Simon Pagenaud hoping success on Belle Isle plays role in fight for championship

David Goricki
The Detroit News
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Detroit — The month of May and the Indianapolis 500 is now in the record books, and Team Penske driver Simon Pagenaud is looking forward to what he hopes is a run at the IndyCar series championship.

Roger Penske is not accustomed to having four-car teams. The last time Team Penske showcased four cars was in 2017, Josef Newgarden’s first season with the team. That 2017 season was Helio Castroneves’ final year with Team Penske, despite a win and a fourth-place finish in the point standings.

Simon Pagenaud sits in fourth place in points in the IndyCar Series standings.

Team Penske brought in 28-year-old rookie Scott McLaughlin, a three-time Australian Supercars champion, to join Newgarden, Will Power and Pagenaud this season.

And, while McLaughlin, Newgarden and Power are locked into multi-year deals, Pagenaud isn’t talking about his contract status, instead focusing on this weekend’s Detroit Grand Prix doubleheader on Belle Isle.

After all, Pagenaud is fourth in the points and feels a good run in 70-lap races on Saturday and Sunday on the 13-turn, 2.3-mile street course will put him in good position for the title chase.

Pagenaud finished third in the Indianapolis 500 and was happy to have a week off before making the trip to Detroit. In past years, the Belle Isle doubleheader was run the week after the Indy 500. The series didn’t make the trip to Belle Isle last year because of the pandemic.

“It’s been so good to have that break, being able to regroup, rest, get some good sleep, and then regroup mentally and focus on the next part of the championship,” said the 37-year-old Pagenaud, who attended the Detroit Grand Prix media luncheon Thursday at the Roostertail.

Pagenaud won his first career race on Belle Isle in 2013 while driving for Schmidt/Peterson/Hamilton Motorsports to finish third in the standings, then joined Team Penske in 2015 and won the series championship in 2016.

“My No. 1 goal is always Indy," he said, "and now I can really focus on the championship.”

Pagenaud has enjoyed success on the island. In addition to his first win back in 2013, he also finished third in 2015, second in 2016 and fifth in 2017.

“I love street courses and I think we have a good car for street courses as well,” Pagenaud said. “Like I said, I’m fully rested and feel really energized going in, so I think we have all the chances in the world.”

Pagenaud knows it is tougher than ever to reach Victory Lane with the young group of stars in Colton Herta, Alex Palou, Pato O’Ward and Rinus VeeKay all winning races this season.

“I think it’s great, it’s the nature of the sport, I’m excited to see it,” Pagenaud said. “I remember when I was the one coming in shaking people around. It’s great to see. It’s great for the fans. It’s great for the sport. It’s great that we have people like Helio at 46, that still writes the history book (winning a fourth Indy 500 last month). Like I said on TV, it just gave me another 10 years of my career thanks to him.

“It just shows that experience plays a big role in IndyCar, and youth also brings speed and pure raw performance and it pushes the veterans a little bit, and that mix is really interesting to see right now.”

More: Colton Herta looks for more street course success in IndyCar races on Belle Isle

When asked if he was closer to signing a contract extension with Team Penske, Pagenaud replied: “I personally don’t discuss contract. You can ask Roger (Penske) if you want. Personally, my future looks bright. I love IndyCar, so my goal is to be in IndyCar in the future. I have no worries about that.”

Penske was not at the luncheon.

Pagenaud has won 11 races in his seven years with Team Penske, five times during his title run in 2016 and three more times in 2019 when he finished second in points and signed an extension. His last win came last season at Iowa.

Newgarden has won 15 races and series titles in 2017 and 2019 since joining Penske. Power, who joined Team Penske in 2009, won the series title in 2014 and has won 15 races in the last seven years.

Welcome back, fans

Detroit Grand Prix race chairman Bud Denker is excited to have fans back again on Belle Isle for the IndyCar doubleheader.

Denker expects to have nearly 10,000 fans a day to watch the action.

“We will have between 8,500 and 10,000 fans a day, one-third of normal,” Denker said. “Our chalets will have about 2,500 people, fewer chalets so we will be one-third normal and it’s all because we had to order these grandstands five months ago, so grandstands are now all spoken for.

“The crowd was dictated months ago. We could have had many more if we had the infrastructure. You’re going to see tomorrow smaller grandstands in the straightaway, between turns 1 and 2. We could put about 6,000 people there where we’d normally have 12,000. Then, we’d have grandstands in the general admission areas, and we don’t have any of those. What we’re doing for general admission, we’ve built these platforms about four feet above the ground, about 100 feet long that they’re going to stand on. Those we can get because we can build them ourselves, so we’re only allowed 2,500 general admission a day, where we usually had four times that.”

More: No masks, no social distancing, no problem: Detroit fans enjoy 'worry-free' sporting events

Denker is thrilled no masks will be needed on Belle Isle.

“Importantly, no masks,” Denker said. “How about this, Michigan, one of the most restrictive states in the country through this whole process, will be the first IndyCar race, the first IMSA race with no social-distancing requirements and no masks, so the drivers are as happy as can be, the crews are as happy as can be. Everybody had to have a mask technically at Indy.”

Denker said 1,000 tickets are still available for Saturday and 2,000 for Sunday.

david.goricki@detroitnews.com

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