PORTLAND — Alex Palou has been on cruise control all season as he’s chased a second IndyCar championship in three years. He’s had almost no bad luck — save for a pit lane incident that likely cost him the Indianapolis 500 — and has packed four wins into this impressive season.
The Spaniard hasn’t had a single mechanical problem, has completed all but two laps this season and hasn’t finished lower than eighth through 15 races.
So the math headed into Sunday’s penultimate race of the season is clear: A podium finish at Portland International Raceway secures Palou the title no matter what happens with Scott Dixon, his Chip Ganassi Racing teammate and the only other driver who can claim the championship.
With a 74-point lead and two races remaining on the season, if Palou leads Dixon by 54 points at the end of Sunday, he will cruise into next week’s finale in Monterey, California, with his second title already in hand.
The problem? It’s Dixon, the six-time IndyCar champion and greatest driver of his generation, chasing him. And Dixon is riding a two-race winning streak into Portland, where he’s never won in four career starts but has had back-to-back third-place finishes.
“I would say Scott Dixon is the worst driver you can have chasing you,” Palou said. “If it was someone else, they might not handle the pressure. But Scott was in a bad position last week in the first stint (at Gateway) and ended up winning, and he was in a bad position at the Indianapolis road course and he ended up winning.
“When everything goes well for him, he wins. When everything goes bad for him, he makes it stick. He is obviously the worst driver to have in this position.”
Dixon wasn’t even thinking about the title picture, preferring to wait to see where he stands after Sunday. The career Ganassi driver — he’s in his 22nd season with the organization — was more pleased with the overall position of the race team. No matter what happens, a Ganassi driver will be champion this year.
“It’s a pretty relaxed weekend and we’re just getting back to basics and trying to win some more races. That’s all we can do, right?” Dixon said. “It’s just very cool that it can only be a Ganassi car winning the title. That’s exciting.”
The Ganassi team has motivation for a strong performance the final two weeks. Barry Wanser, a longtime Ganassi executive and strategist for Palou, was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma last month and had surgery earlier this week in Indianapolis.
He will miss the final two races of the season and team manager Mike O’Gara will call the races for Palou. It’s been unsettling to the longtime Ganassi employees because Wanser and his family have suffered serious heartbreak already.
In 2011, just one week after former Ganassi driver Dan Wheldon was killed in the IndyCar season finale, the Wanser’s 6-year-old son, Michael, died of leukemia. Wheldon had been a frequent hospital visitor for “Iron Man Mike,” who had received a bone marrow transplant from his younger brother during the grueling treatments.
“To lose a son to cancer, and now have your own battle, nobody wants to see that pain for anybody,” Dixon said. “When we lost Michael, we lost Dan, as well, and it was a very strange time for the IndyCar community. So we’re all just thinking about Barry and (wife) Laurie and sending them all the best while we try to make him proud.”
Dixon will start fourth on Sunday, one spot ahead of Palou.