LONG BEACH, Calif. — Alex Palou raised the Spanish flag over his head and hugged every teammate he could find. With the first championship trophy of his professional career at last in his hands, he planted his lips on the IndyCar Series' Astor Cup and savored a dream come true.
He spent two years racing in Japan, but the American open-wheel series was where he wanted to be, and Palou simulated life as if he was already there. Now the 24-year-old Chip Ganassi Racing star is an IndyCar champion and the first Spaniard to win the crown in series history.
Palou finished fourth in an easy Sunday drive at the Grand Prix of Long Beach to cap a smooth and steady second season in IndyCar.
"There were moments where I was just feeling like I was living my dream, and now I'm doing it," Palou said after the race. "Oh yeah, 100% dream completed. Let's get another one now."
Colton Herta won the race — Long Beach is considered the 21-year-old Andretti Autosport driver's home circuit — for his second consecutive win and third of the season. Team Penske's Josef Newgarden finished second, and Scott Dixon, whose six championships include the 2020 season, finished third before turning the IndyCar crown over to his teammate.
Palou had never before seen Long Beach before he arrived this weekend — the historic course's IndyCar race was canceled last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic — but his consistency since winning the season opener in his first race driving for Ganassi had him in solid position. His 35-point lead meant a finish of 11th or better Sunday would win him the title, and when challenger Pato O'Ward was knocked out after his drive shaft broke because of contact on the very first lap, Palou just needed to make it to the finish.
It capped a remarkable run in which he earned his break a year ago with Dale Coyne Racing, then manifested his childhood dream to race for a championship by introducing himself to Ganassi at the Indianapolis 500. He moved into Ganassi's No. 10 car this year, won three races, finished second in the Indy 500 and led the standings 12 of 16 weeks.
Palou won the championship by 38 points over two-time title winner Newgarden, who bumped one spot ahead of O'Ward after the 22-year-old from Mexico was eliminated.
"Chip told me when I joined that I had to win a championship, so that's not too much pressure," Palou joked. "He likes winners. If you are not one, you are in trouble."
After climbing his way through the European ranks, Palou raced two years in Japan but had not won a title since competing in go-karts as a teenager in Spain.
"His apprentice program into racing most recently was in Japan, so I think he brings a lot of that Japanese mentality to the team, which a lot of us find refreshing," Ganassi said. "He brought a certain fortitude that you see in that part of the world. And you know, he didn't turn a wheel wrong all year."
Palou has now 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 Scott 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 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.
"I think he's raised the bar for all of us this year to keep pushing," Dixon said. "It definitely feels like kind of the 2009 through sort of '12, '13 period with Dario. Super proud of what the 10 car has done. Super proud of Alex. Man, he's done a tremendous job this year."
O'Ward needed Palou to have a disastrous day to become IndyCar's first Mexican champion, but he 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 the first-lap disaster. He was spun from behind by Ed Jones just minutes into the ride 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 that is 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."