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Pagenaud banks third straight top-five despite fuel saving frustration

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With finishes of second, fifth and third in the first three races of 2017, defending Verizon IndyCar Series champion Simon Pagenaud is off to a pretty good start.

Except that because of his unreal start to 2016 when he finished second twice and won in Round 3, it seems like far less by comparison.

Pagenaud finally put together his most complete start-to-finish weekend of the new year at Barber Motorsports Park in the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, starting and finishing third in the No. 1 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet.

This result comes after a perhaps lucky 14th to second run in St. Petersburg and then a comeback from 21st and last to fifth in Long Beach two weeks ago.

The Frenchman made the most of the worst pit stall in pit lane this weekend, because after incurring that penalty for qualifying interference at Long Beach two weeks ago he’d be right at pit in and be compromised compared to those near pit out.

That made his team’s performance throughout the weekend all the better, even if Pagenaud was frustrated to be in fuel save mode for the final stint.

“It’s been a good weekend. We unfortunately carried a penalty from Long Beach. So starting every qualifying session, practice at the back of the pack puts you in a bad rhythm,” Pagenaud explained in the post-race press conference. “So I’m very happy we were able to transform that into good qualifying results, and also a good result in the end of the race.

“It was pretty eventful. At the start of the race, I feel like we were a little too aggressive with the racecar. We adjusted. At the end, I was really good. I saved quite a bit of fuel at the end to make it.

“It was frustrating, I got to say. I just wanted to go.”

The day was weirder for Pagenaud because he was the only one of the four Team Penske drivers who didn’t lead a lap. Eventual race winner Josef Newgarden led the final 14 laps en route to his first win with the team, while Will Power dominated with 60 laps led before his late race puncture resigned him to 14th. Helio Castroneves finished fourth and led two laps on a pit cycle.

Pagenaud never got higher than third, where he finished. He noted a difficulty in the tire wear at the start of the race, as rain washed all the rubber down from earlier in the weekend, comprising five different types of tire manufacturers over the six series racing at Barber.

“The rain was the biggest effect last night. It really cleaned off the track,” he said. “The first stint personally was very difficult for us, quite a bit of tire wear. Balance wasn’t what we expected. Then the track got better toward the end, and the tires hung on better, I think.

“Yeah, it was different to yesterday, for sure. A lot of less tire degradation. Last year felt like we had a lot more tire degradation, too.”

Even though his title defense has been overshadowed so far in 2017 by all three winners, Pagenaud’s still in a good spot through three races. Pagenaud and Scott Dixon are the only two drivers with three top-five finishes in every race so far this year.

Pagenaud sits fourth in points, 11 behind his old Peugeot LMP1 teammate Sebastien Bourdais who leads the championship, and just four off Newgarden, who took the headlines on Sunday with his first win for his new team.

Still, not a bad day for the guy who heading into the race, discovered how to speak “Southern.”

IndyCar’s 2018 full-field grid nearing completion

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Following Wednesday’s confirmation of the all-Canadian tandem at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, each of the eight full-time teams in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season have announced at least one driver for 2018, leaving very few remaining question marks.

What stands confirmed is below:

CONFIRMED

  • Team Penske (3, Chevrolet): Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power
  • Chip Ganassi Racing (1, Honda): Scott Dixon
  • Andretti Autosport (4, Honda): Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alexander Rossi, Marco Andretti, Zach Veach
  • Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (2, Honda): Graham Rahal, Takuma Sato
  • Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (2, Honda): James Hinchcliffe, Robert Wickens
  • Ed Carpenter Racing (2, Chevrolet): Spencer Pigot, Ed Carpenter (ovals)
  • A.J. Foyt Enterprises (1, Chevrolet): Tony Kanaan
  • Dale Coyne Racing (1, Honda): Sebastien Bourdais
  • Harding Racing (1, Chevrolet): Gabby Chaves

There are four additional drivers confirmed for selected races or an month of May program:

  • Team Penske (1, Chevrolet): Helio Castroneves
  • Andretti Autosport (1, Honda): Stefan Wilson
  • Calmels Sport with SPM (1, Honda): Tristan Gommendy
  • Team TBD (1, TBD): Kyle Kaiser

All told that’s 17 full-season driver and team combinations confirmed and four additional part-time programs, at least, that are set. Several of those driver/team combinations will have engineering and strategist changes, as well.

In a minor note since our last update at Sonoma, Marco Andretti confirmed he won’t run No. 27 next year. Of note, Bryan Herta served as Andretti’s race strategist this year, although the car he was an entrant on was Alexander Rossi’s No. 98 car. Herta will continue his relationship with Andretti Autosport again next season.

WHAT’S LEFT TO SORT? NOT MUCH

Elsewhere, there’s only a handful of remaining question marks as the series hits mid-October, a rarity from past years and an illustration of the urgency to fill seats to get as much preparation time in testing with the new 2018 Dallara universal aero kit as possible.

NBC Sports expects 2016 Indy Lights champion and 2017 IndyCar rookie-of-the-year Ed Jones to be confirmed soon as second driver in Dale Coyne Racing’s No. 19 Honda alongside Sebastien Bourdais, with team personnel and Bourdais both having indicated a preference in keeping the Dubai-based Brit for a second year.

NBC Sports also expects Jones’ successor as Indy Lights champion, Kyle Kaiser, to have his future announced shortly in terms of which team he’ll step up to IndyCar with. It would not be a surprise if Kaiser does graduate along with Juncos Racing, although Kaiser is known to have talked to multiple teams. The Mazda Motorsports scholarship nets him $1 million for a three-race program, including the 102nd Indianapolis 500, with the driver then needing to secure additional funding for further races, as Jones and Pigot both have each of the last two years.

The status of Brendon Hartley has now been thrown up as a slight question mark dependent on how his Formula 1 debut with Scuderia Toro Rosso goes at this weekend’s United States Grand Prix, and if Toro Rosso provides him a further race opportunity in one of the remaining three Grands Prix thereafter. Having been all-but-earmarked for Chip Ganassi Racing’s second seat in 2018, if an F1 offer comes, Hartley’s potential IndyCar bow could get delayed.

A McLaren-named entry competing either in the Indianapolis 500 or full-time seems further off than realistic for next year, McLaren’s Zak Brown told reporters on a teleconference this week. McLaren maintains an IndyCar technical presence though, via its McLaren Applied Technologies outfit.

What’s left then are the dominoes of whether Carlin’s IndyCar plans officially come to fruition as the team has gotten closer than it ever has to doing so, and who emerges in the second seats at A.J. Foyt Enterprises and Ed Carpenter Racing (road and street courses), respectively.

A number of young IndyCar veterans – Max Chilton, Charlie Kimball, Carlos Munoz and Conor Daly namely – are yet to land for 2018 and there’s no guarantee all four of them will be back in IndyCar next season.

There’s also a handful of young drivers, namely RC Enerson, Jack Harvey, Esteban Gutierrez, Santiago Urrutia, Zachary Claman DeMelo, Sage Karam and Matthew Brabham among others, who could well emerge in the frame for seats.

Gutierrez’s status seemed dependent on Mexico City being added to the 2018 calendar, and although the race still could be added, the fact neither is in place at this point doesn’t inspire as much confidence about his presence as a regular on the grid as it did earlier this summer.

All told, there’s not nearly that much to sort out as IndyCar’s grid for 2018 is looking very much close to set at this early stage of a long offseason.