champion, finished third before turning the IndyCar crown over to his Chip Ganassi Racing teammate.

Palou’s dream growing up outside of Barcelona was to someday make it to IndyCar and if he was lucky, maybe he could land a ride with Ganassi. He manifested both goals when, as an IndyCar rookie last year, he introduced himself to Ganassi during Palou’s first Indianapolis 500 and parlayed it into a ride for this season.

Palou won the season opener, finished second in the Indy 500 and led the standings 12 of the 16 weeks. After climbing his way through the European ranks, Palou raced two years in Japan and hasn’t won a title since competing in go-karts as a teenager in Spain.

Now Palou has joined an exclusive club of all-stars in Ganassi’s elite “I like winners” club. The title was the 14th in American open-wheel racing for Ganassi among six drivers and came 25 years after Jimmy Vasser gave the organization its first championship.

Palou joins Vasser, Alex Zanardi, Juan Pablo Montoya, Dario Franchitti and Dixon as Ganassi open-wheel champions; he’s the first Ganassi champion since Montoya in 1999 not named Franchitti or Dixon, who combined for nine titles from 2008 through last year.

Franchitti is now the Ganassi driver coach and Palou is considered the best driver in the No. 10 as Dixon’s teammate since a head injury forced Franchitti into an early 2013 retirement. Palou is the first Ganassi driver since Franchitti to beat Dixon in the season standings.

Palou held a 35-point lead over Pato O’Ward at the start of the race and needed only to finish 11th or better to clinch the title. O’Ward was knocked out of the race 18 laps after it started and Palou just had to make it to the finish line from there.

UNLUCKY O’WARD

O’Ward was eliminated from title contention just 18 laps when his drive shaft broke because of contact on the very first lap of the race.

O’Ward needed Palou to have a disastrous day to become IndyCar’s first Mexican champion. But the 22-year-old was frustrated all weekend, even though he had vowed to pull all the stops to disrupt the championship race.

He was unhappy with his car in practice Friday, then furious Saturday when an IndyCar ruling prevented him from advancing to the final round of qualifying. That put O’Ward in eighth at the start of the race – in traffic that led to a first-lap disaster. He was spun from behind by Ed Jones just minutes into the race while running eighth.

“It’s not the first time he’s hit us,” O’Ward said. “I just wish he could use his head a little bit more, at least respect the guys that are fighting the championship.”

As O’Ward slowed his car on the track, Arrow McLaren SP chief Zak Brown threw his arms up in disgust on the team timing stand. Some six hours earlier, Lando Norris lost a chance at his first Formula One victory when the McLaren driver slid off a wet course in Russia as the late leader.

“Definitely not a great day, both over here and in Russia, with such high hopes,” Brown said. “Pretty disappointing that Pato got taken out by a bit of an amateur move before the race even got started.”

O’Ward won two races this year, his second full season in IndyCar, and earned an F1 test with McLaren scheduled for November.

“I’m proud of the team. I’m proud of myself,” O’Ward said. “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 a chance for another title.”

RINUS RETURNS

Ed Carpenter Racing announced before the race that 21-year-old Rinus VeeKay will return for a third season. VeeKay scored his first career victory earlier this year on the road course at Indianapolis and followed it with a front-row starting spot a week later for the Indianapolis 500.

The Dutch driver peaked at fourth in the standings this year but missed a race because he broke his collarbone in a bicycle crash. VeeKay did not finish higher than 16th in the seven races since his injury.

The third season makes VeeKay the longest-tenured full-time driver in ECR’s 10-year history. Carpenter, the team owner, only runs ovals and shares the car with another driver for road and street courses.

Carpenter has not said if Conor Daly will return in that role next season, but Daly still has ECR on his list and does not expect to put a full-season schedule together with one single team. Ryan Hunter-Reay has been mentioned as a candidate at ECR.

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