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Simon Pagenaud wins at Barber Motorsports to continue hot start

Simon Pagenaud won his second straight Verizon IndyCar Series race in the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama. 

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Simon Pagenaud won his second straight Verizon IndyCar Series race in the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama on the 2.3-mile road course at Barber Motorsports Park. After two second-place finishes to start the season, and now victories on back-to-back Sundays, Pagenaud extends his championship lead over Scott Dixon to 188–140, with 14 races remaining.   

The affable Frenchman made a skilled recovery from contact that sent him off track with less than nine laps remaining and passed Graham Rahal for the lead three laps later. As Rahal’s Honda charged to challenge Pagenaud for the lead,  Rahal’s left-front tire made contact with Pagenaud’s right rear and sent him off course to the left of the track. Rahal took the lead, but Pagenaud began closing on him.

Rahal was behind Jack Hawksworth’s almost-lapped Honda and Pagenaud made a bold move the outside to sweep into the lead. Rahal tried to go around Hawksworth and made contact that damaged his front wing. Unable to mount a counterattack, Rahal lost by 13 seconds.

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“In the end, Graham really caught up, and he gave me a good piece of driving that was amazing from him,” Pagenaud said. “I put my hat off to him for that. He got me really excited, and I wouldn't say that—the redness came up after I went off track. I said, yeah, I'm going to get that one back no matter what. We had so much pace in the car that I could get back to him, and then it was about being aggressive. He got a little too aggressive over the curb, and that was my chance.”

Rahal thought he gave the race away.

"I thought I was the best on the long run all day, and quite simply we just let this one slip today," Rahal said. "This one I feel like should have been ours. I let the guys down.

"Definitely felt like at the end we had the car to beat and just kind of took my eye off the ball there for a second when Jack was in front of us and (I) looked down, pressed push-to-pass and by the time I looked up and got my reaction, it was a little too late. ... Just had a brain lapse there for a second and I got into the back of Jack."

Pagenaud seemed to enjoy his second victory for team owner Roger Penske more than his first.

“It feels great,” he said. “I've got to tell you guys, the biggest thing is when your work pays off, when you work so hard and it pays off like this, it's so rewarding. You feel so grateful. So,it's the whole team, and it's not just me. I'm definitely driving my best right now, but they're also doing the best job they can do.”

Montoya, Dixon salvage top 10s

 After the worst qualifying performance of his 79-race IndyCar career, Juan Pablo Montoya started 21st at Barber. But the Colombian was able to finish fifth in a masterful drive that kept him third in the points with 136.

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"We had a good car all weekend, but just in qualifying, our tires just didn't come in,” Montoya said. “I don't know what happened and we'll go back and look at what went wrong there. We knew we had a fast car. It was fun and we made some good moves today. At the start of the race, if you would have told me I would have finished fifth, I wouldn't have believed it. I'm pretty happy where we finished and now we look ahead to Indy.”

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Pagenaud called Montoya’s fifth “so amazing,” adding “How did he do that? Yeah, I guess he was hungry. I have to obviously watch the race to understand the strategy, but great job. That's amazing.”

Scott Dixon salvaged 10th after contact early in the race dropped him to 20th. Dixon wasn’t available for comment following the race, but Sebastien Bourdais took responsibility for ruining his race.

Dixon started fourth, Bourdais fifth and Rahal sixth.

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“I feel really sorry for Scott (Dixon),” Bourdais said. “He was collateral damage in something that was not in any way his fault. I was fighting with Graham (Rahal), side-by-side with him, trying to hold position and Scott was probably trying to do the crossover on the inside in turn five on someone. I was boxed in. Scott in front and Graham on the right, there was no escaping from there. It is my fault, so I have to apologize for that.”

Bourdais also wrecked his race. It was his highest starting position of the season and he finished 16th.

“This was a wasted opportunity, but there is nothing I can do about that now, so just move on and try not to make a mistake like that again,” he said.

Can the Grand Prix of Indianapolis reignite the month of May?

For most of the 20th Century, practice and qualifying for the Indianapolis 500 began in early May and lasted until the month’s final weekend, which was reserved for Carburetion Day—the last practice to allow cars that had qualified into the 33-car field to make sure everything was working after fresh engines were installed and the cars had been gone through to check for anything that might have trouble completing 200 laps—and the race.

The lengthy on-track activity for the world’s most famous motor race provided a bonanza of publicity nationally and internationally, primarily through wire service reports to newspapers. These were also days of technical innovation and almost annual increases of track record speeds. Television’s impact on practice and qualifying didn’t begin until the mid-1990s and coincided with speeds leveling off and technological advances that were slowed by the advent of sanctioning from the Indy Racing League. Attendance for qualifying, particularly Pole Day, fell to embarrassing levels and television sent it out to the nation and world.

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In 1998, qualifying was reduced to one week of practice, two days of qualifications over one weekend, Carb Day and the race. The reduction of qualifying was intended to make it possible for fans to see the field set in one weekend. It didn’t help. Executives at the Indianapolis and IRL—now known as IndyCar—began a series of changes involving days of practice, qualifying and qualifying formats. By the early 2000s, IndyCar had the rival CART and Champ Car organizations on the run—both eventually went bankrupt—with the Penske, Ganassi, Andretti and Rahal teams in the series and back in the 500, qualifying average speeds at Indy were above 230 miles per hour by 2002, and the current cars and engines from Chevrolet and Honda are loaded with new technology and new looks. But nothing has brought the pre-race crowds back.

The 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 is May 29 and it’s expected to be a sellout for the first time in a decade. IndyCar is at its healthiest level since the famous split with CART 20 years ago and has momentum in the rebuilding process. But the Indy 500 practice and qualifying sessions remain reduced with one week of practice and two qualifying days leading into Carb Day and the race.

In 2014, IndyCar added the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis on the IMS’ infield road course to reshape May into a two-race month. It’s the next race on the schedule, May 14, following two days of practice and qualifying. What IndyCar is really trying to accomplish with the Indianapolis GP is to lift the profile of the famous 2 ½-mile speedway and spark interest in the Indy 500. It will be interesting to see if this year’s race achieves that objective.

Will Power won the Indy GP in 2014 and Pagenaud in 2015.