Simon Pagenaud faced great expectations when he joined Team Penske prior to the 2015 season. The 31-year-old Frenchman, who lives in the heart of NASCAR country in Charlotte, N.C., had built them himself, winning two races in each of the previous two seasons for Sam Schmidt Racing. It was enough to convince Roger Penske to hire him and build a fourth team around to run the entire Verizon IndyCar season.
Pagenaud actually had a solid first season for Penske, a couple of thirds, a fourth and a fifth, but his 11th rank in the points seemed like a disappointment. It had been speculated that if he didn’t win in his second season for The Captain, he might not get a third.
Pagenaud stopped the speculation in its tracks Sunday by winning the non-stop, full-green IndyCar race at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. It was slightly controversial, but that does not matter. It’s in the books.
“I’m not someone who puts a lot of pressure on myself,” he said. “I like to just to be laser focused on my task, and that’s what I’ve been doing this year. It’s really nice to win for Roger and have that one checked off my list.”
Pagenaud had finished second in each of the two races this season.
“I knew it was coming because we’ve been so competitive since the beginning of the year,” he said. “I knew I could win races. It’s not my first win. I’ve been around. It was just a matter of when, and it’s when we were going to put ourselves in that position.”
Pagenaud put himself in the winning position when he took the lead with 25 laps to go on the two-mile street course that winds along the picturesque Long Beach shoreline and held off Target Chip Ganassi’s Scott Dixon.
Pagenaud had stayed out for two laps when leaders Helio Castroneves and Dixon pitted and used them to make up ground. Dixon thought he was comfortably in the lead until he saw Pagenaud’s Chevrolet exiting the pit lane.
“We got caught off guard a little bit before the pit sequence had already been finished,” Dixon said, “and then to hear when we’re coming down the (front) straight that the 22 (Pagenaud) was just coming out, we had actually backed off already and started saving fuel. With the gap that we had on Helio, I really didn’t think we had to worry about too much and didn't get any warning from the pits.
“Obviously that scenario was a lot closer than we anticipated, and then when we got to Turn 1, it appeared that Simon turned a little early and crossed the line that you're not meant to cross. I think we should have won the race.”
Dixon thought Pagenaud had violated an IndyCar edict on where to turn into Turn 1. His move into the lead, just barely, went under review by officials and Pagenaud was given a warning. Dixon thought Pagenaud should have been either given a penalty to drive through the pits or told to get behind Dixon.
“By all means any time you could not put more than two wheels over the line, and that was my understanding,” Dixon said. “I thought we were done with warnings and all this sort of wish wash stuff and we’re going to stick to hard rules, but obviously that wasn't the case today.”
Responded Pagenaud: “IndyCar has made it really clear this year what you can and cannot do, and it was certainly on the verge of being a stronger penalty, but I did get a warning. I only did it once in the race.”
Dixon, usually cool, was hot getting out of his car.
“Well, I was pretty mad once I got out of the car even with the last sort-of 15 laps waiting for a drive-through or at least a swap of positions “ he said. “I was even a little mad at Simon after the race, but it’s not his fault. You’ve got to try to take advantage whenever you can, but he doesn’t make the rules or put the rules forward. Huge credit obviously to Simon. He raced a fantastic race, and it was a great win for him and the team.”
Castoneves, Pagenaud’s Penske teammate who finished third, avoided the question of who was right.
“I will not go into that,” he said. “I don’t know. I don’t remember to be honest what they said. But certainly in practice we have to look—what we’ve got to do. I don’t recall.”
Can you feel Andretti’s pain?
As a driver and an owner, Michael Andretti has celebrated at Long Beach. Andretti drove to his first IndyCar victory in 1986, out-dueling Al Unser Jr. in a race that had the 80,000-plus spectators standing around the course in the closing laps.
Andretti has been a team owner in the series since 2003 and he’s won at Long Beach with Ryan Hunter-Reay in 2010 and Mike Conway in 2011.
They are three of the most memorable days in Andretti’s career. Sunday will be a day he’ll want to forget. Quickly.
Andretti Autosport had four cars in the race: Colombian Carlos Muniz finished 12th, Hunter-Reay was 18th, Marco Andretti 19th and rookie Alexander Rossi was 20th in the 21-car field.
The team is regarded as one of IndyCar’s big three along with Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing teams. Hunter-Reay won the 2014 Indy 500 and the 2012 series championship. For a team of Andretti’s stature, this year’s Long Beach was an unmitigated disaster.
“We had the same problem all weekend,” Hunter-Reay said. “We just don’t have the grip (traction) of our competitors. Our highest finishing car was 12th, that’s terrible.”
Hunter-Reay qualified in 11th position.
“That was me keeping it off the wall,” he said. “It was that bad. This was the worst car I’ve ever had at Long Beach. We seem to struggle on the bumpier circuits and Long Beach is one of the bumpier ones. We need to go back and look at our shock (absorbers) program and our dampers and rethink our street course setup.”
Newgarden hopes to rekindle magic at Barber
Josef Newgarden established himself as IndyCar’s emerging star a year ago, scoring a breakthrough first victory at Alabama’s Barber Motorsports Park and a confirming he’s-for-real second victory six races later in the Toronto street race. The 25-year-old from Hendersonville, Tenn., who now lives in Indianapolis, also led the series in laps led with 365.
Newgarden was seventh in the season championship driving for CFH Racing, the result of two small teams—Sarah Fisher Hartman and Ed Carpenter Racing—merging prior to the 2015 season. It brought additional information from running two cars, but didn’t add any of the technical resources that the powerhouse teams have in the series.
Newgarden had driven for the team since joining Sarah Fisher Hartman in 2012 and he signed a one-year contract to continue this season. Then, his original team ownership folded and he continued with Carpenter, driving in the full 16-race season with Carpenter joining him for the five races on ovals.
IndyCar returns to Barber, a 2.3-mile natural terrain road course, this weekend. Newgarden’s season could use another strong performance to boost his so-far so-so season. He had electrical problems in the opener on the streets of St. Petersburg, Fla., finished sixth at Phoenix and 10th at Long Beach.
“I think it helps everyone going there because we know we’ve won there team-wise and it helps a lot,” Newgarden said. “I don’t think it guarantees another win, but it helps us with confidence knowing we’ve been good there. We should have a good car and we should get it done.”
Newgarden didn’t undergo a panic attack after the ownership change.
“I knew the team was going to stay intact, be pretty much the same as last year, and that’s what it is,” he said. “The driving side hasn’t changed. I’m working with the same people. I had a really good year (in 2015). We really worked at it. It took us a couple of years to get there and when we got there, we had a really good group.”
Newgarden likely could have departed for another team following last season. He didn’t and has no regrets.
“I talked to other groups and, to be honest, there were options,” he said, “but I wanted to stay here. This group has been very good to me and Ed (Carpenter) has been very good to me. I feel confident in what we’re able to do as a team. We’re in a very good position to challenge Penske, Ganassi, Andretti. I think we can be championship contenders. We need to have a really consistent, clean season. We weren’t quite consistent enough last year.
“I think we can win a championship here. I really do. I realize how hard it is to do because Penske has a lot of money, Ganassi has a lot of money. They have their own wind tunnels and seven-shaker rigs, they have a lot more engineers, a lot more personnel, a lot more resources and they have more good drivers to share the resources. It’s difficult to beat them, but with the resources we have and we concentrate our efforts on the right things, we won’t get sidetracked and I think we make the most of it. I don’t think it is crazy that we can compete with them, but it is tough.”
Crazy? No. Newgarden has proven he’s a driver that can make a difference in lifting a smaller team higher.