Alex Palou dominates IndyCar's first all-star race since 2008. Reigning champion led every lap

THERMAL, Calif. (AP) — A race meant for all-stars was fittingly won by Alex Palou.

The two-time and reigning IndyCar champion won the Thermal $1 Million Challenge on Sunday in a total rout. Palou dominated the three day weekend — he was among the fastest drivers in practice sessions and led every lap of anything that counted while winning his qualifying group, his heat race and all 20 laps of IndyCar's first non-points race since 2008.

The race at the members-only Thermal Club was for 12 drivers who earned their way into the main event through a pair of heat races earlier Sunday. But Scott Dixon, Will Power, Pato O'Ward and some of IndyCar's top names didn't advance out of the heats and the “A Main” was a mix of competition levels.

Palou, who was one of three Chip Ganassi Racing drivers to make the main event, was never challenged.

“He made it look like a Sunday drive out there. He didn't even break a sweat,” said Ganassi.

Although the race was billed as a $1 million event, Palou's payout was actually only $500,000 because the Thermal members shied away from participating in the event with a matching buy-in. Club members instead were randomly paired with teams for an embedded weekend experience with an IndyCar organization.

Scott McLaughlin of Team Penske finished second, Felix Rosenqvist of Meyer Shank Racing was third, Colton Herta of Andretti Global was fourth and Marcus Armstrong of Ganassi was fifth as the bulk of the purse payout only went to the top five. The remaining 22 entrants were paid $23,000 for participating.

Palou, who is embroiled in a nearly $30 million breach of contract lawsuit with McLaren, said he'd use his winnings on his newborn daughter.

“I need to buy a lot of diapers and pajamas, so probably I will do that," said the Spaniard, who insisted his time at the private club was work and not play this weekend.

“It’s never easy,” he said. “It’s always tough to try and manage the tires. Am I doing too much? Am I not doing enough?”

Herta said the event was “feast or famine” for the drivers, who could race hard for the top-five prize money or risk expensive crash damage to the team. Herta said his car “ate” on Sunday and that's why he raced former teammate Alexander Rossi so hard, while McLaughlin was goaded into buying Team Penske beers when they informed him runner-up was worth $350,000 — a full $100,000 more than McLaughlin believed.

But it wasn't all rosy.

Romain Grosjean was crashed on the opening lap of the first heat race and fumed about the cost of the damage for his small team.

“I mean, who is going to pay for the damage? We come here with no points on the line and do nothing wrong and the car is completely smashed,” Grosjean said after walking from his crashed car along the private, members-only road course back to pit road.

“It’s not what I signed (up for) with IndyCar.”

The event was meant to be different in every aspect, starting with the format. The dozen all-stars advanced into the “A Main” by finishing in the top six of one of two heat races. The heat races were 10 laps, or 20 minutes, whichever came first.

It went awry moments after the first heat began on the 17-turn, 3.067-mile raceway when Dixon ran into the back of Grosjean, causing Grosjean to spin in a multi-car crash. Dixon was given an avoidable contact penalty as Grosjean, who moved to IndyCar from Formula 1, seethed.

The second heat was uneventful.

And so was the race, which was two 10-lap segments with a 20-minute break — the only time Palou was not out front.

IndyCar at the break disqualified Pietro Fittipaldi in a disastrous sequence for Rahal Letterman Lanigan, which joined Ganassi as the only teams to get three drivers into the main event.

Graham Rahal had already suffered a mechanical problem that dropped him down a lap, and led the team to withdraw rather than take a penalty or risk causing expensive damage to the car.

RLL teammate Christian Lundgaard, running seventh at the break, needed “emergency service” during the intermission and was forced to drop out of the field when the race resumed.


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