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(Reuters) - Young Spaniard Alex Palou won the IndyCar season opener on Sunday, fighting off a late challenge from two series champions to collect his first career win at the Grand Prix of Alabama.
Palou, who made the move to Chip Ganassi Racing after last year's rookie campaign with Dale Coyne, kept his cool during pressure-packed final laps to get home ahead of Penske Racing's 2014 series champion Will Power and six-time defending champion team-mate Scott Dixon.
Pole-sitter Pato O'Ward of Mexico was fourth and four-time series champion Frenchman Sabastien Bourdais placed fifth.
"I knew it was possible because we had the best team and we had the best cars," said Palou, taking his first win in just his 15th career IndyCar start. "We did it, it's amazing, the entire team did an amazing job."
"It was one of those days when everything went well," he added.
The pre-race focus had been on a trio of hugely experienced rookies in the 24-car field: Jimmie Johnson, the 45-year-old seven-time NASCAR Cup series champion, Scott McLaughlin, a three-time champion of Australia's V8 SuperCars series and Frenchman Romain Grosjean, a veteran of 179 Formula One starts.
But at the end, the 24-year-old Palou outshone his Ganassi team-mates Johnson (45) and Dixon.
"A huge congratulations to Alex, the kid is on it," praised Johnson. "To be his age with so much talent is impressive to me."
For Dixon, who is bidding to join A.J. Foyt as the series only seven-time champions, it was another near miss at Birmingham's Barber Motorsport Park where the New Zealander has had six runner-up and three third-place finishes.
Back on the starting grid for the first time since November's fiery crash at the Formula One Bahrain Grand Prix, Grosjean made a strong start to his IndyCar career, finishing 10th after qualifying seventh.
McLaughlin was 14th and Johnson 19th, three laps down.
(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto. Editing by Karishma Singh.)