Two-time Detroit Grand Prix winner Graham Rahal and four-time Indy 500 winner Rick Mears preview the Indy 500 and the doubleheader races on Belle Isle. The Detroit News
There were rumors that Simon Pagenaud would lose his Team Penske seat to Alexander Rossi at the end of the season.
Pagenaud was in the midst of a 23-race winless streak while Rossi was one of the hottest drivers in the series. Rossi, the 2016 Indianapolis 500 champion, had three wins last season, finishing second to Scott Dixon in the fight for the IndyCar series championship.
Well, now it’s hard to imagine Pagenaud ever leaving Team Penske after becoming the first driver in series history to earn the clean sweep of the month of May, first winning the Indianapolis Grand Prix, then winning the pole and the race at the Indianapolis 500 on Sunday in team owner Roger Penske’s 50th year at the event.
“This is the best moment of my life surely, dreamt about this moment since I was 6 years old, so living your dream and achieving your dream is something else,” Pagenaud told The Detroit News in a phone interview Monday afternoon, before writing his speech for the Indy 500 Celebration Banquet later in the day. “I’m very blessed to live this life. I’ve had very little sleep, but I feel very energized because I’m so proud to be the Indy 500 champion. I’m proud to share this moment with as many people as possible.”
Pagenaud will be busy before making his way to the Motor City for this weekend’s Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix doubleheader on Belle Isle. He will leave Indianapolis after the Celebration Banquet and travel first to New York and then to Dallas for media tours, before heading to Detroit Wednesday to prepare for the doubleheader.
Pagenaud will have a lot to talk about, especially since he was involved in one of the closest finishes in Indy 500 history, first passing Rossi with just under two laps remaining, then holding off a pair of former Indy 500 winners – Rossi and Takuma Sato (2017) – to take the checkered flag.
Pagenaud, the 2016 series champion, was dominant all day, leading 111 of the 200 laps in his No. 22 Menards Chevrolet, but still needing to conserve fuel, which played into Rossi’s hands during the final 30 laps.
“It’s very hard when you have such a fast car not to lead the race, very hard to fall back and save fuel for sure,” said the 35-year-old Pagenaud, who is now the series points leader. “But then at some point we definitely had to do that, and luckily that’s when I realized my car was phenomenal in traffic and actually felt better following someone than driving on my own up front, where the car was really loose. It’s quite phenomenal to think about that because when I had to save fuel is when I realized that’s when I had the best chance to win.
“Right at the end when Rossi passed me right before the yellow I was full of confidence during the red flag that we would be able to get him back.”
Rossi took the lead from Pagenaud with 23 laps left, then Pagenaud caught a break when an accident forced a red flag — causing more than a 30-minute delay — when Graham Rahal and Sebastien Bourdais made contact with just over 20 laps remaining, enabling Pagenaud to go all out the rest of the way.
When racing resumed, Pagenaud and Rossi swapped the lead five times during the 13-lap shootout. Pagenaud overtook Rossi on the restart with 13 laps remaining, only to lose the lead on the following lap to Rossi, then take it back again before Rossi once again took the lead with three laps left.
Pagenaud waited for the right time to take his final pass, then went down the backstretch with just over a lap remaining and overtook Rossi from the outside and went on to hold off the hard-charging Rossi’s No. 27 Honda (Andretti Autosport) on multiple pass attempts the rest of the way. He became the first pole winner since 2009, when Team Penske driver Helio Castroneves won.
“There was a lot of pure instinct driving, but also lots of calculating when I passed him on the restart to check on how long it was going to take him to get me back,” said Pagenaud of the 13-lap shootout. “I noticed the amount of laps, and from there I waited for him to get me back and placed my attack for the very, very end.
“It was about playing to break the draft, a little bit of a game of chess at the end. I really enjoyed it. It was great racing with Rossi. His racing was phenomenal. He’s a very clean racer, as well. He and Andretti did a phenomenal job. It was very equal at the end, so very exciting for everybody.”
Pagenaud also became the third Team Penske driver in the last five years to win the Indy 500, joining Juan Pablo Montoya (2015) and Will Power last year. Penske drivers have won more Indy 500s (18) and Indy 500 poles (18) than any other team.
Pagenaud said his boss, 82-year-old boss Roger Penske, gave him tips on how to properly kiss the bricks at the start-finish line.
“He told me, ‘Put your hat backward or the visor is going to hit the ground before you kiss the bricks,” said Pagenaud. “I guess it’s good advice from someone that had won it 17 times, 18 now. I’m so, so proud to bring another win to Team Penske, it’s incredible. Just tasting the milk is a moment that I’ll remember forever. It’s certainly the best milk I’ve ever had.”
Pagenaud’s sponsor, billionaire John Menard, was also a first-time winner of the Indy 500. Menard was car owner of the late Scott Brayton (Coldwater, Mich.), who won consecutive Indy 500 poles in 1995-96 but had never won the prestigious race.
“He was there, very excited,” Pagenaud said. “He’s been trying to win the race for 40 years so it was obviously a very special delivery. Team Penske and John Menard together is just a winning celebration so I’m very proud to bring it to Victory Lane finally.”
After the race Penske said Pagenaud will “absolutely be back next year for Team Penske.”
Now, Team Penske heads to the Motor City for this weekend’s Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix with momentum, as Josef Newgarden finished fourth at Indy and Power fifth.
“It’s a big race coming up, obviously a Penske organization event so it’s another big priority of ours to do well,” Pagenaud said. “It’s Chevytown. It’s a great track, a fun track and I really love it there. I’m excited to go there.
“It’s going to be tough. I know I’ll have a long week ahead for myself and I’m not going to be as prepared as I usually am because of all of the requests, but I’ll do all I can to be ready and try to win the race. We’ve done major improvement on the race car for the street circuit so I have great expectations for Detroit.”
Pagenaud won his first career IndyCar race on Belle Isle while driving for Schmidt/Peterson/Hamilton Motorsports in 2013, two years before joining Team Penske. He finished third in 2015 and second in 2016 in Detroit.
Detroit Grand Prix
When: Friday-Sunday. The IndyCar races are Saturday and Sunday, both at 3:30 p.m.
Where: Raceway at Belle Isle
TV: Both IndyCar races on NBC
Tickets: detroitgp.com or (866) 464-PRIX
2018 winners: Scott Dixon (Race 1) and Ryan Hunter-Reay (Race 2)
Detroit Grand Prix highlights
7:30 a.m. – Gates open
7:45 a.m. – Trans Am Series Practice 1
8:30 a.m. – IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship Practice 1
11 a.m. – NTT IndyCar Series Practice 1
Noon – Trans Am Series Practice 2
12:50 p.m. – IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship Practice 2
3 p.m. – NTT IndyCar Series Practice 2
4:30 p.m. – Trans Am Series Race 1 qualifying
5:15 p.m. – IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship qualifying
8 a.m. – Gates open
9:15 a.m. – Trans Am Series Race 1
10:45 a.m. – NTT IndyCar Series Race 1 qualifying
11:45 a.m. – IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship open grid fan walk (pit lane)
12:30 p.m. – IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship Race
12:45 p.m. – NTT IndyCar Series drivers autograph session (Firestone Fan Village within Meijer Fan Zone)
3:30 p.m. – NTT IndyCar Series Race 1
6 p.m. – Frankie Ballard concert (Entertainment Stage within Meijer Fan Zone)
8 a.m. – Gates open
10 a.m. – Trans Am Series drivers autograph session (Heritage Exhibit Tent)
10:45 a.m. – NTT IndyCar Series Race 2 qualifying
11:45 a.m. – Trans Am Series Race 2
1 p.m. – Stone Temple Pilots concert (Entertainment Stage within Meijer Fan Zone)
2 p.m. – 30th Detroit Grand Prix celebration activities
3:30 p.m. – NTT IndyCar Series Race 2