Simon Pagenaud pulled off a late pass on defending series champion Scott Dixon to win the Grand Prix of Indianapolis on Saturday to snap his 22-race winless streak and, more importantly, give him confidence heading into the Indianapolis 500 on May 26.
Pagenaud, who will turn 35 on Indy Pole Day on Saturday, won the IndyCar series championship in his second year with Team Penske in 2016, winning five races, then finished second in points in ’17 with two more wins before last year’s winless season.
Pagenaud trailed Dixon by six seconds with five laps remaining Saturday, but Pagenaud displayed his talent of driving in the rain to close in on Dixon, then pass him with just over a lap left when Dixon, struggling with his tires, slid wide coming out of Turn 7 on the 2.439-mile, 14-turn course, enabling Pagenaud to make his winning move.
“It was a great day,” Pagenaud said. “What happened last year happened last year, and I think because of it we improved and because of it was one of the reasons we won the race.
“It was definitely very important for us to go into Indy feeling a boost of confidence and helping my crew, my engineers, the whole team feel that energy going into the 500. It was big, for sure.”
Pagenaud said his No. 22 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet was fast all day in dry or rainy conditions.
“In the dry we got off to the lead, and then all of a sudden it started raining with 25 laps to go, so it was a bit of a disappointment and at the time was thinking maybe we lost the race, but luckily our car was just phenomenal in those conditions,” Pagenaud said. “I noticed my strengths compared to the others very quickly and I noticed the car's strengths compared to the others as well very quickly, and was able to utilize that and maximize that to go forward.
“I noticed I was able to maintain my times better than most, and at the end of the race I think everybody else was suffering with that, and I wasn’t so I pushed as hard as I could and the dream to catch Dixon became possible so it’s about never giving up.”
Practice for the Indy 500 started Tuesday and Pagenaud took over right where he left off, but this time on the 2½-mile oval. He was second fastest (229.703 mph) during practice behind Team Penske teammate and defending Indy 500 winner Will Power’s lap of 229.745 mph.
Obviously, Pagenaud wants what Power owns, an Indy 500 title to go with his series championship. He started second and finished sixth in last year’s Indy 500.
This will be the 50th year that Roger Penske has had cars competing in the Indianapolis 500 with his drivers winning 17 times.
“It’s basically become my No. 1 priority now, winning the Indianapolis 500,” Pagenaud said. “All I have to do is keep doing what I’ve been doing. Every year I have more experience and I feel I have the best chance this year. The team has worked really, really hard on the speedway car, on trying to understand how to reduce friction as much as possible, how we can be faster. I’m ready to get started and hopefully put my name on the Borg-Warner (Trophy)."
Last year, Team Penske drivers, at times, struggled with the new aero kit, but has made significant strides in turning things around with Pagenaud’s teammate Josef Newgarden winning the season opener, the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg,and then Pagenaud’s win in Race No. 5.
“Well, I’ll tell you what, that’s the beauty of being with Team Penske,” Pagenaud said. “They always will make sure you’ll have the best car possible. They are always trying to make the car better for me.
“We worked on obviously the suspension because that’s where we can do most of the work. We also worked on understanding the aerodynamic of the car with it, and that’s always a compromise you really have to work on so that’s what we did over the winter. We had a really good gathering with the engineers and the drivers right after Sonoma and a plan was put in place to move forward and it worked. So far, I think our strength is street course, road course we have some work to do, but on the speedway I think we’ll be very strong.”
The Detroit Grand Prix doubleheader on Belle Isle’s street course is set for May 31-June 2, and Belle Isle has a special place in Pagenaud’s heart because he won his first IndyCar series race there back in 2013. He finished third on Belle Isle during his first year with Team Penske in 2015, then second in Race No. 2 during his title season in ’16.
Double points are rewarded for the Indy 500, then double points are available with the doubleheader on Belle Isle.
“We’re very much in the thick of the season, Pagenaud said. "This is where you really have to be strong to win the series championship. The goal is to score a lot of points at Indy, it’s obviously a double-point race, then double points at Detroit since it’s a doubleheader, so 200 points available in the next few weeks.
“Detroit is very specific because after two weeks of running at the speedway, it’s quite difficult to re-adapt to a bumpy track, a track that’s very technical and demanding physically so it’s a big challenge, but I love it. Like I’ve said many times this is where I had my first IndyCar win, so I’m always very excited to come to Detroit and we celebrate 30 years this year, so it will be a big weekend.”