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.”

Zach Veach splits with Andretti Autosport for rest of IndyCar season

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Zach Veach will be leaving his Andretti Autosport ride with three races remaining in the season, choosing to explore options after the decision was made he wouldn’t return for 2021.

In a Wednesday release, Andretti Autosport said a replacement driver for the No. 26 Dallara-Honda would be named in the coming days. The NTT IndyCar Series will race Oct. 2-3 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and then conclude the season Oct. 25 on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida.

Veach was ranked 11th in the points standings through 11 races of his third season with Andretti. Since a fourth in the June 6 season opener at Texas Motor Speedway, he hadn’t finished higher than 14th.

“The decision was made that I will not be returning in 2021 with Andretti Autosport in the No. 26 Gainbridge car,” Veach said in the Andretti release. “This, along with knowing that limited testing exists for teams due to COVID, have led me to the decision to step out of the car for the remainder of the 2020 IndyCar season. I am doing this to allow the team to have time with other drivers as they prepare for 2021, and so that I can also explore my own 2021 options.

“This is the hardest decision I have ever made, but to me, racing is about family, and it is my belief that you take care of your family. Andretti Autosport is my family and I feel this is what is best to help us all reach the next step. I will forever be grateful to Michael and the team for all of their support over the years. I would not be where I am today if it wasn’t for a relationship that started many years ago with Road to Indy. I will also be forever grateful to Dan Towriss for his friendship and for the opportunity he and Gainbridge have given me.

“My love for this sport and the people involved is unmeasurable, and I look forward to continuing to be amongst the racing world and fans in 2021.”

Said team owner Michael Andretti: “We first welcomed Zach to the Andretti team back in his USF2000 days and have enjoyed watching him grow and evolve as a racer, and a person. His decision to allow us to use the last few races to explore our 2021 options shows the measure of his character.

“Zach has always placed team and family first, and we’re very happy to have had him as part of ours for so many years. We wish him the best in whatever 2021 may bring and will always consider him a friend.”

Andretti fields five full-time cars for Veach, Alexander Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti and Colton Herta.

It also has fielded James Hinchcliffe in three races this season.