NEWTON, Iowa — Alex Palou isn’t comfortable with Iowa Speedway, which could have an impact on the IndyCar Series point standings after this weekend’s doubleheader at the .875-mile oval.
Palou has been dominant all season, leading the standings with 417 points. He has four wins, with nine top-five finishes in 10 races.
“If you’re winning and you’re consistent, you’re definitely going to win the championship,” driver Will Power said this week. “Certainly that team, as a group, (it’s a) full package — strategies, pit stops — and obviously Palou is the full package as a driver. It’s extremely tough to beat that this year.”
But Iowa Speedway, a fast short track that has gotten bumpier with age, has challenged Palou in his four previous races there. His best finish was sixth in the first race of last season’s doubleheader, and his average finish is 11th. He has never led a lap at the track.
“It’s not been a good place for us,” Palou said on Friday.
Palou was 15th-fastest in Friday’s practice session with a fast lap of 173.007 mph. Josef Newgarden, who has four wins at Iowa, was fastest at 176.428 mph.
Palou and his Chip Ganassi Racing team tested at the track last month. He was fourth-fastest among the 20 drivers who tested, but Palou thought his car could have been better.
“It’s going to be a tough weekend for us,” Palou said. “It hasn’t been a great three years for me here. We tested here, we made improvements. But we were not where we wanted to be. Hopefully we bring some new stuff to make us feel more comfortable and faster.”
That, he said, is the concern heading into a weekend when there’s little time to make adjustments between Saturday’s morning qualifying and the afternoon 250-lap race, and between the end of Saturday’s race and Sunday’s 250-lap event.
“There’s a lot of track time,” Palou said. “It’s tough for everybody — drivers, engineers, everybody. I think if you’re having a good weekend, you’re going to have a good two races. If you’re having a bad weekend, you’re probably going to have two bad races, because there’s not much you can do.”
Palou has a 117-point lead on second-place driver Scott Dixon in the standings, and a 126-point margin on third-place driver Newgarden.
“You’ve got to hand it to them, they’re doing a hell of a job, whether it’s on speed, or whether it’s strategy or consistency,” Dixon said of Palou and his team. “You can’t knock it. They’re doing a hell of a job, and we have to do a better one.”
But with this being the lone doubleheader on the IndyCar schedule this season, Dixon knows there are a lot of points available.
“It can definitely change how the championship plays out, especially with the amount of races we have in this very short window coming down to the last two or three (races),” Dixon said. “It can definitely change quickly, as we’ve seen with doubleheaders in the past. It can definitely change the landscape.”
“In 48 hours, everything can change super quickly,” Palou said. “But it’s the same for everybody.”
A win in either race would give Palou and his team a $1 million bonus from the PeopleReady Force For Good Challenge, awarded to a driver who can win on an oval, a street course, and a road course during the season. Half of the bonus would go to the American Legion, Palou’s chosen charity.
Both races will feature a 28-car field that can get stretched out in a hurry.
“Wherever you are, you’re going to be in traffic,” Palou said. “Even if you’re up front, you’re going to be in traffic pretty quickly. I think this is one of the best tracks for racing that we go to on ovals, apart from Indy, where it allows you to overtake if you have a fast car. I’m not worried about the dirty air here.”
There are other concerns for Palou, although the points cushion eases the worry.
“I hope this weekend can be amazing,” Palou said. “But if not, we’ll keep working.”