How Alex Palou Overshadowed Team Penske at IndyCar Road America

Alex Palou took a major step toward potentially winning the 2021 NTT IndyCar Series championship, earning his second victory of the season in Sunday’s Rev Group Grand Prix at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin.

Palou took advantage of pole sitter Josef Newgarden’s misfortune with two laps to go. Newgarden led the most laps (32) in the 55-lap event around the four-mile roadcourse, but an apparent transmission problem sent him tumbling back in the field from the lead, ultimately finishing a disappointing 21st in the 25-car field.

“It was amazing,” Palou told NBCSN in a very abbreviated post-race interview. “Had a real good car in the race. We were able to overtake him (Newgarden) before the corner and super happy and super proud of this team.”

With the win, Palou went from one point out of first place coming into the race to take over the top spot in the standings, leaving Wisconsin with a strong 28-point lead over last week’s second race winner at Detroit, Pato O’Ward.

Palou becomes the second driver this season with multiple wins. O’Ward won his second race of the season at Detroit. Palou, a native of Spain, began the 2021 IndyCar season with a win at Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama.

Palou now has five podium finishes in the first nine races, including finishes of third, second, 15th, third and first in his last five starts.

Ironically, the driver who has led the most laps in the last six races failed to take the checkered flag for the win. That ties a dubious IndyCar mark dating back to 1978.

What’s next for Palou? “Ohio,” he said of the next race in two weeks on July 4that Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in central Ohio. “Let’s get a winner.”

Colton Herta finished second, followed by Will Power, defending series champion Scott Dixon, Romain Grosjean, Marcus Ericsson, Alexander Rossi, Takuma Sato, O’Ward and Max Chilton.

TEAM PENSKE, WHEREFORE ART THOU?

With Newgarden having such a strong run up until the closing laps, it appeared not only would he earn his first win of the season, but it would also be the first win of 2021 for Team Penske.

Unfortunately, neither happened.

The 21st-place showing was the second-worst finish this season for Newgarden, who began the 2021 campaign with a 23rd-place showing in the season-opening race at Barber Motorsports Park near Birmingham, Alabama.

“I couldn’t get it to shift into sixth gear,” Newgarden said of his late-race malady. “And then I got it stuck in fifth in turn one and finally got it to go down, but just could not get it to upshift after that.

“So I got it down to first (gear) essentially, just trying to stay out of the way after that because I couldn’t get it to upshift after that. I’m not sure what happened. Obviously it’s disappointing for all of us. I know we had a great car. We had a good car all day and were doing everything we had to do. We were surviving the yellows, surviving the fuel game. We had a rocket ship. Team Chevy did a good job for us. We had such amazing fuel mileage and good power. Super pleased about that.

“I guess it just wasn’t meant to be again. I think we have fast cars, it’s just not working out right now. But now we will claw. We will claw our way back. This is not what I was planning for this day. I would have liked for us to be a little closer. But, what are we 88 (points back)? Just a bigger challenge when we go to next race. We’ll get after it.”

While Will Power finished on the podium with his third-place showing, the rest of Team Penske struggled: Scott McLaughlin finished 14th, while Simon Pagenaud was 18th and Newgarden 21st.

IndyCar Schedule Still a Jigsaw Puzzle

With Sunday marking the ninth race of the season, the IndyCar campaign is now officially past the halfway mark for 2021. While the schedule shows only seven races remaining, there’s still a chance that the series will add another race to bring the total back to the original amount of 17 races.

The July 11 race in Toronto was cancelled two weeks ago due to ongoing COVID-19 pandemic issues in Ontario Province in Canada. IndyCar officials are expected to replace that race with another event in the U.S. Among the strongest contenders are World Wide Technology Raceway outside St. Louis and Mid-Ohio.

The most likely scenario would be to hold a double-header weekend at either track. However, with two weeks remaining, it would be very difficult for IndyCar to add a second race to the July 4 race at Mid-Ohio.

That means World Wide Technology Raceway would get the race by default. The track is slated to host a rare Saturday night race on August 21. That means if the weekend turns into a doubleheader event, the second race would be Sunday, August 22. However, because Saturday night’s race is slated to start at 8 pm ET, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that IndyCar may move up the green flag to perhaps somewhere closer to 5 pm ET, thus giving teams enough time to recoup for a potential race the next day.

Of course, there is a third possible option: not adding a race and keeping the schedule at 16 races. But such a move is unlikely, particularly with how last season was cut to only 14 races due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some people have suggested IndyCar simply should host another race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. But IndyCar still has another race there as part of the weekend doubleheader on August 14-15 with NASCAR Cup. IndyCar will host its race on Saturday, August 14, at 12:30 p.m. ET.

It’s Just Like Riding a Bike, Right?

Former Formula One driver Kevin Magnussen made his IndyCar debut Sunday, and what a debut it was – while it lasted.

Magnussen was filling in for Felix Rosenqvist, who is still recovering from his crash last week in Detroit.

Magnussen, who started 21st, roared through the pack to lead six laps, but was forced to pull off the course with just over 20 laps remaining when his car completely died. His start was likely a one-off experience, as Rosenqvist is expected to be back behind the wheel for Mid-Ohio.

“All in all, this weekend has been a fun experience,” Magnussen said. “I’m very thankful to Arrow McLaren SP for the opportunity. I’m going to leave here with a big smile on my face although we didn’t finish the race due to a mechanical issue. I’ve had a very fun experience.”

Cody Ware also made his IndyCar debut in Sunday’s event, finishing 19th. Ware has been racing in the NASCAR Cup and Xfinity Series.

Another Rough Day for Jimmie

Seven-time NASCAR Cup champ Jimmie Johnson continues to struggle as he segues to IndyCar racing.

Johnson spun and ran off the track exiting Turn 7 on Lap 17. It marked the fourth time in five road course races thus far this season that Johnson has spun out.

Johnson finished 22nd in his sixth career start. Thus far this season, his best finish was in the season opener at Birmingham, winding up 19th. Since then, he’s finished 22nd at St. Petersburg, 24th in the Indianapolis Grand Prix, and 24th and 21st in last weekend’s doubleheader event at Belle Isle in Detroit.

But Wait, There’s More

After several struggles thus far this season, Alexander Rossi finished seventh, tying his best showing in 2021 for the third time. He also finished seventh at the Indianapolis Grand Prix and in the first race of the doubleheader event at Belle Isle last weekend. Rossi moved up one spot in the standings, from 14th to 13th, but he still trails new points leader Palou by a massive 178 points. “It was just another irrelevant weekend for us,” Rossi quipped. … Oliver Askew replaced Rinus Veekay and finished an impressive 12th. Askew started from the 16th position and ran as high as third place before falling back. Veekay suffered a broken left collarbone that required surgery last Monday. Veekay vows that he’ll be back in the race car for the July 4 event at Mid-Ohio. Ironically, Askew’s finish came seven months to the day when he said he wouldn’t be surprised if his IndyCar career was over. … Ed Jones spun with five laps remaining in a very unusual incident. It appeared the left rear wheel broke off of Jones’ car as he was coming into a turn, causing him to spin. His car was pushed off the track and he wound up with a 23rd-place finish. … Chevrolet struggled in the race. Will Power was the only Chevy driver in the top-five, while O’Ward and Max Chilton finished ninth and 10th, respectively.

Follow Autoweek contributor Jerry Bonkowski on Twitter @JerryBonkowski

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