IndyCar

Ganassi’s Alex Palou wins $500,000 in IndyCar’s eventful $1 Million Challenge at Thermal

Ganassi’s Alex Palou wins $500,000 in IndyCar’s eventful $1 Million Challenge at Thermal

THERMAL, Calif. – A snoozer of a first 10 laps gave way to an eventful close to IndyCar’s $1 Million Challenge, but defending series champion Alex Palou was hardly challenged and went flag-to-flag to help Chip Ganassi Racing claim the $500,000 grand prize.

Team Penske’s Scott McLaughlin added a second podium to his season in as many races – albeit, this not part of the championship – finishing 5.8 seconds adrift of Palou to grab the $350,000 runner-up check for his team. Meyer Shank Racing’s Felix Rosenqvist took 3rd after starting a at the front of Sunday’s main event, good enough for an extra $250,000 for his bosses.

Meanwhile, the mid-pack of the 12-driver ‘All-Star’ event added several doses of wheel-to-wheel action over the closing 10-lap stint.

What started midweek as a dirty secret of a potential strategy call – drivers starting in the back falling well off the pace in order to save their tires for the closing 10-lap stint – turned the opening half of Sunday’s 12-driver finale into a somewhat worthless 19 minutes of opening action. Colton Herta, starting in the back of the field after taking emergency service following contact in his heat where he only narrowly advanced, immediately drifted back of the rest of the field immediately after the green flag.

His first lap was more than 12 seconds off the pace of polesitter Palou, and Herta finished well over 90 seconds back of the front of the field as they pitted for a 10-minute halftime break. Soon, Christian Lundgaard, Alexander Rossi and Agustin Canapino followed the Andretti Global driver’s lead and fell well off-pace of Palou to bide their time before the break.

During the halftime, RLL’s Graham Rahal dropped out of the race with a stuck throttle – made worse by the disqualification of his teammate Pietro Fittipaldi, who IndyCar race control penalized for not starting with a full tank of fuel.

After the break, RLL’s Lundgaard was relegated to the back of the field (10th) for taking emergency service during the break.

Getting a boost up to 9th with RLL’s series of blunders, Herta took advantage and immediately began shooting up the field with his massive gap to the leaders erased. Three laps into the final segment, Andretti’s lone competitor in the final had worked his way up to 5th after passing Linus Lundqvist and taking advantage of Josef Newgarden and Alexander Rossi banging wheels in front of him.

With two laps to go, Herta snagged 4th from Marcus Armstrong but finished more than 2 seconds back of Rosenqvist for a podium spot. Still, the roll-of-the-dice on strategy helped Herta take Andretti’s payday from $23,000 (paid for those finishing 6th to 27th) into $100,000. Armstrong finished 5th, with Lundqvist (6th), Rossi (7th), Newgarden (8th), Lundgaard (9th) and Canapino (10th) closing out the field.

HOW THEY GOT THERE

Predictably, the pair of opening heats that helped determine the $1 Million Challenge delivered one massive burst of action. Before Group 1 even arrived at Turn 1 on Lap 1, nearly half the field wound up involved in a pinball of cars that ended the days of Romain Grosjean and Rinus VeeKay. As the 14-car field, led by Rosenqvist, tore toward the start/finish line, Andretti’s Herta popped out on the inside of Scott Dixon, both sequestered to the back of the field after a rough round of qualifying Saturday night.

In reaction, Dixon said he inched toward the middle of the track, but then was surrounded on all sides and was caught off guard by early braking from the cars in front. Before he could slow, he slid into the back of Grosjean, whose No. 77 Juncos Hollinger Racing machine was sent careening across the track – pile-driving into the side of VeeKay, who then consequently ran into Lundgaard.

After several caution laps to clean up the carnage, the sprint race became a timed race, due to the 20-minute maximum set by race control. The front of the field remained relatively in place from then-on, with Rosenqvist, McLaughlin, Newgarden, Lundgaard, Canapino and Herta moving on. Dixon was given a drive-thru penalty for avoidable contact after the Lap 1 incident and finished 12th – last among those still running at the end.

Group 2’s heat included less carnage but saw the trio of Arrow McLaren drivers and Meyer Shank Racing’s Tom Blomqvist switching back-and-forth in a series of battles – and close calls, too. In the end, the advancing six started in the top-7, with the rookie Blomqvist dropping from 5th on the grid to 8th, missing out on the final 20-lap shootout. Pato O’Ward climbed up from starting 9th to 7th by the checkered flag, but could not find a closing move to knockout teammate Rossi.

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Ganassi’s Alex Palou wins $500,000 in IndyCar’s $1 Million Challenge

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