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.

New Chip Ganassi driver Marcus Armstrong will team with boyhood idol Scott Dixon

Marcus Armstrong Scott Dixon
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Marcus Armstrong was a Scott Dixon fan his entire life, and when he was 8, the aspiring young racer asked his fellow New Zealander to autograph a helmet visor that he hung on his bedroom wall.

Next year, Armstrong will be Dixon’s teammate.

Armstrong was named Friday as the fourth IndyCar driver in the Chip Ganassi Racing lineup and will pilot the No. 11 next season on road and street courses.

A driver for the five oval races on the 17-race schedule will be named later.

The No. 11 is essentially the No. 48 that seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson drove the last two seasons, with Chip Ganassi making the change to run four cars numbered in sequential order. Indianapolis 500 winner Marcus Ericsson drives the No. 8, six-time champion Dixon drives the No. 9, and 2020 IndyCar champion Alex Palou drives the No. 10.

So just who is the second Kiwi in the Ganassi lineup?

A 22-year-old who spent the past three seasons in Formula One feeder series F2, a Ferrari development driver in 2021, and former roommate of Callum Illot and former teammate of Christian Lundgaard – both of whom just completed their rookie IndyCar seasons.

“I’ve always been attracted to the IndyCar championship because it’s one of those championships that’s been really well televised in New Zealand since I was young, mainly because of Scott and his success,” Armstrong told The Associated Press. “As time progressed, as I got closer to F1 and single-seaters, the attraction to IndyCar grew just because of how competitive the championship is – I like to challenge myself and the level of competition in IndyCar is remarkably high.”

Armstrong, from Christchurch, New Zealand, was set to travel from his current home in London to Indianapolis this weekend to meet his new team. He won’t need an introduction to Dixon, the 42-year-old considered the best IndyCar driver of his generation and Armstrong’s unequivocal childhood hero.

Last season, Dixon earned his 53rd career victory to pass Mario Andretti for second on the all-time list. Dixon has driven for Ganassi in all but 23 of his 345 career starts.

“For a long time I’ve been a Scott Dixon fan. I don’t want to make him cringe with our age difference,” Armstrong told the AP.

Despite the two-decade age difference, Armstrong never considered someday racing with Dixon a fantasy.

He convinced his father after winning five national karting championships to allow him to leave New Zealand for Italy at age 14, where he moved by himself to pursue a racing career. Armstrong said as soon as he’d received parental permission, he’d never look back.

Armstrong was in Formula 4 two years after his move to Italy and won that title in his first season. He won four races and four poles in F3 in the 2018 and 2019 seasons, then collected four wins and eight podiums in three seasons of F2.

“Maybe it’s a strength, or maybe it’s a weakness, but I always thought I was capable of doing great in the sport,” Armstrong told the AP. “I think you probably have to succeed in the sport, you need to believe in yourself. I always pictured myself being in IndyCar.

“As Scott’s teammate? I can’t specifically say I saw that. It’s an extraordinary chain of events.”

Armstrong becomes just the latest driver to leave Europe, where F1 is the pinnacle but has only 20 seats each year. Alexander Rossi began the trend in 2016 when the American left F1 and won the Indianapolis 500 as a rookie. He’s been followed by Ericsson, last season’s Indy 500 winner, Romain Grosjean, Illot, Lundgaard, and on Thursday three-time W Series champion and Williams F1 reserve driver Jamie Chadwick was announced as driver for Andretti Autosport in IndyCar’s second-tier development series.

Armstrong said he could have remained in F2 for a fourth season, but he’d been watching IndyCar for so long, and after conversations with Illot and Lundgaard, he decided to make the move to what he believes is the most balanced racing series in the world. He tested for Dale Coyne Racing at Sebring in October.

He doesn’t know if European racing is done for good, just that he wants to be in IndyCar right now.

“I don’t want to think too far into the future, I’m just grateful for this opportunity that is standing right in front of me,” Armstrong said. “I want to perform as well as I can in the near future and just consolidate myself in the fantastic chance that is IndyCar and just do my best.

“I’m not looking at F1 as a landing spot – I am looking at IndyCar, and that’s exactly why I am here.”