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.

Mario Andretti says Colton Herta could be next American star in F1

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Mario Andretti’s last Formula One victory is also the last by an American driver in more than 42 years on the international open-wheel road racing series.

If you had told Andretti that while he was celebrating on the Grand Prix of the Netherlands podium on Aug. 27, 1978 at the Vandzoort circuit, he wouldn’t have believed it.

“Absolutely not,” Andretti told Kyle Petty during the most recent “Coffee With Kyle” episode (video above). “It’s a shame. Somehow we have so much talent here, and either there’s no invitation or something there. But I think it’s time to give some of this young talent that, in my opinion, is absolutely capable.”

The Dutch GP was the last of Andretti’s 12 victories in F1 and came during his championship season. No one since has come close to matching his success in F1.

Mario Andretti drives his Lotus-Ford to victory in the 1978 Grand Prix of the Netherlands (Bernard Cahier/Getty Images).

Andretti’s son, Michael, took a full-time ride with McLaren in 1993 but left with three races remaining in a season marred by crashes and mechanical problems.

Scott Speed was the last American to run a full F1 season in 2006, and Alexander Rossi made the most recent F1 start by a U.S. driver in 2015. Rossi has said he has no desire to return to racing in Europe after winning the 2016 Indianapolis 500 and becoming an IndyCar championship contender.

But Mario Andretti believes Andretti Autosport has another rising star with F1-caliber ability.

“Colton Herta is one that comes to mind,” Mario Andretti said. “As a young lad, his dad sent him to Europe, he was doing Formula 3, and he knows most of the circuits there. He’s trained. He’s showed in his rookie season and won some premium races at COTA (and Laguna Seca), beat two of the very best Indy has to offer (in) Will Power and Scott Dixon.

“This is one kid I’d love to see him get a break over there to fly the U.S. colors again.”

Herta, 20, seems interested in exploring an F1 leap over the next few years. After winning Sept. 13 at Mid-Ohio from the pole position (his third career victory in the NTT IndyCar Series), the No. 88 Dallara-Honda driver is ranked fourth in the standings in his sophomore year and regarded as one of the series’ top prospects.

Herta recently told RACER.com “I’d love to give Formula 1 a crack” but said he also would be happy driving in IndyCar and IMSA.

A naturalized U.S. citizen who told Petty about spending several years with his family in an Italian refugee camp before coming to America, Mario Andretti said F1 brought an enormous sense of patriotic pride.

“Formula One is like the Olympics in a sense,” he said. “You’re in a different country, a different continent. When you earn that highest step of the podium, they play your national anthem. That’s when you take nothing for granted. You feel like I’m representing my country, and the proudest moments are those.

“I’d just like to see some other American drivers experience that. It’s time.”

Mario Andretti with four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon and six-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton before the Nov. 22, 2015 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images).

During the “Coffee With Kyle” conversation, Andretti also discussed:

–His versatility as a winner in IndyCar, sports cars, NASCAR and Formula One;

–His 1967 Daytona 500 victory and how he enjoyed racing with crew chief Jake Elder at the famed Holman-Moody team;

Mario Andretti Colton Herta
Mario Andretti and Kyle Petty saluted “The King” by wearing their Richard Petty-style hats during the latest “Coffee With Kyle” (NBCSN).

–Why he delayed his entry to F1 for a few years because of his earnings power in IndyCar. “I always say I’d race for free, but at the same time, you’re thinking of family and the future,” he said. “It was in the back of your mind that you can’t give up the earning power of IndyCar. That kept me from going full time in Formula One, but I always said that sometime in my career, I’d have to devote a period to Formula One.”

–On what it was like racing in an era when driver deaths were more prevalent. “If you’re going to do this, you’re not going to dwell on those negatives,” Andretti said. “There’s no way. You knew it was present. Especially in the ‘60s at the beginning of the season at the drivers meetings, you couldn’t help but look around and say, ‘I wonder who is not going to be here at the end of the season.’ We’d lose four to five guys. In ’64, we lost six guys.

“It’s something if you dwell on that, you’re going to take on a different profession. It’s a desire and love to want to drive that overcame all that and then the confidence it’s not going to happen to me. And then you pray.”

Watch the full “Coffee With Kyle” episode in the video above or by clicking here.

Mario Andretti looks on before the 103rd Indianapolis 500 on May 26, 2019 (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).