Simon Pagenaud

Photo: IndyCar

Team Penske wins fourth straight race; first time since 2012

Leave a comment

When Will Power took the checkered flag in Sunday’s ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway, he delivered Team Penske its fourth straight win in the Verizon IndyCar Series this season.

And although Penske has won three straight races multiple times in recent races, it hasn’t won four times in a row in more than five years.

Power’s win Sunday in Pocono followed Josef Newgarden’s wins at Mid-Ohio and Toronto, and Helio Castroneves’ win at Iowa, to give Penske eight total wins on the season (Power three, Newgarden three, Castroneves one, Simon Pagenaud one) – the same eight Chevrolet has achieved with one team, while Honda has won the other six races with all five of its teams.

The last time Penske pulled off four wins in a row in IndyCar was in the first four races of the 2012 season, the first four races when the base Dallara DW12 chassis was introduced.

Castroneves won the season opener at St. Petersburg, while Power won the next three races at Barber, Long Beach and Brazil.

LONG BEACH, CA – APRIL 15: Will Power of Australia drives the #12 Team Penske Dallara Chevrolet during the IndyCar Series Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on the streets of Long Beach on April 15, 2012 in Long Beach, California. (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

Twice last year, Penske won three in a row, when Pagenaud won at Long Beach, Barber and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and then Power (Toronto), Pagenaud (Mid-Ohio) and Power (Pocono) completed a same three in a row run later in the year.

The last IndyCar team to win four races in a row in a season was Chip Ganassi Racing in 2013, when Scott Dixon went three-in-a-row at Pocono and Toronto’s two races, then Charlie Kimball won at Mid-Ohio.

Power is also the first driver in 24 Pocono IndyCar races to win back-to-back races at the track, and it’s also impressive considering how much better he’s gotten on ovals over the years.

“It seriously means a lot. I love racing on ovals. Every oval win I get, I really, really enjoy because we don’t have many of them,” he said. “Yeah, to come back and win it again in a very different way this year, it was a crazy race, exciting to me, but yeah, feels fantastic to go back-to-back.”

Castroneves (3), Newgarden (2) and Pagenaud (1). Photo: IndyCar

Penske will head to Gateway Motorsports Park for this weekend’s Bommarito Automotive Group 500 (Saturday, 9 p.m. ET, NBCSN) with a chance to win its fifth straight race.

The last time the team did that was in the team’s record-setting 1994 CART season, when Emerson Fittipaldi, Al Unser Jr. and Paul Tracy won an incredible seven races in a row from Round 2 that year in Phoenix through Round 8 in Cleveland.

Fittipaldi won Phoenix, Unser won three in a row at Long Beach, Indianapolis and Milwaukee, Tracy won in Detroit and Unser won in Portland and Cleveland.

Pagenaud ‘quite satisfied,’ if still agitated, with P2 on Pocono grid

Photo: IndyCar
Leave a comment

The close-but-no-cigar, always slightly overshadowed nature of defending Verizon IndyCar Series champion Simon Pagenaud’s 2017 season came to the fore again in Saturday’s qualifying session for Sunday’s ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway (2 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

Pagenaud was on the verge of securing his second pole this season, and first on an oval since Iowa Speedway in July 2016, after knocking Charlie Kimball off the top spot.

But the driver of the No. 1 DXC Technology Team Penske Chevrolet got eclipsed by Takuma Sato, the final qualifier, right at the end to lose the pole and perhaps more critically, an additional point that went with it.

“(There’s) the word going through my mind and I’m not going to say it,” Pagenaud laughed in the post-qualifying press conference.

“Disappointing, of course. You can taste the win, and that’s what we’re all about. We’re racers. We want to win. I’m here to win, to be first, not to be second.

“In the meantime it’s a really good starting position. At the time it’s like gambling. You’re in the game and you feel like you could win, so it’s very exciting. That’s the roller coaster of racing in your life as a racer. It’s up and down, up and down your whole career. These moments are why I race. It’s happiness, satisfaction of doing the job.”

Pagenaud’s job satisfaction this year has come with his unrivaled consistency, if not outright pace, in defense of his 2016 title.

He leads the field with 10 top-five finishes in 13 races – no one else has more than seven – and he is the only driver to have completed all 1,738 laps of competition so far this year.

That underscores his consistency but it also reflects how much better his 2016 title-winning season was. He won five races last year to one so far this year (Phoenix), had eight poles (seven outright, one where he moved up a spot) last year to one this year, and has led only 133 laps this year – 116 of them at Phoenix.

That leads nicely into the point that Pocono is a key race for Pagenaud if he is to defend his title. He enters tomorrow’s race fourth in points but only 17 behind championship leader Josef Newgarden, his new teammate at Team Penske who’ll look to go one better in terms of winning a title for Roger Penske in his first season rather than in his second, as Pagenaud did last year.

Pagenaud’s title aspirations nearly came unglued at this race last year following his only DNF of the year. He crashed in Turn 1 and finished 18th while Will Power won and cut the gap from 58 points leaving Mid-Ohio to 20 leaving Pocono.

Now Pagenaud is even fewer points back but with more drivers to climb over, as IndyCar heads towards a grandstand finish to this year’s title between himself, Newgarden, Helio Castroneves and Scott Dixon – and potentially Sato, Power and Graham Rahal if they can deliver a big points haul in Pocono.

“The championship is a lot more exciting for you guys this year,” he said. “I think it’s the beauty of IndyCar. We go on superspeedway, short oval next week, then completely different in two weeks, then Sonoma, which is a beautiful venue to finish the season.

“You know, that’s the beauty of this racing series, which I really love, because you have to show skills in every condition, every different aspect of track. So I’m very excited about it.

“If you can show strength in the last four, you deserve the championship, for sure.”

Pagenaud expects speeds to be slower in tonight’s final practice, a better preparation for Sunday’s race, as he estimated the rash of accidents today was owing to more drivers and teams chasing the temperatures for pole.

“This evening’s session is good so you can check your car in traffic, see how it behaves in the wake. But I think, you know, you’re still going to have to think about the race and the conditions being different, what to do on the race car to compensate for it,” he said.

“Tomorrow, we’re not going to be as fast as this because this is trim-out conditions, trying to go as fast as possible over two laps. Those are not the setups. The tires don’t last in those conditions.

“For the race, completely different story. You know, it’s a 500-mile race. There’s a lot of riding around, trying to balance your car for the end of the race. Trying to find the right level of downforce during the race is key as well. So you make a lot of adjustments, pit stops, get ready for the shootout, the last 60 laps really.

“For us, that’s going to be the plan. First goals were to be in the top five in qualifying. We were there. That’s checked. Now we need to run around in the front all day and be there to strike at the end.

“There’s also the fact that we’re playing for a championship here, so we have to be smart at the end.”

Pagenaud’s canny ability has kept him in the title fight as he looks to keep the No. 1 on his car for another season, which makes the frustration of losing a point today only slightly bittersweet as he looks at the bigger picture.

“Ben (Bretzman), my engineer, just nailed the gearing, the balance on the car. That was the best we could do,” he said.

“I’m quite satisfied. Front row start is really good, our best start here in Pocono. A 500-mile race, so a lot can happen.

“Today was pretty much ego day trying to get that pole position. For us it would have been nice to get another point. But overall I think we did our best and we’ll go to bed pretty satisfied with today.”

IndyCar’s top seven in points roll off in top seven at Mid-Ohio

Photo: IndyCar
Leave a comment

LEXINGTON, Ohio – Providing nothing completely random happens in Sunday’s Honda Indy 200 (3 p.m. ET, CNBC) from the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, the top seven in the Verizon IndyCar Series’ championship will be dicing among themselves for the win from the top seven spots on the grid.

In points, the order is Scott Dixon on 423, then Helio Castroneves on 420, Simon Pagenaud on 404, Josef Newgarden on 400, Will Power and Graham Rahal both on 359, then Takuma Sato on 351.

With five races remaining and the last race of the season at Sonoma a double points race, there’s still a maximum 320 points on offer the rest of the way – so at 72 points separating the top seven, that’s a realistic situation where they could all be in the title frame these final five races.

Fittingly, they start in the top seven for Sunday’s race at Mid-Ohio, but not in points order.

Power rolls off from his 49th career pole, while Newgarden has his first front row start not just of the season, but also with Team Penske.

Sato and Rahal turn in career-best Mid-Ohio starts from third and fourth, while Castroneves is fifth and Dixon sixth. Pagenaud was the only one of the top seven in points to miss the Firestone Fast Six, but from seventh, will start from the same position Newgarden has won twice this year at Barber and Toronto.

Quotes from six of the top seven drivers about their respective title situations are below, after they made the Firestone Fast Six:

Dixon: “I think you try to get as many points as you can during the season. We haven’t done a very good job of that with many tracks. I think we wish we had little more of a points cushion. Not really thinking about points right now. We’re in a good spot. The only time that leading the championship really counts is at the end of the year. We’ll see how we get through these next four races and see how Sonoma plays out.”

Newgarden: “I think I’m not thinking about what the gap is to Dixon. I think I’m more thinking about how can we have a consistent day. Ultimately that’s going to be the most important thing, is having a clean day with no incidences. Not necessarily points, but making sure we have a top five, hopefully a podium. If you’re really lucky, then you get a win. That’s all you have to work on. Generally the points take care of themselves as the year goes on.”

Sato: “Obviously we love to win as much as everyone does. Third place means a lot of opportunity. It’s not necessarily to win the race. But I think certainly aiming for the winning. But I think if we can get a podium finish tomorrow, that would be super result for the team. We do the best we can. We have to.”

Rahal: “We’ve got to go win this thing. It’s as simple as that. We’re going to try the best that we can. Hopefully the two of us can get through clean and go racing, all of us can, and we’ll go from there. For us, the only way we’re going to catch them, obviously the last race is double points, but the only way we’re going to catch Dix and these two over here, same for Will, we got to win races. I mean, that’s what it comes down to, so… Hopefully we’ll go out there tomorrow and have a strong one.”

Power: “Yeah, I don’t know. I mean, as a team, yes. But individually, a lot of competition in the team. Very good problem to have.”

Castroneves: “We’re battling for the championship ourselves. You can use a little bit your teammates in case something’s not going well. You can still take advantage of that and collect a bit more points.

“But that’s the name of the game. As Will mentioned, it’s a very good problem for our team to have. We’re going to obviously try to finish 1-2-3-4 in the championship.”

Pagenaud paces Mid-Ohio opening practice

Photo: IndyCar
Leave a comment

LEXINGTON, Ohio – Defending Verizon IndyCar Series and Honda Indy 200 champion Simon Pagenaud paced opening practice for this year’s occasion, posting a quick time of 1:04.9079 at the 2.258-mile Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

Pagenaud, in the No. 1 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet, sits third in this year’s championship with 404 points. Interestingly his only win this year has come on the 1-mile Phoenix International Raceway back in April.

Graham Rahal, the 2015 Mid-Ohio winner, was second in the session in the No. 15 Steak ‘n Shake Honda for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing at 1:04.922. Marco Andretti made it into third in his No. 27 Andretti Autosport Honda at 1:04.9814.

The top nine drivers down to Scott Dixon in ninth were separated by only 0.3241 of a second and all 21 drivers bar JR Hildebrand were within one second.

Other than a near miss when Helio Castroneves almost hit Esteban Gutierrez exiting the Keyhole, there were no issues in the session and no red flags.

Second practice runs from 2:15 to 3 p.m. ET and local time.

Times are below.

Toronto jumble sets stage for five-race IndyCar thriller

IndyCar
Leave a comment

In two moments Sunday afternoon on the streets of Toronto, the complexion of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series championship changed, and produced the next chapter for what’s to come over the final five races of the season.

An accordion effect between Graham Rahal, Scott Dixon and Will Power saw Dixon and Power sustain the heaviest collision on the run down to Turn 3 on the opening lap. While Rahal emerged unscathed, Dixon and Power collided, with Power poking his nose to the outside of Dixon on the run into Turn 3. He’d be out of the race as a result.

First lap drama changed the equation in Toronto. Photo: IndyCar

“I went down the outside, and someone went down the inside of me,” Power told NBCSN’s Robin Miller. “It surprised me. I should have known better than to take any sort of risk on the first lap. Just not worth it.

“It really makes it tough in the championship. All the guys I’m fighting are at the front. I just feel bad for my guys. Didn’t even complete the first lap.”

Dixon’s race went belly-up, as well. He needed to pit for a flat left rear tire, then after the race restarted, received a drive-through penalty for performing more than required work in a closed pit (7.1.3.3.3.5).

It put Dixon off the boil on strategy and despite rebounding from 20th to run as high as fourth, he was left to finish in 10th. After six top-five finishes in the first seven races – his only miss that infamous 32nd in the Indianapolis 500 after his aerial accident – he’s now finished outside the top-five in four of the last five races, albeit still in the top-10 in all of them. It’s just that suddenly sixth, eighth, ninth and 10th are off, slightly, by comparison to wins and podiums wracked up by Team Penske.

“It was a rough day in the NTT Data car. I had a good start in Turn 1, and it looked like (Graham) Rahal decided to shift lanes and I had to avoid him. Then (Will) Power and I got together and ended up cutting down our tire and doing some damage to the suspension on the car. Then we had to fix the car and INDYCAR gave us a drive-through penalty, which was kind of odd. And then that kind of hosed our best efforts for the day and we ended up 10th,” Dixon said.

Pagenaud and Castroneves’ race was ruined by Kanaan caution. Photo: IndyCar

With two of the best drivers in the current generation sidelined for the day, the next key moment came when Dixon’s teammate, Tony Kanaan, nosed in at Turn 1 at Lap 23 and brought out a full-course caution.

This cost three more championship contenders, in Graham Rahal, Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud, a potential podium lockout. The three fastest drivers and cars of the weekend were, like Dixon and Pagenaud in this race last year, caught out by the yellow timing by being at the front of the field. None was satisfied and Pagenaud (fifth), Castroneves (eighth) and Rahal (ninth) were all unlucky to finish lower than they probably deserved.

“We played it right but we got unlucky. But the three best cars didn’t win the race,” Rahal surmised to NBCSN. “It’s a shame. Sometimes luck plays a role in this things. You could see in the first stint, Helio, Simon and myself were taking off. Congrats to Newgarden, but we should have gained a lot of points on Dixon, Newgarden and more. The way the officials decide to close the pits these days, luck plays a factor in these things.”

All the while the one championship contender who benefited the most was Josef Newgarden – who courtesy of Team Penske president and his race strategist Tim Cindric managed to pit just before the yellow – promptly leapfrogged the field by pitting right before the yellow came out.

Newgarden admittedly got lucky but did have to bring it home from there, which he did on a banner day of closing down the gap in the championship. Newgarden was 56 back of Dixon seven days ago in the cornfields of Iowa. He’s now just 23 back of him after winning in the land of “Timbits” and poutine in Toronto on Sunday.

On the same day, Newgarden gained 21 (Pagenaud), 28 (Castroneves), 31 (Rahal) and 44 (Power) points over four other title contenders.

At 23 points back, Newgarden pinpointed the one race where he lost the most points – the double points Indianapolis 500 – as a place where his championship has been affected the most.

“The big thing for us is we can’t get into many more incidents like we have the first half of the year. I think month of May is really what killed us in the points championship,” he said. “We had a bad GP with a pit lane speed limiter issue, and a bad Indy 500 wrecking out with 20 to go, getting caught up in something. We’ve had some races that we’ve had to pick up from a deficit, and I think if those weren’t there, we’d probably be leading the championship.

“But other guys can say the same thing. They’ll say, We had races like this, too. It kind of yo-yos back and forth for everybody. Everyone is going to have good races and bad races. We have to prioritize having solid finishes from here to the end. I think if we’re the most consistent, we absolutely can win the championship. It’s going to be the guy who does that the best.”

Newgarden and the Penske team. Photo: IndyCar

Newgarden’s words there about consistency provide an interesting setup to the final five races of the year, and how the championship in this year where it seems anyone can win it, consistency over this stretch will come into play.

The five races left feature one short oval (Gateway), one big oval (Pocono), and three permanent road courses (Mid-Ohio, Watkins Glen, Sonoma). Even so, there’s been no rhyme or reason to who’s won at the earlier portion of those tracks this year.

Road courses? We’ve had Newgarden (Penske Chevrolet, Barber), Power (Penske Chevrolet, Indy GP) and Dixon (Ganassi Honda, Road America) win the three permanent road course races. One could argue Power should have won Barber and Newgarden – or any Penske member – should have won at Road America, but they didn’t after getting usurped. Alas, Team Penske has 10 top-fives out of a possible 13 top-fives in those three races, so it’s hard to bet against any of their quartet in those races.

The short oval also should feature Penske dominance – it’s been Pagenaud (Phoenix) and Castroneves (Iowa) who’ve won there this year. But, again, there’s a question mark. Gateway will be repaved before its August 26 race with a test to come next month, so while the field did test there in May, it’ll be a completely new track to everyone, and that in theory levels the playing field. Dixon is good on tracks that are new or added, and he, Castroneves and a couple others do have some past Gateway race experience from many years ago.

Pocono though? That could be – probably should be – a Honda track. Yet Power won there last year and Pagenaud crashed out. Takuma Sato, who remains on the fringe of title contention but having fallen back in the last month with four tough results, of course has the year’s biggest 500-mile win on his resume and could well spoil the Penske and Ganassi party there for Andretti Autosport.

With five races to go, it’s going to be between those seven drivers for the title, with four in more realistic contention down the stretch. Dixon (423) has to hold off the first three of the Penske quartet of Castroneves (420), Pagenaud (404) and Newgarden (400), all close. Power and Rahal (359) and Sato (351) are also close-ish, still within a 72-point margin, but right on the border of falling out.

It’s a barnburner of a finish since no one has more than two wins yet this year, but as ever, the combination of wins and consistency will deliver this year’s IndyCar title.