Other than his parents and girlfriend, it’s doubtful that anyone had Chip Ganassi Racing newcomer Alex Palou penciled in as the team’s fastest driver to open the year in Free Practice 1, and again in qualifying for the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama.

But that’s precisely what the smiley 24-year-old delivered for the defending NTT IndyCar Series champions after capturing third on the starting grid,  ahead of teammates Scott Dixon in fifth and Marcus Ericsson in sixth.

The obvious caveat to insert at this point is qualifying third means nothing if the IndyCar sophomore fails to hold onto the position during Sunday’s race. But as the biggest question mark in field among the big teams entering the 2021 season, Palou removed any doubt that CGR made a solid choice in hiring the former Dale Coyne Racing with Team Goh driver.

“We’ve had a good winter of testing with him, and he’s been on pace everywhere,” the team’s managing director Mike Hull told RACER. “We’ve seen what he showed today (at Barber), and he’s working very well with his engineer Julian Robertson. He’s the real deal. People only saw what he did last year with Dale, but before that, he has a lot of experience in fast, high-power cars, so an Indy car isn’t going to faze him. I don’t know if I’m surprised by how he did for us today, but I’m certainly happy for him.”

Hull also complimented Palou’s performance inside the team.

“The good part is Alex has equally contributed over the winter with all four drivers to making us a better team,” he added. “We saw it at the first at Laguna Seca. He was on pace with no rubber down by early afternoon and gave great feedback for us to use, and he’d only ever driven there before in a video game. He’s not over-confident, and Alex fits well with us.”