Pagenaud’s stellar month and best ever Indy 500 race to date ends P10

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INDIANAPOLIS – Juan Pablo Montoya won Sunday’s 99th Indianapolis 500. His teammate Will Power was second.

Helio Castroneves was seventh in his sixth try at scoring his elusive fourth Indianapolis 500 victory.

And yet the fourth member of Team Penske, Simon Pagenaud, might have had the best car of the four all race and came up with the worst result, a hard-luck 10th.

The always engaging, insightful Frenchman, who’s now based near Penske HQ in Charlotte after moving from Indianapolis last fall, had entered Sunday’s race feeling confident, and with good reason.

Pagenaud, now back with longtime engineer Ben Bretzman (who missed the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis for good reason – a new baby in his family), led several practice sessions throughout the month in the No. 22 Avaya Team Penske Chevrolet.

As a result, Pagenaud told me during the IndyCar cross-country media day in Milwaukee last week it was the best race car he’s had since the 2010 24 Hours of Le Mans, his first Le Mans driving for the factory Peugeot team in worldwide sports car racing’s biggest endurance race.

“We fine-tuned the car really nicely,” Pagenaud said last week. “We could have maybe been a little higher up, but the front row is awesome. For race trim, looking how we were last night (Monday), we had good conditions compared to the race. It was hot, so it was great. It should be good.”

Come Sunday, Pagenaud rolled off third and was consistently engaged with Power and Scott Dixon in the top three throughout the race.

Pagenaud drove very smartly; although he led eight times for 35 laps (second only to Dixon’s 11 times for 84), Pagenaud hung in behind either or both of Dixon and Power to save fuel and thus extend his pit window an extra one or two laps.

It was due to pay dividends before it all went awry in the final 30 laps. Contact with Dixon at lap 170 damaged his front wing, and backed him up before he pitted for repairs.

Upon returning to the track at lap 176 in the 21st position, Pagenaud showed the strength of his Chevrolet by climbing back into the 10th position by the time the checkered flag fell.

“The car was amazing. I thank Team Penske for all their hard work. It was a great day. The Avaya crew was on it, fantastic pit stops. What a race – we led, we were just cruising behind Dixon, saving fuel,” Pagenaud said post-race.

“At Lap 170, we knocked our front wing on Dixon and we had to come back in and we were last. We came back up to 10th in 10 laps. That just shows you how good the car was. I’m disappointed, too, but I’m really happy for Juan Pablo and Team Penske. It’s amazing. This team’s incredible.”

Pagenaud’s first month of May with Team Penske was certainly one to remember. There’s more sponsor commitments and functions – this marked Pagenaud’s first Penske media dinner, featuring partner Shell, Thursday night – but Pagenaud said he could handle it well because the car was so sorted.

“It’s been busy, but what’s so funny actually is that it’s easier to do,” Pagenaud told me in Milwaukee. “The car is so good, and because the team takes such good care of us, it’s easier to do all the media and sponsor commitments.

“You don’t have to worry as much about the race car bcecuase it’s pretty much sorted. It’s a comfort of life I have not had to this level. The only time I’ve felt this confident about a race car was 2010 in Le Mans. So it’s been impressive.”

Pagenaud was arguably one of the most impressive drivers on Sunday in what was one of his best ever oval drives; it was a far cry from when the setup balance was off for his Schmidt Peterson Motorsports finale at Auto Club Speedway last August.

He didn’t get the result he and his team deserved, but he certainly turned some heads on Sunday, and this month as a whole.