Alex Palou clinches second IndyCar title in three seasons with Portland victory

AP file photo by Paul Sancya / Alex Palou, right, and team owner Chip Ganassi celebrate after the driver's June 4 victory in the Detroit Grand Prix. Palou won the GP of Portland on Sunday to clinch the IndyCar Series 2023 championship with one race remaining in the season. It's his second title in three years.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Team owner Chip Ganassi stopped Alex Palou on Sunday morning at Portland International Raceway and encouraged his driver to use the afternoon's race to close out the IndyCar championship.

Palou, needing only a top-three finish to lock up the title with a date on the schedule to spare, told the boss he planned to do just that — with a win.

And then he delivered.

Palou is now a two-time IndyCar champion with Chip Ganassi Racing after a dominant run Sunday that gave the 26-year-old Spaniard his series-leading fifth victory of the season. He was fifth in the final standings last year after winning his first title on North America's premier open-wheel circuit in 2021.

Afterward, Ganassi recalled his earlier conversation with Palou: "He likes to win, he told me that. He told me before the race, I said 'Let's go wrap this up today,' he looked at me and said, 'I'm going to wrap it up with a win.'" I said 'OK, great.' He called his shot today."

The veteran owner then at last addressed Palou's future with the team, which has been uncertain and at times contentious the past 14 months.

"Alex Palou is going to be in our car, I can tell you that for sure," Ganassi said.

That wasn't so clear even last month, with Palou scheduled to join Arrow McLaren Racing in 2024 as an IndyCar driver. He already spent this year as McLaren's test and reserve driver in Formula One, the international open-wheel series, but has had an apparent change of heart regarding his future.

"I am going to enjoy it as much as possible, the win from today, the championship," Palou said in declining to discuss the contractual fight between himself and the Ganassi and McLaren organizations.

McLaren has filed a lawsuit in the United Kingdom seeking at least $20 million in damages and to recoup money already advanced to Palou. McLaren claims it gave Palou an advance on his 2024 salary and covered his legal fees last year during mediation in Palou's attempt to join McLaren this year.

The settlement reached last September kept Palou in a Ganassi car in IndyCar for this season but allowed him to do F1 work with McLaren on weekends that didn't conflict with his IndyCar obligations. This third season with Ganassi for Palou — and fourth in IndyCar since he moved to the United States after a short stint racing in Japan — turned out to be the best of his career.

Still left on the 17-race schedule is next Sunday's Grand Prix of Monterey in California, where Palou was the race winner last year despite having been eliminated from championship competition a week earlier after a 12th-place finish in Portland — where he also won the 2021 race.

This year, Palou became the first driver to clinch the championship before the finale since Dan Wheldon in 2005. In 2007, Sebastien Bourdais won the Champ Car title with one race remaining before the two series unified.

"I never thought I'd be an IndyCar champion, and to be a two-time IndyCar champion just feels amazing, like a dream," Palou said. "It was an amazing weekend. We just raced how we've been doing all season."

Palou leads IndyCar in nearly every measurable statistic this season: wins, pole positions, podiums, top-five finishes, top-10 finishes, races led and laps completed. He has finished all but two laps all season and could have had a sixth victory but was spun on pit road during the Indianapolis 500 and had to drive his way back to a fourth-place finish in a race he seemed poised to win.

His lowest finish all season was eighth (twice).

"It's been an amazing season, we've just had the best cars everywhere, we've been able to maximize our results," Palou said. "We wanted to win the championship and have it settled so now we can relax."

Palou started the race with a comfortable points lead over Ganassi teammate and record-setting six-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon, the only driver mathematically eligible to challenge him for the title. If Palou found his way to the podium, though, it didn't matter what Dixon did.

Instead, Palou found his way to victory lane — and he got there fast.

He led 69 of the 110 laps to score a decisive victory over runner-up Felix Rosenqvist, who finished 5.4353 seconds back, while Dixon was third for the third consecutive time at Portland.

Rosenqvist drives for McLaren, as does fourth-place finisher Pato O'Ward, who was followed by Indianapolis 500 winner Josef Newgarden of Team Penske. Ed Carpenter Racing's Rinus VeeKay was sixth for his best showing of the season, followed by Marcus Ericcson, David Malukas, Scott McLaughlin and Kyle Kirkwood.

Palou and Dixon have locked down first and second in the IndyCar standings, leaving the Monterey race as a battle for third on the final list.

"I don't know if we had enough speed for Alex; he was definitely fast," Dixon said. "He kind of does everything right. He's a hell of a competitor, a huge talent."