Pagenaud’s first win validates his return to IndyCar

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The question with Simon Pagenaud, when he made his full-time return to open-wheel racing at the beginning of 2012, was not “if” but “when” he’d score his eventual first victory.

When James Hinchcliffe, and later Takuma Sato, beat him to that inaugural triumph earlier this year, there were faint question marks. How could a guy – and team – that was the biggest thorn in the “power teams’” side in 2012 go to relative also-rans not quite in winning contention through the opening part of the season?

If there were any doubts, they were quashed Sunday with Pagenaud finally breaking through in his . This one owed as much to strategy as outright pace, but in the last stint of the race, Pagenaud needed to push like mad to maintain his advantage.

Pagenaud’s Schmidt Hamilton Motorsports team opted to start Sunday’s race on Firestone’s alternate red tires, and was able to get rid of them after the caution-filled first half of the race. From there, Pagenaud could afford to run on the blacks the rest of the way with little dropoff.

The No. 77 HP Honda was a handful on Saturday but the team, led by team manager Rob Edwards and engineer Ben Bretzman, made the necessary changes to turn the car around overnight.

“Yesterday was difficult, but they worked really hard,” Pagenaud said. “My engineer Ben, Rick they were looking through everything, the data, trying to understand what we were missing. I think they went to the hotel at midnight, came back early this morning. They all looked pretty tired, but they said they thought they found it.

“When I jumped in the car for the warmup, it was much better, much improved,” he added. “They made some even bigger changes for the race. The car was incredible for the race.”

Pagenaud ran in the top three until his first pit stop and although he dropped as low as 10th, he snuck back to the lead pack once the second pit stop cycle shook out. While leading at the end, after his stops were complete, he had to maintain focus and not lose sight of the goal.

“They fixed the front wing and we were back out in contention,” Pagenaud noted, since his front wing was damaged in the lap 28 first-turn pileup. “From that moment on, I was like, ‘Just go for it, let’s see what happens.’ We gained a position almost every lap and used the push-to—pass again. We found ourselves in the lead by having such a fast car. Once we were in the lead, it was easier to push and do qualifying laps after qualifying laps.”

For Pagenaud, a four-year sojourn into sports car racing and a variety of other part-time opportunities never squashed his dreams or quests of A. returning, and B. winning in IndyCar. The win came in his 39th career open-wheel start; he also won a Formula Atlantic race at Edmonton in 2006, the year he won that series championship.

“I’m 29; I started racing when I was eight,” Pagenaud said. “My goal was either Formula One or IndyCar. It’s 21 years of hard work, trying to make my dad believe I could make it happen. Then (I had to) have sponsors helping me throughout the young years of my career, then have people like Sam (Schmidt) and Davey (Hamilton) believe in me when I was doing sports cars.

“The last two laps I was quite emotional in the car. It was difficult to stay focused. But it worked out. When I crossed the finish line, it was a sweet moment.”

Dakar Rally champs: Walkner (Bikes), Sainz (Cars), Nikolaev (Trucks), Casale (Quads), Varela (UTV)

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EDITOR’S NOTE: NBCSN will air additional Dakar Rally highlights on Sunday at 5:30 p.m. ET and Monday at 7 p.m. ET.

For most of the 545 entrants into this year’s 40th Dakar Rally, just four words remain: Wait ‘til next year.

That’s right, the 14-stage, 15-day Rally, which began January 6 in Lima, Peru, carried through Bolivia and concluded Saturday in Cordoba, Argentina.

Overall class winners were:

  • BIKES: Austria’s Matthias Walkner
  • CARS: Spain’s Carlos Sainz
  • TRUCKS: Russia’s Eduard Nikolaev
  • QUADS: Chile’s Ignacio Casale
  • SxS UTV: Brazil’s Reinaldo Varela

Here’s how the Rally finished both in Stage 14 and, more importantly, the overall final standings:

BIKES

One year after finishing second, Austrian Matthias Walkner did one better by capturing his first-ever Rally championship in the motorcycle class.

Walkner, 31, finished eighth in Saturday’s Stage 14, but it was good enough to earn him the title by more than 16 minutes ahead of Argentina’s Kevin Benavides, who won Saturday’s final stage.

It was also a big day for KTM, the brand of bike Walkner rode throughout the Rally, as the company captured its 17th consecutive Rally title.

Here’s the top 5 Stage 14 finishers:

1 Argentina’s Kevin Benavides, Honda, 1:26:41

2 Australia’s Toby Price, KTM, 1:27:35

3 France’s Antoine Meo, KTM, 1:29:30

4 Spain’s Daniel Oliveras Carreras, KTM, 1:30:06

5 France’s Johnny Aubert, Gas Gas, 1:31:00

FINAL OVERALL STANDINGS

1 Austria’s Matthias Walkner — CHAMPION

2 Argentina’s Kevin Benavides, 16:53 behind

3 Australia’s Toby Price, 23:01 behind

4 France’s Antoine Meo, 47:28 behind

5 Spain’s Gerard Farres, 1:01:04 behind

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CARS

South Africa’s Giniel de Villiers captured Stage 14, but it wasn’t close enough to unseat overall Rally winner Carlos Sainz of Spain.

Sainz had built a big lead and just had to maintain with defense, needing to finish just ninth in the final stage to take home his second consecutive Rally crown.

France’s Stephane Peterhansel finished second and Qatar’s Nasser Al-Attiyah finished third to wrap up the final stage, but while both were strong challengers throughout the Rally, they were unable to overtake Sainz when they needed to do so the most.

As for American riders, Ricky Brabec had consistently finished most stages in the top 10 to top 20, including two stage finishes early on as high as fourth place.

But a poor run Saturday relegated him to a disappointing overall finish of 39th in the Rally.

Here’s the top 5 Stage 14 finishers:

1 South Africa’s Giniel De Villiers, Toyota, 1:26:29

2 France’s Stephane Peterhansel, Peugeot, 1:27:09

3 Qatar’s Nasser Al-Attiyah, Toyota, 1:17:10

4 Argentina’s Lucio Alvarez, Toyota, 1:27:12

5 Netherlands’ Peter van Merkstelin, 1:28:35

FINAL OVERALL STANDINGS

1 Spain’s Carlos Sainz — CHAMPION

2 Qatar’s Nasser Al-Attiyah, 43:40 behind

3 South Africa’s Giniel De Villiers 1:16:41 behind

4 France’s Stephane Peterhansel, 1:25:29

5 Poland’s Jakub Przygonski 2:45:24

AMERICAN RIDERS – Stage 14 finishes

13 Shane Esposito, KTM, 1:38:13

14 Mark Samuels, Honda, 1:38:22

25 Andrew Short, Husqvarna, 1:41:21

39 Ricky Brabec, Honda, 1:47:15

57 Bill Conger, Husqvarna, 1:53:38

AMERICAN RIDERS – FINAL OVERALL FINISHES

17 Andrew Short

21 Mark Samuels

25 Shane Esposito

39 Ricky Brabec

66 Bill Conger

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TRUCKS

While the Netherlands’ Ton van Genugten was one of the stronger performers in the latter stages of the Rally, including winning Saturday’s final stage, he could finish no higher than eighth in the overall standings.

Frankly, no one could do much in the final stages to unseat eventual champ Eduard Nikolaev of Russia, who obliterated his nearest competitors in the last few stages.

Nikolaev won the overall Trucks class by nearly a four hour advantage over Belarus’s Siarhel Vlazovich and nearly a 5 ½ hour edge over Russian teammate Ayrat Mardeev.

Here’s the top 5 Stage 14 finishers:

1 Netherlands’ Ton van Genugten, Iveco, 1:39:47

2 Czech Republic’s Martin Macik, Liaz, 1:39:58

3 Russia’s Dmitry Sotnikov, Kamaz, 1:43:22

4 Russia’s Eduard Nikolaev, Kamaz, 1:44:04

5 Netherlands’ Gert Huznik, Renault, 1:44:42

FINAL OVERALL STANDINGS

1 Russia’s Eduard Nikolaev — CHAMPION

2 Belarus’s Siarhel Viazovich, 3:57:17 behind

3 Russia’s Ayrat Mardeev, 5:22:34 behind

4 Kazakhstan’s Artur Ardavichus, 6:38:22 behind

5 Czech Republic’s Martin Macik, 7:58:45 behind

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QUADS

Here’s the top 5 Stage 14 finishers:

1 Chile’s Ignacio Casale, Yamaha, 1:43:25

2 Paraguay’s Nelson Sanabria Galeano, Yamaha, 1:44:46

3 Argentina’s Nicolas Cavigliasso, Yamaha, 1:45:01

4 France’s Alex Dutrie, Yamaha, 1:45:08

5 Argentina’s Jeremias Gonzalez Ferioli, Yamaha, 1:46:27

FINAL OVERALL STANDINGS

1 Chile’s Ignacio Casale – CHAMPION

2 Argentina’s Nicolas Cavigliasso, 1:38:52 behind

3 Argentina’s Jeremias Gonzalez Ferioli, 2:08:14

4 Brazil’s Marcelo Medeiros, 4:30:00

5 Peru’s Alexis Hernandez, 4:38:53

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SxS UTV

Here’s the top 5 Stage 14 finishers:

1 Argentina’s Leonel Larrauri, Can-Am, 1:45:55

2 Brazil’s Reinaldo Varela, Can-Am, 1:53:59

3 France’s Patricie Garrouste, Polaris, 1:58:08

4 France’s Claude Fournier, Polaris, 2:01:12

5 Spain’s Jose Pena Campos, Polaris, 2:01:18

FINAL OVERALL STANDINGS

1 Brazil’s Reinaldo Varela – CHAMPION

2 France’s Patricie Garrouste, 57:37 behind

3 France’s Claude Fournier, 10:09:25

4 Spain’s Jose Pena Campos, 10:13:20

5 Argentina’s Leonel Larrauri, 27:54:15

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MORE: Dakar Rally daily stages schedule, NBCSN broadcast schedule, list of all competitors.

MORE: Stage 13 wrapup

MORE: Stage 12 wrapup

MORE: Stage 11 wrapup

MORE: Stage 10 wrapup

MORE: Stage 9 cancelled due to weather, impassible course conditions

MORE: Stage 8 wrapup

MORE: Stage 7 wrapup

MORE: Stage 6 wrapup

MORE: Stage 5 wrapup

MORE: Stage 4 wrapup

MORE: Stage 3 wrapup

MORE: Stage 2 wrapup

MORE: Stage 1 wrapup