INDIANAPOLIS – We should have learned during the Month of May to not doubt Simon Pagenaud. How foolish were we to write off Pagenaud again? Heading into the fourth race of the NTT IndyCar Series season, everyone pretty much assumed that 2019 would be the Frenchman’s last with Team Penske. He was 12th in the season standings and coming off of two top 10 finishes in three races, but none of which being in the top five. While he was a top 10 machine, contending for wins wasn’t happening anymore.
Plus, with Alexander Rossi a free agent at seasons end, the hot rumor was Rossi would replace Pagenaud with the organization. What Pagenaud did next was dispel any rumors.
He started fifth and finished sixth in Long Beach to enter the Month of May 11th in the points standings. Then, he won not just the INDYCAR Grand Prix, but started on the pole and won the Indianapolis 500 as well. He jumped from 11th to first in the points leaving Indy.
Simon Pagenaud celebrates his Honda Indy Toronto win last Sunday – INDYCAR Media Site
Roger Penske gave Pagenaud the assurance then that he’d be back in his No. 22 Chevrolet for 2020. But, with how things were going, that No. 22 could very well become the No. 1 again.
Then, the Indy 500 winners hangover occurred. Pagenaud, entered Sunday’s Honda Indy Toronto without a top five finish since his ‘500 triumph on May 26. He had three top 10’s in four tries, but none resulted in a finish better than sixth.
Pagenaud, admitted following his win last Sunday in Toronto that the hangover was larger than expected.
“It’s just I had to rest and I had to gather myself after this big storm that happened to me after winning Indy,” Pagenaud said on how busy and exhausted he was in the weeks following his Indy win. “I reorganized my team around me, not Penske, but my personal team, Team Pagenaud. We’re doing a great job with that, which is about optimizing time so I can have time focusing on racing. That’s what we’re going to have to do, but it seems like it’s working.”
Immediately following his Indy 500 triumph, Pagenaud had a whole slew of media obligations. He had an early morning wake up call on Memorial Day to take the winners photos on the Yard of Bricks. Then, more media. Then, the Victory Banquet. Then, a jet out of town to go from one media outlet to another. It was a busy week of different cities.
Oh yeah, he still had to be back in his race car on Friday morning. On top of that, it was a doubleheader race weekend so he had not just one race, but two. Furthermore, he’s a Penske driver and Roger Penske promotes the duels in Detroit. So, Pagenaud had more obligations not just on the media front, but on the sponsorship front in Detroit too.
From there, it’s to Texas for another oval. Then, a brief week off before a grueling race in Road America. There wasn’t much time to breath for Pagenaud. So, after the race on June 23, Pagenaud got out of town – literally. He went back to France which was the closure of his chapter as an Indy 500 champion – for now.
“I think that was definitely a closure to go to France and realize the impact of the biggest race in the world,” said Pagenaud on how grueling it really is to be an Indy 500 champion. “I had no idea the impact it was going to have in France. It was quite incredible.”
By doing that, Pagenaud not only got the rest that he needed, he was able to prepare again. He went from Indy 500 champion to adding more hunger for a second season championship.
“Yeah, I’m definitely switched to championship mode now,” said Pagenaud.
Unfortunately, with how well Rossi and Josef Newgarden were driving since Indy, they had kind of pulled away from the rest field. The championship race looked to be between the two of them moving forward.
How dare us count Pagenaud who sat third in the standings out again though. He was well rested for the first time since early May and had time to do the things that a race car driver needs to do to prepare for a race.
Pagenaud, backed that up and had a perfect weekend in Toronto. He was quickest in practice on Friday. He was quickest in practice on Saturday. He won his 12th career pole on Saturday afternoon. Then in the race itself, he led 80 of 85 laps en route to his third win of the season and his second straight top two finish on the streets of Toronto. Pagenaud, went from 61 points down to 39 points out with still six races remaining.
If he can make up 22 points in one weekend, what can he do in six?
“Pressure, I do very well under pressure,” said Pagenaud on rejoining the championship race. “It just drives me. I love it because that’s when you have to extract more out of yourself. There’s no other way to go. You can’t turn back. It’s just time to go for me right now. It’s championship time.
“I’m determined. I told (team owner) Roger (Penske) before the weekend, I said, I’m 100 percent in and I’m going to give you everything I have. That’s what you want to hear. That’s what you want to do, go out and win championships.”
When asked if he heard the noise of it becoming a Rossi vs. Newgarden championship fight, Pagenaud didn’t balk. He said that he knew his abilities and never thought for a second that he’d let them get too far away.
“I think if you look at my Indy Car career, I’ve been fighting for championships almost every year. Never count me out. That’s all I can say.
“Maybe here in the end, I’m showing it today, that’s my determination that’s talking, it’s not pretentious, it’s just that I have a great team behind me. We won the biggest race in the world. We just won an awesome race. To be at a driver track where you need to have a really good car, chassis and engine, we showed that.
We’ve got all the equipment, all the tools to do so well. Now it’s just a matter of knowing when to push it. It’s a long championship. You’ve got to build it. I’m here and I think Newgarden, Rossi and Dixon know it, like I know they’re here, too. It’s going to be a great fight in the end.”
Pagenaud, now hopes to continue this streak to this weekend’s race at the Iowa Speedway. It’s the middle race of a three week stretch that also includes Mid-Ohio. All are strong tracks for the Frenchman.
Simon Pagenaud races his No. 22 Chevrolet at the Iowa Speedway in 2018 – INDYCAR Media Site
Pagenaud, finished in the top 10 in five of his seven Iowa tries. In Mid-Ohio, he won this race in 2016 and has seven consecutive top 10 finishes on the northern Ohio road course including four podiums.
Then, it’s another two weeks off for a chance to decompress again before heading to the final superspeedway on the schedule. Pagenaud, has five top 10 finishes in six tries at the Pocono Raceway. After that, it’s the final oval on the schedule in Gateway, a spot where he has finishes of third and fourth respectively. Then, the final two races take place in a span of three weeks, a week off between will ensue.
The rest is coming and Pagenaud has shown that he can win if given time between races.
“I don’t believe it’s going to be tough,” Pagenaud said of the upcoming final stretch of the season. “Those tracks coming up are very good for us. I love Iowa. It’s a fun oval. Mid-Ohio, it’s a really good track.
“We just going to have to approach it the same way we have and execute. I think the momentum that we have, the way that my mechanics work on the racecar, the smiles that they have mornings and evenings, just shows the potential of our team.”