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IndyCar’s Pagenaud Rolls Into The Month Of May

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, April 26 2016
With two straight victories at his back, Simon Pagenaud is headed to Indianapolis. (Photos courtesy of INDYCAR)

With two straight victories at his back, Simon Pagenaud is headed to Indianapolis. (Photos courtesy of INDYCAR)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

Sans apology, Simon Pagenaud channeled his inner Jean Girard during the closing laps of Sunday’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama. And perhaps the best news for runner-up Graham Rahal is that he exited Barber Motorsports Park without a kiss from the Frenchman.

bugindycarAll references to Talladega Nights _ The Ballad of Ricky Bobby and his “Formula Un” counterpart aside, Pagenaud admittedly amped-up his aggression after being bumped out of the lead by Rahal on Lap 82 of the 90-lapper around the manicured 2.38-mile road-course in Birmingham, Ala. Pagenaud regained the lead four laps later en route to his second consecutive Verizon IndyCar Series victory, sixth of his career and 180th for Team Penske.

“Graham really caught up, and he gave me a good piece of driving that was amazing from him,” said Pagenaud, who led a massive 84 laps in his No. 22 PPG Automotive Refinish Chevrolet and finished 13.747-seconds ahead of Rahal. “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.”

The Verizon P1 Award pole-winner Saturday, Pagenaud maintained a comfortable gap all afternoon until encountering lapped traffic that allowed Rahal to close late _ similar to a year earlier at BMP when he finished second to first-time winner Josef Newgarden. On Lap 82, Rahal dove inside Pagenaud in Turn 8, with Rahal’s left-front tire making contact with Pagenaud’s right rear. Pagenaud darted wide and off-course as Rahal rammed into the lead.

Three laps later, while trying to lap Jack Hawksworth in the No. 41 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing

Simon Pagenaud showered in champagne last weekend. He hopes a milk shower is in his future.

Simon Pagenaud showered in champagne last weekend. He hopes a milk shower is in his future.

Honda, Rahal ran into the rear of the Brit’s car, causing significant damage to Rahal’s front wing. Pagenaud seized on that opportunity on the next lap, passing Rahal in Turn 16 of the 17-turn circuit.

“We are just on a roll,” said Pagenaud, who scored his first win for team-owner Roger Penske one week earlier in the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. “The car is amazing and I’m so comfortable driving that PPG car. We made it exciting at the end for the fans, which is great. I’m happy there was some action.”

Rahal drove masterfully without the aerodynamic benefits of his damaged front wing to salvage second, but emerged as his toughest critic.

“I thought I was the best on the long run all day, and quite simply we just let this one slip today,” said Rahal, driver of the No. 15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda. “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. These things happen.”

Rahal noted his aerodynamic problems started around 30 laps into the event when a front wing flap broke. “A simple part failure,” Rahal said. “I’ve never seen that before, but that hurt us quite a bit because from then on we were just trying to fight a lot of understeer in the car, and then we kind of obviously lost the other side of the front wing a little later on. But other than that, it was fun. I knew at the end I could catch Simon. I knew we had the pace to do it.”

Rahal made it clear that his contact with Pagenaud on Lap 82 was the result of a block.

“Well, I had a heck of a run,” Rahal said. “He blocked me _ a really solid block and the worst part wasn’t that he didn’t leave the room, it was that he diagonaled to the apex. I mean, just turned-in

Father/team co-owner Bobby Rahal talked with son Graham after last weekend's runner-up finish in Alabama.

Father/team co-owner Bobby Rahal talked with son Graham after last weekend’s runner-up finish in Alabama.

way earlier than you’d normally turn-in. You can watch the overhead camera; it’s pretty easy to see. So I’m glad there was a no-call because for sure it’s a racing incident, but you would never turn-in where he turned- in. He was purposely trying to cut me off there.

“Now, at the end of the day, I don’t think that that was going to be the race. I felt like even had I not gotten by then, I was better than him on the old tires. I could see he was beginning to struggle quite a lot with his rear. I felt like my opportunity was going to come. I wasn’t going to force the issue, but I was definitely in a place where I’m not going to say the corner was mine because it wasn’t yet, but he could have given me a little bit more room, and obviously he chose not to. That’s racing, and we both made it through and we continued on and made it exciting. I guess that’s the way it goes.”

Informed that Rahal was charging him with blocking, Pagenaud said, “OK, fine. I won’t answer.

I’ve got to see the review. I didn’t think it was the wrong side. I couldn’t see that he was next to me when I went for Turn 8, and that was pretty much causing the entry there. I felt like I was being pushed. I don’t know, I don’t want to sound like…I’ve obviously had enough of that. It was just a great race and it was a great battle.”

To his credit, Rahal reiterated INDYCAR officials made the right decision with their subsequent no-penalty call.

“Look, we both got our…I wouldn’t want to see his day completely ruined by a call like that,” Rahal said. “Maybe I’m one of the only guys to say that, but I’d hate to see his day go down the tubes. Look, that was the most physical race I’ve ever driven, 90 laps green run here is like _ I guarantee you it’s harder than running a marathon. It’s hard to catch your breath. My drink bottle was empty about halfway through. I had this freaking blister the size of Texas growing on my hand. Lap 30, 40 it was coming in. It was everything I could do to hang onto the wheel at the end. I wouldn’t want to see his day ruined over a call like that.”

Pagenaud agreed the race was extremely physical following a one-lap caution period at the start for an incident involving Carlos Munoz, Mikhail Aleshin and Hawksworth.

“Obviously, the IndyCars right now are the most physical we’ve had it,” Pagenaud said. “There’s more downforce than ever. The cars are a lot more fun to drive than they’ve ever been. The race is really high pace. The steering wheel, we don’t have power steering, so the steering wheel is really, really heavy. As the race goes on, the steering wheel gets heavier and heavier and every time you put a new set of Firestone tires, again, it gets heavier. So by the end of the race, you’re pretty much cooked.

“You’ve got to pick up your time when you really want to push it to max-attack, and other times you try to rest a little bit. I’m talking about one percent because you’ve got to be flat-chat pretty much the whole time. So it was very challenging physically. Traffic is obviously a big challenge, as well, you know, dealing with the back-markers. The rules allow them to fight against the leader to stay on the lead lap, so it makes it very difficult for the leader. But it’s understandable on their side, so it is what it is. I guess it was great racing in the end.”

Newgarden finished third in the No. 21 Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet. Will Power, a two-time Barber race-winner, was fourth in the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevy. Juan Pablo Montoya, the two-time/reigning Indy 500 champion, mounted the strongest charge of the day, starting last in the 21-car field and moving to fifth in the No. 2 Verizon Team Penske Chevy. JPM was followed by James Hinchcliffe in the No. 5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda.

Scott Dixon, driver of the No. 9 Coca-Cola Chevrolet, was turned around on Lap 3 by Sebastien Bourdais in the No. 11 Team Europa – KVSH Racing Chevrolet and fell to 20th. But Dixon rebounded to finish 10th, setting a race lap record of 1 minute, 8.4533-seconds (120.958 mph) along the way.

With two wins and a pair of runnerup results in the schedule’s first four races, Pagenaud clearly is the early-season championship pace-setter in his second season of driving for team-owner Roger Penske. Pagenaud has accumulated 188 points in the first quarter of the season and holds a 48-point advantage over Dixon, the four-time reigning series champion from Target Chip Ganassi Racing.

To Pagenaud’s delight, the series next heads to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for an historic Month of May featuring the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis on the 2.439-mile IMS road-course on May 14, followed by the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 on the legendary 2.5-mile oval on May 29.

“Yeah, I’ve been thinking about the Indy Grand Prix for a while because that is one of my favorite tracks _ certainly favorite road-course _ and great memories from winning the inaugural Grand Prix there (2014),” Pagenaud said. “It’s the kickoff for the Month of May. Great memories from the Indy 500 last year, leading a lot of laps.

“I’m actually relieved that we are about to get to May. I’m going to work really hard the next two weeks to try to understand how we can do exactly what we did today at the Indy Grand Prix, and then it’s going to be oval time, superspeedways, so it’s going to be a different story. You have to work and study.”

Pagenaud added he has found his comfort zone with Team Penske after beginning his fulltime Indy Car career with Schmidt Hamilton Motorsports in 2012. “Yeah, absolutely,” said Pagenaud, a 31-year-old native of Montmorillon, France. “I said this already, but it is a big move to go to a team like this. It’s not as simple as you would think to put one of the good drivers on the best team. That doesn’t mean he’s going to win right away. All I had to do is basically do a little homework, work with my crew, my engineer, my strategist, to optimize everybody, optimize myself, too. I think that’s exactly what we did this winter. Now it’s working.”

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Results of the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama Verizon IndyCar Series event on the 2.38-mile Barber Motorsports Park natural-terrain road-course in Birmingham, with order of finish, starting position in parentheses, driver, aero kit-engine, laps completed and reason out (if any):

1. (1) Simon Pagenaud, Chevrolet, 90, Running
2. (6) Graham Rahal, Honda, 90, Running
3. (3) Josef Newgarden, Chevrolet, 90, Running 
4. (2) Will Power, Chevrolet, 90, Running
5. (21) Juan Pablo Montoya, Chevrolet, 90, Running
6. (8) James Hinchcliffe, Honda, 90, Running
7. (7) Helio Castroneves, Chevrolet, 90, Running
8. (9) Tony Kanaan, Chevrolet, 90, Running
9. (10) Charlie Kimball, Chevrolet, 90, Running
10. (4) Scott Dixon, Chevrolet, 90, Running
11. (18) Ryan Hunter-Reay, Honda, 90, Running
12. (19) Marco Andretti, Honda, 90, Running
13. (16) Takuma Sato, Honda, 90, Running
14. (15) Carlos Munoz, Honda, 90, Running
15. (20) Alexander Rossi, Honda, 90, Running
16. (5) Sebastien Bourdais, Chevrolet, 89, Running
17. (13) Mikhail Aleshin, Honda, 89, Running 
18. (12) Luca Filippi, Honda, 89, Running
19. (14) Jack Hawksworth, Honda, 89, Running
20. (17) Conor Daly, Honda, 89, Running
21. (11) Max Chilton, Chevrolet, 89, Running

Race Statistics
Winner’s average speed:  114.254 mph
Time of Race: 1:48:42.3334-seconds
Margin of victory: 13.7476-seconds
Cautions: 1 for 1 lap
Lead changes: 4 among 2 drivers

Lap Leaders: Pagenaud 1 – 19, Rahal 20 – 21, Pagenaud 22 – 81,  Rahal 82 – 85, Pagenaud 86 – 90.

Verizon IndyCar Series point standings: Pagenaud 188, Dixon 140, Montoya 136, Castroneves 118,  Kanaan 106, Rahal 100, Power 94, Newgarden 91, Sato 90, Hunter-Reay 87.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, April 26 2016
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