Pagenaud rebounding from rocky 2018 start

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(Joe Skibinski/INDYCAR)

After winning the last race of 2017 at Sonoma Raceway and falling 13 points short of repeating as Verizon IndyCar Series Champion, Team Penske’s Simon Pagenaud had every reason to be optimistic heading into 2018. Beginning his fourth season with Team Penske, Pagenaud seemed to be one of the preseason championship favorites.

Unfortunately, the new season and UAK18 (2018 Universal Aero Kit) era got off to an uninspiring start for Pagenaud and the No. 22 team on the streets of St. Petersburg. The 2016 Champion started 11th and finished 13th without leading a lap.

Next up for Pagenaud would be a return to ISM Raceway in Avondale, Arizona, site of his first career oval win the previous year. After leading 116 laps and winning in 2017, the Montmorillon, France native hoped his prior success would continue with the new aero kit on the 1.022-mile oval.

After qualifying second for the 250-lap race, things seemed to be trending upward for his season. That momentum, however, would be lated in a hurry come race time. Issues on the first set of pit stops mired him in the middle of the pack. Pagenaud would lead for three laps on the final set of green flag pit stops, but would end the night in tenth, the penultimate car on the lead lap.

The following week at Long Beach, the weekend began with even more promise of a good result for Pagenaud. He was top five in all but one practice session, and qualified third, the starting position he had in his 2016 win at the famed street course. His fate for the 2018 race would not be so good.

Lap 1 contact from Graham Rahal at Long Beach ended Pagenaud’s day early (Richard Dowdy/INDYCAR)

At the start, Pagenaud was bumped from behind by Graham Rahal, sending the 2016 winner into the outside wall, as his car sustained toe link bar damage. The day was done before it ever got to an honest start for the Chevrolet-powered team.

A week later at Barber Motorsports Park, Pagenuad would start the race from ninth again looking to repeat a victory from his 2016 campaign. It was not meant to be, however. The Penske driver did manage a season-best ninth.

Slightly overshadowing his on-tracking performance, Pagenaud wound up in a heated postface discussion with Harding Racing’s Gabby Chaves, who was two laps down and the 11-time Indycar race winner felt held him up.

The focus shifted to the month of May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as Pagenaud looked to put the disappointment of 2018’s first four races behind him. Things started off well for Pagenaud even before the opening practice session on May 15.

The Frenchman was second-quickest in the latter of two open sessions for veterans testing on April 30 in the lead-up to the Indianapolis 500. After the test, Pagenaud admitted how much of an adjsutment the new aero kit had been.

“I think it’s actually harder for us to have been driving those cars for so many years where we had to adapt to more grip, trying more, pushing more, pushing the limits away,” he expressed in his press conference.

“All of a sudden we got to go the other way, which is very hard for a racing driver, to actually hold yourself back. It’s really difficult.”

As for the races that month, Pagenaud started seventh for the IndyCar Grand Prix on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course. Despite contact with Jordan King on Lap 1, the 2014 and 2016 event winner managed a solid, yet unspectacular day and finished eighth.

The focus shifted to May 27 and the 102nd Indianapolis 500, the first race on a super speedway for the UAK18.

After leading opening practice on May 15, Pagenaud made his presence felt as one of the early contenders. The Penske team lead a revitalized Chevrolet effort that had fallen behind Honda at Indianapolis during the final two years of the manufacturer aero kit battle.

On Saturday, he beat the first of two rain delays to clock the second-fastest time and make the Fast 9 shootout for the pole the next day.  On Pole Day, Pagenaud again would be second, as Ed Carpenter stormed to his third Indianapolis 500 pole.

Despite the disappointment of missing out on pole, Pagenaud was excited to make the front row for the first time since hie qualified third in 2015 (his first 500 with Penske). In particular, he emphasized the progress Chevrolet had made for the race. The engine manufacturer swept the first four spots and had seven of the Fast 9.

“I think it’s a phenomenal job from Chevrolet, first of all,” he exclaimed.

Pagenaud earned his best career starting and finishing spot at the Indianapolis 500 in May (Chris Owens/INDYCAR)

“What an incredible return — they turned the table. It’s incredible compared to last year, the improvement that was made. I can’t say — I can’t thank them enough for the progress and the hard work that they put in this winter. It’s been incredible.”

From his starting position in the middle of the front row, Pagenaud would see Carpenter and his teammate Will Power (who started alongside Carpenter and Pagenaud in third) dominate the race.

Pagenaud led one lap, but Power and Carpenter would combine to lead 124 of 200 laps. Power finished 3.1389 seconds ahead of Carpenter to win his first 500. The second-place starter did manage a sixth-place finish that day, Pagenaud’s best of the season and his best in seven Indianapolis 500 starts.

From there it was on to the doubleheader weekend at Belle Isle, site of his first career win in 2013. The success on the road course and oval at Indianapolis would not follow him to the demanding street circuit in Detroit. After starting 13th and finishing 17th in the first race, the 2013 Dual 2 winner started eighth and finished 10th to close out the weekend.

Capping off the most grueling part of the 2018 schedule, Pagenaud and the Verizon IndyCar Series headed to Texas Motor Speedway. For the fifth time in seven races at the 1.5-mile oval, he qualified in the Top 10.

In what has become a theme for the driver of the No. 22 on ovals in 2018, he qualified second. This time, it was his teammate Josef Newgarden who outran Pagenaud for the pole. The second-place effort matched his best career starting position at the track, which he achieved in 2015.

“We seem to qualify front row pretty much every oval,” he noted after his run.  “We missed the pole on three ovals so far by a little bit.It was a fantastic effort from the whole 22 team.”

The following night, Pagenaud would overcome right front tire blistering to lead 26 laps and hold off a hard-charging Alexander Rossi for second. It would be his first top five since his win in the 2017 finale at Sonoma and his first career podium finish at an oval longer than 1.3 miles.

Pagenaud’s Second-Place finish at Texas on Saturday night was his best of 2018 (Chris Owens/INDYCAR)

Despite a frustrating start to his season, Pagenaud hasn’t given up on his 2018 season and his runner-up effort at Texas gave him even more reason not to.

“It’s never over anyways,” he said after the race of his championship chances.

“We saw the last year, Newgarden really started his momentum mid-season, went on and won the championship. I did the same last year really. I started really doing good job in Toronto.”

“This year’s been a tough start. There were a lot of unknowns. Got taken out a few times, which hasn’t happened in the past. It’s not all unknown, not easy to understand. From then on, luck always turns around. It goes by cycle.”

With an off week before the Verizon IndyCar Series heads to a challenging Road America circuit, keeping the recent success going will be key for Pagenaud and his Penske team.

As he looks towards a track where he has started fourth each of the previous two years, leading two laps in 2016 and finishing fourth in 2017, Pagenaud will look to continue that luck and his luck from Texas to finish 2018 strong.

Images courtesy of INDYCAR Media.

Spencer Neff

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