ELKHART LAKE, Wis. (AP) — The possibility that Alex Palou will drive for a new team as the reigning IndyCar champion next year grows increasingly likely with each race.
Palou for has won two of the last three IndyCar races heading into Sunday’s event at Road America. The Spaniard holds a commanding 51-point lead in the standings as he chases his second series title in three years.
His performance this season follows a tumultuous 2022 in which Palou attempted to leave Chip Ganassi Racing for McLaren Racing. After Ganassi sued, mediation determined Palou remained contractually bound to the team through 2023. He still plans to move to Arrow McLaren in IndyCar next season and already is one of McLaren’s reserve Formula One drivers.
“We still don’t really know what’s going to happen, so I’m not thinking about next year,” Palou said Friday. “I’m fully focused on the next couple of races. I had to deal a lot last year with the future. I know it’s not a good thing for on-track activities. That’s why I’m just focused on this practice we have today, this race, then mid-Ohio.”
Palou was asked if his fast start to the season caused him to have any second thoughts about switching teams.
“No,” Palou said. “As I said, after what I had to deal on last year, we are only focused on the season. I know that having good results, it’s only going to help myself and my future.”
The last driver to win the IndyCar championship and then leave for a different team within the same series was Dan Wheldon, who won the 2005 title with Andretti Green Racing and competed for Ganassi the following year. Dario Franchitti won the IndyCar title with Andretti Green in 2007 and moved to NASCAR with Ganassi in 2008.
Franchitti returned to IndyCar in 2009 with Ganassi.
Palou has put himself in position to join that list.
To understand the degree of his 51-point margin, consider that only 50 points separate second-place Marcus Ericsson from reigning IndyCar champion Will Power, who is eighth in the standings.
“It’s big, and I think it’s a good thing, but I don’t think we need to focus on that and be like, ‘We have such a big lead that we can give one or two races,’ “ Palou said. “We cannot, especially at IndyCar, especially with the races there are later in the year that I’ve not been that good in the past. We need to try and keep making that lead bigger and we need to win races.”
Ericsson, Palou’s teammate, is having his own contract issues.
Ericsson says he’s made it clear to Ganassi that he wants to stay, but he doesn’t have a contract in place for next year. He can start talking formally to other teams in August, though Ganassi holds exclusive negotiating rights until then.
“It’s frustrating, for sure,” Ericsson said. “I’d like to have a contract by now and know where I’d be for the future, but that’s not the case. I just have to keep pushing and keep trying to do my best. That’s all I can do, really.”
That means trying to chase Palou down in the standings.
Palou is coming off a victory at Detroit and also won on the Indianapolis road course. He won the pole for the Indianapolis 500 and was dominating the early part of the race until he was spun by Rinus VeeKay on pit road. Palou still recovered to finish fourth.
His consistency has been particularly notable, as his lone finish outside the top five was an eighth-place result at the opener in St. Petersburg.
He also won at Road America in 2021, though an early crash prevented him from having a chance at defending his title last year. The sprawling 4.014-mile, 14-turn course was re-paved last fall for the first time since 1995, creating a faster track.
Palou’s competitors believe the points race remains up for grabs since the season isn’t even halfway over. Ten events remain on the 17-race schedule.
“I think if you look at Alex specifically, he’s not had a bad race,” said Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden, who won at Road America last year, is the Indianapolis 500 winner and is third in the IndyCar standings.
“So if he keeps that up for the rest of the year, that’s going to be tough to beat for the championship,” Newgarden continued. “I think it’s probably tough to go the entire year now without having one bad result, and that doesn’t have to be a DNF (did not finish). That can be just a 12th-place day and you’ll say that’s a bad result on the year. I think you’re just seeing that because it’s still pretty dang early in the year and he’s not had a bad race.”
Steve Megargee, The Associated Press