Sunday's motors: Simon Pagenaud takes first Indy 500 pole with impressive run

Michael Marot
Associated Press
Simon Pagenaud celebrates after winning the pole for the Indianapolis 500.

Indianapolis — Simon Pagenaud keeps finding new ways to impress his team owner.

Last weekend, he rallied in the rain to end a 21-race drought. On Sunday, he put Roger Penske back on the pole for the Indianapolis 500. And he may not be finished.

Pagenaud traded high-fives and pumped his fist along pit row after earning the first Indy pole by a French driver in a century. He had a four-lap qualifying average of 229.992 mph to edge Ed Carpenter and Spencer Pigot and give Chevrolet a clean sweep of the front row for next Sunday’s race.

“Watching him run in that road race, in the water, I’ve never seen a run like that in my life,” Penske said after the team captured its 266th IndyCar pole. “And then to come out here and win the pole? We’ve got great momentum.”

The timing couldn’t be better for Pagenaud, either.

With his contract expiring at the end of this season and questions lingering about his future, the 2016 series champ has thrived this month on IndyCar’s biggest stage.

He won the IndyCar Grand Prix for his first trip to victory lane since the 2017 season finale at Sonoma. He earned his first pole since July 2017 at Toronto.

On Sunday, Pagenaud was the only driver in the nine-car pole shootout to top 230 on three of the four laps. He knocked a three-time Indy pole winner out of the top spot.

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Carpenter wound up second with an average of 229.889. Pigot, who also drives for Ed Carpenter Racing, will start third at 229.826.

“This is truly what Team Penske does,” Pagenaud said. “They give us the best equipment. Quite frankly, (my driving is) at the very, very end of what made this possible. I’m just very honored to drive this No.22 Chevy Menards, which obviously was very incredible today.”

Teammates Will Power, the defending race winner, and Josef Newgarden, the 2017 IndyCar champ, didn’t record a single lap on the 2.5-mile oval over 229. Three-time Indy winner Helio Castroneves didn’t even make the shootout.

And now Pagenaud has positioned himself perfectly to extend Penske’s record to 18 Indy 500 wins — as he celebrates the 50th anniversary of his first trip to Indy as a team owner.

Plus, Pagenaud also can become the second straight driver to sweep the two Indy races — joining Power. The Australian achieved the feat last year.

The only real competition in qualifying came from Carpenter’s three-car contingent, which included Ed Jones of Dubai landing in the No. 4 starting spot.

“To have Ed Carpenter cars starting second, third and fourth, I think that speaks volumes to the organization,” Carpenter said. “I really wish one of us would have ended up on pole, but I’m still really happy to be two, three and four. Simon just put in a really nice, long run. His car was so consistent. I couldn’t be that consistent, so, congrats to him.”

Pigot had the fastest car on Saturday and would have had the pole if rain had washed out qualifying.

But the track stayed dry just long enough for Pagenaud to take an even more trimmed out car around the track quickly and smoothly.

It was all he needed.

“I wouldn’t say I was doing a rain dance all day,” Pigot said. “As a race car driver, we love driving IndyCars to the limit and you definitely get a chance to do that here with qualifying. So, any chance we get to put four laps together here, it’s exciting. Unfortunately, it was a little short, but it was a great day for the team.”

Rookie Colton Herta was the top Honda-powered driver at fifth with a speed of 229.086. The American drives for Harding Steinbrenner Racing.

Sebastien Bourdais, also from France, was seventh at 228.621 and Alexander Rossi, the 2016 Indy winner, was ninth at 228.247. Bourdais drives for Dale Coyne with Vasser-Sullivan. Rossi is the only Andretti Autosport driver to make the first three rows in the 33-car field.

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McLaren misses out

Fernando Alonso did everything in his power to put McLaren in the Indianapolis 500. He drove flat-out when his car was loose, when it wouldn’t steer and when it had a punctured tire. When his team put together a desperate final setup and no one had a clue how it would perform, he charged wide-open into the first turn at Indianapolis Motor Speedway with zero fear.

“I tried. I tried my best,” he said.

His effort could not overcome the mistakes made by McLaren in its hyped return to the Indy 500. Alonso was bumped from the field by 23-year-old Kyle Kaiser in a dramatic last-gasp bid by tiny Juncos Racing. McLaren came to Indy with every inch of its car sold in sponsorship and guaranteed to turn a profit.

Juncos Racing lost its two primary sponsors right before opening day and spent most of this week in an unmarked white car.

Juncos was the underdog from the very start, and when Kaiser crashed Friday and destroyed the car, every one of Ricardo Junco’s employees worked through the night to put together a car for Kaiser to qualify.

“We worked 48 straight hours, we couldn’t think straight,” Juncos said.

Juncos all week has done everything better than mighty McLaren, the Formula One team that dominated Indy in the 1970s. Kaiser was faster than Alonso every day, and while Juncos was able to rebound fairly quickly from Kaiser’s crash, it took McLaren almost two full days to get a car ready after Alonso crashed on Wednesday.

McLaren then begged and borrowed for assistance all across the paddock, threw an entirely new setup on the car Sunday morning, and it dragged and sparked along the track on Alonso’s first lap. He had to pit for a fix, got in just five more laps of practice, then rain ended the session.

Juncos, meanwhile, never went on track Sunday morning in a decision the team owner believes got Kaiser into the race.

“We decided not to practice that was a key decision because it allowed us another four, five hours to work on the car,” he said. Now his phone is buzzing, potential sponsors are lining up, and he vowed to have a covered car in next Sunday’s race.

Alonso said he would be watching from home, and McLaren head Zak Brown told The Associated Press the team would not be buying out another entrant to get the two-time Formula One champion into the race.

“We’ll come back fighting. We don’t want to buy in,” Brown said. “We want to earn it. Anyone can buy in. We want to get in on merit.”

The McLaren miss is one of the biggest failures in Indy 500 history. Roger Penske missed the show with Al Unser Jr. and Emerson Fittipaldi in 1995, a year after dominating the race. Reigning CART champion Bobby Rahal missed it in 1993, and two-time Indy winner Rodger Ward never got up to speed to make the 1965 field.