Simon Pagenaud focused on defending IndyCar title

WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. (AP) Simon Pagenaud has two races to atone for a costly mistake.

Winning a second straight IndyCar championship remained on his radar prior to qualifying on Saturday at Watkins Glen International. He sits fourth in the standings, 43 points behind Penske Racing teammate Josef Newgarden.

''It's going to be tough,'' Pagenaud said. ''I need to pick up a lot of points. As long as I'm 30 points behind whoever's going to be leading coming out of here, I've got a chance at Sonoma. That's going to be the goal.''

Newgarden figures to be one leading. He holds a 31-point lead over four-time champion Scott Dixon of Chip Ganassi Racing and is 42 ahead of Penske teammates Helio Castroneves.

Still, the 26-year-old Tennessee driver remained wary.

''I'm thinking anything can happen. It's not a safe lead,'' Newgarden said.

A year ago, Pagenaud departed Watkins Glen International with a comfortable lead over teammate Will Power and won his first IndyCar title with a dominating performance at Sonoma in the season finale.

Pagenaud was poised to collect his second victory of the season last Saturday night at Gateway Motorsports Park outside St. Louis, but Newgarden used an aggressive move in the closing laps to deny him. He darted inside of Pagenaud, who was leading on a restart, and when the two cars briefly touched the Frenchman's No. 1 drifted up the track and Newgarden sped to his series-leading fourth win of the season.

Pagenaud, in his third season driving for Penske, finished third, and was steaming afterward. He called it a ''NASCAR move'' and suggested the outcome of the race might have been different if the two weren't teammates.

That team owner Roger Penske saw nothing wrong with the pass sent a message.

''The emotions were pretty high,'' Pagenaud said. ''The move was the move, it was aggressive, for sure. But I'm disappointed in the reaction that came out. It's not good for the guys on the team. The biggest thing is Josef and I are here for a long time and we're going to have to be good teammates for years. You can't come out like that.

''He did a tremendous job. I just have to be a bit more aggressive,'' Pagenaud said. ''The next day I realized how lucky we really are to be able to race each other so hard. On another team, we couldn't race like that. You get to see some really good fights.''

Pagenaud notched five wins in 2016, and while he's only won once this season he leads the series with 12 top-fives and remains optimistic about his chances.

''We've been strong pretty much every weekend,'' he said. ''Last year we were dominating and all I had to do was finish and make sure we didn't crash. Instead, I went on the attack side and won the race (at Sonoma) to protect myself. This year is a very different situation.

''Now, maybe it's time to ratchet it up a little bit and be a little bit more aggressive,'' said Pagenaud, who faltered in qualifying and will start 12th, behind the three drivers ahead of him. ''When we win it, it will be really great to see that we can do it both ways. I feel like we can pull it out.''

The drivers chasing Newgarden were keeping a close eye on the weather radar. At midafternoon Saturday the forecast for Sunday afternoon's race called for a 90 percent of rain and thundershowers. Firestone redesigned the rain tire used by the series in 2015, but IndyCar said it's never been used in a race, adding a dose of uncertainty.

''I'm hoping for some rain. It would mix things up, give you a big opportunity,'' Pagenaud said. ''It would make any error more costly. In those conditions you have nothing to lose.''

''It's good if it works out for you,'' said Dixon, who qualified second in his quest for a fifth victory Watkins Glen.

Newgarden will start third behind pole winner Alexander Rossi.

''I still think it's going to come down to Sonoma,'' Newgarden said. ''I think tomorrow is going to be a difficult day.''

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