The first race of the 2021 NTT IndyCar Series season is in the books, and a surprise winner put the rest of the competition on notice. Alex Palou led 56 of the 90 laps on Sunday to earn his first career win. He also became just the third driver ever to win his first race with Chip Ganassi Racing, joining Michael Andretti in 1994 and Dan Wheldon in 2006.
Palou started the race from his 3rd place qualifying position, and he was quick in each practice session, so the win isn’t entirely out of left field, but he was able to hold off some stiff competition en route to victory lane. He thwarted a late surge by Will Power, who was the only Team Penske driver to finish the race inside the top ten. He also bested teammate and reigning series champion Scott Dixon, who earned his 9th Barber podium in 11 career starts here. Dixon has still yet to taste victory in Birmingham, something his new teammate has already accomplished.
“We did it!” Palou said. “It’s amazing. All of the team did an amazing job. We had the best cars. We’re starting strong, and we’ll keep it strong. It was one of those days when everything went well. We had good fuel mileage, good tire management, and good pace.”
Just missing out on the podium was pole-sitter Pato O’Ward, who managed to lead 25 laps on Sunday, and recorded the fastest lap of the race. Things just didn’t go his way but it is still a solid start to the season for the young and talented driver. Four-time champion Sebastien Bourdais rounded out the top five on Sunday, improving 11 spots from his 16th starting position.
Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama Box Score
The race got off to a scary start, as a massive pileup brought out the yellow flag on the very first lap. Josef Newgarden got loose and overcorrected on the exit of Turn 5 and spun in front of the field. Colton Herta, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Felix Rosenqvist, Max Chilton, Rinus VeeKay, and Jimmie Johnson were all involved but no one was hurt in the melee. Both Newgarden and Hunter-Reay were unable to continue in the race.
“I got loose coming over the hill,” Newgarden said. “I thought I had the car and touched the grass, and I think once I touched the grass, it pitched me sideways. I feel really bad for anyone that got involved in that. Obviously, my mess created a bigger mess.”
VeeKay rebounded nicely to bring his No. 21 Ed Carpenter Racing machine home in 6th place while Graham Rahal improved 11 spots from his starting position to finish 7th for the RLL Racing team. Marcus Ericsson had a solid weekend overall and delivered an 8th place finish for Ganassi. Alexander Rossi did not have the day that he wanted after starting from the front row but still managed a decent 9th place result. Rookie Romain Grosjean rounded out the top ten on Sunday, in what was a solid debut for the former Formula One driver.
Outside of the top ten finishers, Jack Harvey had a quiet day for Meyer Shank Racing, finishing where he started in 11th place. Simon Pagenaud had an extremely disappointing weekend, finishing 12th after a 15th place qualifying effort on Saturday. Defending race winner Takuma Sato didn’t have much success either, finishing just ahead of rookie Scott McLaughlin of Team Penske.
Johnson had an eventful first race himself, going through the first-lap incident and then spinning by himself on Lap 10. He managed to bring the car home in one piece with a 19th place result and seemed happy with his performance afterward.
The race featured a number of different strategies and plenty of on-track passes that kept things interesting. There were a handful of drivers that appeared to be contenders for the race win, but the best story played out in front of 20,000 fans as Palou finally realized his dream in his second season in the series. If the rest of the races are as entertaining as this one, we are in for a truly spectacular season.
The next race on the schedule is the Firestone Grand Prix of St Petersburg on April 25. NBC will provide coverage for the event, which begins at 12 PM ET on Sunday.
Photos courtesy of IndyCar