Pagenaud hopes to carry momentum into Houston

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Simon Pagenaud and his Schmidt Hamilton Motorsports team have proven that they’re capable of mixing it up for race wins with the IZOD IndyCar Series’ big boys. But can they take a championship from them?

Pagenaud won the series’ most recent race back in Baltimore, but at 70 points behind IndyCar points leader Helio Castroneves, the driver of the No. 77 HP Honda can’t afford to falter in either of this weekend’s events at the Shell/Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston (Sat., 3 p.m. ET and Sun., 1 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

However, the Frenchman believes he is in good shape to capitalize upon any mistakes from Castroneves or second-place Scott Dixon in the season’s final doubleheader.

“I enjoy my position right now,” Pagenaud said in an INDYCAR teleconference on Wednesday. “I enjoy it because nobody saw us coming. That’s pretty enjoyable…I’m actually excited to be here seen as the underdog. But I really don’t feel like one.

“I feel like I have all my chances. It’s up to me to drive as hard as possible this weekend and score maximum points to catch up on any of them.”

To get himself into this position, Pagenaud has had an impressive second half of 2013 with a win, two podiums, three Top-5s and six Top-10s in his last seven events.

One wonders how much closer he’d be to Castroneves and Dixon in the standings if he didn’t have a mechanical failure in the season opener back in March at St. Petersburg. But at this point of the championship, you can’t dwell on the past but on the present.

And at the present, Pagenaud is one of the hottest drivers in the paddock.

“The beginning of the season was tough, but it helped us as a team to just focus on what was essential,” he said. “We bounced back. Lately, we’ve been the strongest team, strongest combination with the most points scored in the last three [races].

“We just need to keep going. I think we’re going to keep the ball rolling. I’m just very, very excited right now – so excited, anxious to drive, and I’ve got nothing to lose. It’s very simple for me.”

As for Houston specifically, Pagenaud is one of several ex-Champ Car drivers with past experience racing on the 1.7-mile Reliant Park circuit that will be used for this weekend’s events.

However, that experience only consists of a single start in 2007. That race did go well for him as he finished fifth, but Pagenaud isn’t sure how much help his prior knowledge will be.

“It was quite a while ago,” he said. “I remember the track being all concrete and quite bumpy, which should be similar to Baltimore. I’m hopeful that we’re not going to have to change the HP car too much to be fast.

“…There isn’t much testing on a doubleheader. You want to unload and be fast straight away. I really hope that’s going to be the case so we have a good chance to fight back in the championship.”

Bourdais hopes last year’s crash turns into Indy 500 Cinderella story on Sunday

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Sebastien Bourdais has relived his May 20, 2017 crash during Indianapolis 500 qualifying over and over in his mind, day after day, week after week and month after month.

He would think of the worst crash of his open-wheel racing career at least once — if not several times — a day, particularly when he’d experience a slight twinge of pain.

“I think about it every day,” Bourdais told MotorSportsTalk. “Even though I’m functionally 100 percent now, it’s still very rare that during the day that there’s not a little pinch or something that reminds me of what happened.”

But this past weekend while qualifying for this year’s 500, one year later, the French driver said he was finally able to work past the mental roadblock that just would not leave his mind.

The solution was simple: complete the task he wasn’t able to do so last year, namely, qualifying for the race – and qualifying well.

Bourdais will start fifth in Sunday’s 102nd Running of the Greatest Spectacle In Racing, in the middle of Row 2.

“(Last year’s crash is) still in my mind,” Bourdais said. “But I think the biggest hurdle, at least mentally, was qualifying last weekend, putting yourself back in the same set of circumstances, going back on the line there.

“It felt a little bit the same, chances of rain, some rain, delays, you get back in line, conditions change, everything gets harder because it gets hotter, but that’s the biggest hurdle to overcome. After that, it’s back to business.”

Bourdais has already won once in 2018 – the season-opening race in his adopted hometown of St. Petersburg, Florida.

It helped jump start him to a strong overall run in the first five races of the season, including a fourth-place showing two weeks ago at the INDYCAR Grand Prix of Indianapolis, coupled with entering the 500 third in the Verizon IndyCar Series standings.

Now, he wants to win the biggest race of his career. If he does so, he’ll feel as if he finally and completely has come full circle from last year’s devastating wreck that shattered his pelvis, going head-on into the Turn 2 wall at a reported 228 mph.

“Well, it’s the Holy Grail of IndyCar, it doesn’t really get any bigger than that,” Bourdais said of the 500. “It’s the biggest achievement that you can accomplish in IndyCar.

“I don’t think I’m any different than anybody else: we all want to win it pretty bad, but I’m sure after what happened after last year, it’d be a Cinderella story.”

But there’s a caveat to Bourdais writing that story: “There’s 32 other drivers that want to accomplish the same thing, and it’s a one day event. We’ll give it our best shot … you can only give your very best and see what happens on that given day.”

Bourdais has a lot going for him heading into Sunday. First off, he’ll start from the highest qualifying position he’s ever had in what will be the seventh Indy 500 of the 39-year-old’s racing career.

Second, his confidence and comfort level are higher than they’ve ever been coming into the annual classic at the 2.5-mile Brickyard oval.

Third, he’s forgiven himself – not IMS – for what happened last year. He has no ill feeling towards the racetrack, nor does he seek revenge. If he were to start thinking that way, it would serve no positive purpose.

“No. I’m not really that way,” he said when asked if he wants revenge over the racetrack. “The track didn’t beat me up, I beat myself.

“The bottom line is there were a couple of reasons why it happened, but I got more comfortable and more confident and confidence and comfort at some point just bite you at Indy.

“You just do your laps, you get into such a rhythm and the week had gone perfectly with an awesome car and there was not a doubt in my mind it was going to stick (going into Turn 2), and that’s when it happened – and I paid the price.”

So, Bourdais is simply going to go out and race, again, hoping to complete what he started last year before being so painfully derailed.

His best finish to date in the 500 has been seventh (2014). He just needs for his Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser – Sullivan Honda to finish six places higher on Sunday.

And if he does, his move to Dale Coyne Racing last year – he’s competed in 13 of 23 races with two wins, 3 podiums and one pole – would only serve to make what already has proven to be a great move into a potentially brilliant move.

Because, yes, Bourdais isn’t just thinking Indy 500 win, he’s also thinking of a potential championship this season.

“I sure hope so,” Bourdais said when asked if his team’s success will continue. “I like to say it’s (the success that the Coyne camp has had since he came there) a little bit of my baby, bringing in Craig (engineer Craig Hampson) and Olivier (race engineer Olivier Boisson) and reinforcing the existing crew.”

Bourdais is no stranger to winning championships. He won four straight combined titles in CART and the Champ Car World Series from 2004 through 2007 (he also won 28 races in that four-year span).

“Obviously, it’s one thing to get into a winning team and basically meet expectations,” Bourdais said. “It’s another thing to try and build something and change the status of the underdog and turn him into a contender week in and week out.

“We got a glimpse of that last year, and this year, we’ve been competitive every weekend so far, and that’s a great feeling. Once you’re able to be competitive on street course, road courses, short ovals and superspeedways, then you can start saying and thinking championship.”

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