Points leader Pagenaud floors pedal for Penske

David Goricki
The Detroit News

Detroit — Simon Pagenaud is riding high.

In his sixth year on the IndyCar circuit, Pagenaud leads the points race (292-235 over Scott Dixon), has a series-high three victories, two second-place finishes and a 19th-place at last weekend’s Indianapolis 500.

“Coming to Team Penske, the expectation is to win,” said Pagenaud, in his second season with the team. “We have the best equipment, and if Roger wants you as a driver, that means you have the talent and there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be up there.

“When you go to a new team it takes a little bit of time, you go through growing pains which we did. The potential of the team was tremendous last year, but we didn’t show it to the public eye and now it’s really showing.”

Pagenaud, who turned 32 last month, entered last weekend’s Indianapolis 500 on a three-race winning streak — Long Beach, Alabama, Grand Prix of Indianapolis.

Now comes the Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix this weekend, where he earned his first career victory three years ago driving for Sam Schmidt.

In his first year with Team Penske, he finished third at Belle Isle and 11th in the points race.

Now he’s the hunter in his second year with the team.

“Roger (Penske) gives us everything to perform to the best level,,” Pagenaud said. “It’s very rare to end up in one of these teams who is going to give you everything he can have to do the best job you can. ... You come back after a race, and even if you win, you’re trying to improve.”

Pagenaud was the hot free agent after the 2014 season when he finished fifth in the points race for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, winning the Inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis and then at Houston.

That’s when Penske scooped him up.

“The rumors of where I was going to go were not really leading toward Team Penske, and it was funny for us because we knew obviously (the deal) was already done,” Pagenaud said. “It was funny to see how it unfolded and how big of a surprise it was to a lot of people.”

Said Penske: “He’s a real keeper. When you look at a driver, he’s someone who has won in some type of racing which he did. Obviously, he’s the right age. I think technically he’s pretty savvy, the communication with his engineer, and commercially he has been an outstanding success with our sponsors which is always so important for us as we look at the business.”

When Pagenaud joined Penske’s team, he was the young up-and-comer.

The greybeard is Helio Castroneves, who won his first race for the team on Belle Isle in 2000, and has three Indianapolis 500s among his 29 victories (six on the CART series).

But that was just the beginning.

Also on the team are Will Power, who has 22 victories — and a series title — during his eight-year career with Penske; and Juan Pablo Montoya, who has 15 career wins (10 CART).

“Obviously, Montoya, I used to watch him Formula One and NASCAR and he’s incredible, can drive everything, probably one of the greatest drivers we’ve seen of all time,” said Pagenaud, who has seven career victories. “Power is probably the fastest driver you’ll find anywhere in the world, incredible over one lap. And, Helio is the flamboyant, magical guy who can do something that nobody else can do at times and it’s incredible when he manages to get it together.

“Myself, I’m on the rise and I can learn from all these guys.”

And, he believes he can learn from his Indianapolis 500 finish and carry that over to this weekend’s doubleheader (70-lap races Saturday and Sunday).

“Every time we’re on the track we seem to be near the top, so it’s just about trying to make the right decision at the right time and I think that’s what has been working so well for us,” Pagenaud said. “At Indy, I think if we didn’t have the mechanical issue we would have been contending, so I haven’t lost any confidence.”

david.goricki@detroitnews.com

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