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Alex Palou basks in IndyCar championship afterglow with Dale Jr., Daniel Craig face time

Alex Palou Daniel Craig

LONG BEACH, CALIFORNIA - SEPTEMBER 26: IndyCar driver Alex Palou driving the #10 car, celebrates winning the 2021 Indycar Driver Championship at the 2021 Acura Grand Prix Of Long Beach on September 26, 2021 in Long Beach, California. (Photo by Greg Doherty/Getty Images)

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CONCORD, N.C. – The receiving line on a recent jaunt to Charlotte for NTT IndyCar Series champion Alex Palou included Dale Earnhardt Jr., Daniel Craig and dozens of autograph-seeking fans at the Roval.

But the start of his North Carolina field trip -- in the Harry and Izzy’s restaurant at the Indianapolis airport -- yielded another telling sign the first IndyCar title by a Spaniard was gaining traction two weeks into the reign.

“Probably every day since (the season finale at) Long Beach, I got recognized by three, four or five people, and it’s been great,” Palou told NBC Sports in a Sunday morning interview at Charlotte Motor Speedway, where he attended his first NASCAR Cup race. “But I didn’t expect that someone at the airport preparing our food would recognize me, and then all the servers were saying, ‘Oh, we don’t have fried chicken today!’ So they knew also my background, not only that I’m somebody new that just won the championship.

“That’s amazing. I like it. I think that means that they’d like to know me a bit more. That’s what it’s all about. IndyCar, it’s not huge on media, which is a bit of a shame. We have great personalities. We have so many different drivers from different teams and different countries, it would be amazing if people would know more about them. It’s not going to change from one day to the other that suddenly we can have lots more time on TV and share the stories. But I think it’s growing, and it’s good that we see it at a small restaurant at the airport. It just started, right? So better than nothing.”

It’s easy to see how his winner’s tradition of a fried chicken meal after every checkered flag has become widespread knowledge. The laps he made in a “Chicken Limo” at Indianapolis Motor Speedway were the buzziest part of Palou’s championship afterglow -- until the whirlwind weekend in the Charlotte area (with longtime girlfriend Esther Valle as his traveling companion).

Palou, 24, got a guided tour of the NASCAR Hall of Fame, attended a Pitbull concert near Charlotte Motor Speedway and was the featured guest on the popular Dale Jr. Download podcast.

During a garage tour (where he drew constant attention and congratulations from fans), Palou met with several NASCAR personalities, including president Steve Phelps and seven-time champion icon Richard Petty (“They all said they want Jimmie (Johnson) back here; I said we’re keeping Jimmie,” Palou said with a laugh about his Chip Ganassi Racing teammate).

But of course, the highlight was a brief meeting with Craig, the honorary starter of Sunday’s Roval race who was promoting his final turn as James Bond in the famous movie franchise. A vintage car collector buff, Craig seemed to realize whom Palou was after being told of his IndyCar connection.

It was the latest example of how life had been “perfect” for Palou since Long Beach, where he finished fourth to clinch the championship on the heels of a runner-up at Laguna Seca and a victory at Portland – three consecutive tracks where he was making his debut while championship rivals Pato O’Ward, Josef Newgarden and Scott Dixon had experience.

“We had the opportunity to fight for a championship, and I wanted it so bad, and all the team wanted it so bad,” he said. “We wanted to make sure we got it, so I knew that Portland was going to be difficult for us because Pato won there in the Indy Lights championship, so he knew the track. We tested with him. He was faster than us. I didn’t know the track, but we made the pole and were able to be successful.”

Portland came after a two-race swoon dropped Palou from a 40-point lead to second in the standings – and brought some seven-time championship counsel from Johnson.

“He told me after the Indy road course when we had the engine failure, he said that because once you have an issue and are in a bad situation, it’s like, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa,’ ” Palou said. “Then you think that maybe you have to do something else on track and off track and prepare differently. And I actually thought, ‘Oh man, we just lost this, I can not lose anymore. Let’s try and do something different.’ He said no, no. Just be yourself. That’s the best way. As soon as you start preparing things differently to what you’ve been doing, then that’s when bad things happen.

“It means that I just work the same way as I’ve been doing since the start of the season. It’s just a small bit of advice that he told me, but it goes a long way because it’s a super big thing.”

Next up on the Palou Victory Tour is a return to his home country of Spain for much of November. The Barcelona native also plans to “return a big house in the middle of the mountains” to bring in him family to celebrate before returning to Indianapolis in early December for offseason meetings and a physical.

But he also will make the promotional rounds in Spain’s capital of Madrid. After being miffed that he felt undercovered by Spanish media outlets in his Indy 500 debut last year, Palou proudly tweeted about his IndyCar championship prominently featured on the front page of MARCA, a major Spanish sports daily newspaper that mainly focuses on soccer. He also joked about bumping a headline on two-time Formula One champion Fernando Alonso – the country’s primary racing hero -- inside the paper.

“I think I’ve always been speaking bad about media in Spain, which I still do” said Palou, whose preseason prediction came true that he would win this year before more publicized Spanish drivers Alonso and Carlos Sainz Jr. (who remain winless in F1 2021). “But they are trying their best. So it’s a love-hate relationship, but it’s getting better. So yeah, I’ll try to take advantage of it, because I think it’s crazy we have the opportunity to talk more about IndyCar and the championship itself. And now that we’ve won, obviously about ourselves, too.

“It was amazing to see it on the Monday after Long Beach. You could see it was us and then (Lewis) Hamilton on the small side with the soccer. I actually put it on Twitter myself just because man, I didn’t expect that. That’s huge for Spain. Because it’s tough to follow a sport that it’s a different time zone. The other part of the world, and that you can not really follow it on TV. But for a newspaper like that to put it on the cover, it was huge.”

Palou is hoping to follow it up with another title in 2022, which is why his offseason regimen of simulator work and testing already is in full swing for his second season at Ganassi.

“That’s the good thing about having a year with the same team with the same group of people,” he said. “I know exactly what I need to improve. Hopefully it’s going to be enough to get the second (championship), or to fight for a second one. I think it will be. I know we have lots of places where we need to improve as a team and as a driver. Hopefully next year it’s going to be even better, and we can fight for the Indy 500 and the championship.”