Pagenaud’s comfort level at Penske on upswing, seeks big 2016

Photo: IndyCar

Those who’ve followed Simon Pagenaud for years, as he’s now been racing in North America for a decade, know his innate talent and versatility.

Yet something weird happened after he entered arguably the best team in the Verizon IndyCar Series, Team Penske, last year: he had his worst season yet on these shores.

It’s not that Pagenaud forgot how to drive, or his longtime engineer Ben Bretzman forgot how to set up a car.

But with the meshing of new parts – as Penske expanded to a fourth car for the first time in history – it produced some growing pains.

It was a new entry, with a new crew, and a new engine and aero package for Pagenaud, who’d been with Honda in sports cars and open wheel from 2008 through 2014. Last year was his first year with a Chevrolet, which made the struggles all the more surprising considering the Chevrolet aero kit had Honda’s number all year.

Pagenaud delivered a 5.2 average grid position, but it translated only into a 10.6 average finish. He scored one pole, no wins and only two podium finishes to end 11th in points, after top-five finishes each of the first three years.

With a year under their belt and a more cohesive chemistry in place, Pagenaud would be the early candidate to be “most improved driver” in 2016.

“Big time,” Pagenaud told NBC Sports at Phoenix when he asked how much better he feels going into 2016.

“I feel like I just need to do my thing. Ben and I have been working for years together, but now we’re comfortable in the Penske system, so we’re just doing our thing and that’s what we did for two days.”

The Phoenix test was a major confidence booster for the driver of the No. 22 Hewlett Packard Enterprise Chevrolet.

Pagenaud’s road and street course prowess is unquestioned and last year, arguably his best races came on the large ovals at Indianapolis, Fontana and Pocono.

But it was the short ovals where he felt he still needed to get better. It may only be testing, but Pagenaud seemed to have both the pace in single-car runs and the comfort level in traffic to make that necessary next step ahead of the race in Phoenix on April 2.

Given his teammates Helio Castroneves, Juan Pablo Montoya and Will Power were also pacesetters, it was important for Pagenaud to measure up.

“It was awesome, great to get some testing,” he said. “Now, I’m pretty confident in what I need to do and what I need from the car.

“The Chevy package suits me a little better, too. It’s just a matter of understanding everything we have.”

Pagenaud expanded on what else he needs to address going into 2016.

“Yeah, it’s all about execution at the end of the day,” he said. “Superspeedways, we’ll be there, we’re super strong, probably the strongest. Street courses, we’ll be back where we were at Toronto, which means in the front two. On road courses, we should be strong.

“Definitely, short ovals have been our weakness in the past. We’ve worked on that. I wouldn’t say we’re dominant, we still have some work to do, but we’re definitely getting there.”

Chase Sexton wins Triple Crown Anaheim 2 Supercross: Levi Kitchen unseats Jett Lawrence in 250s

Supercross Anaheim 2
Feld Motor Sports/MX Sports Pro Racing/Align Media

Chase Sexton won two of the three races in the Monster Energy Supercross Anaheim 2 Triple Crown, which was enough to overcome a fifth-place finish in Race 2 and give him the overall victory. It was the second Supercross win of his career.

“Super big night for me,” Sexton told NBC Sports’ Will Christien. “After last weekend with that being a struggle, I just need to come out here and stop the bleeding a little bit and I did that tonight.”

Sexton suffered a crash on Lap 1 of his heat, sending him into Last Chance Qualifier. The bad gate pick put him in a difficult position to start the race and he was able to climb to only fifth at the checkers.

At Anaheim 2, three riders entered the final race of the Triple Crown in a winner-take-all scenario. Sexton, Jason Anderson and Eli Tomac each had a shot at victory. It raised the intensity level for all riders in an evening that featured a lot of comers and goers.

Jason Anderson took the early lead in Race 3, which set him up for the overall victory. Sexton stalked and passed him midway through the race and then a minor mistake late allowed Webb to slip around as well. Anderson’s 5-1-3 gave him second overall.

“I had a tough couple of rounds, getting off that Anaheim 1 crash and then last week weekend I fumbled a little bit, but I’m excited to get back on the box and start moving forward,” Anderson told Jason Thomas.

Anderson finished seventh in the first two rounds of 2023.

RESULTS: How they finished for the 450 Main in Anaheim 2

Ken Roczen was the model of consistency in the opening rounds and at Anaheim 2. In three races so far this year, he’s gotten progressively better each time with a fifth in A1, a fourth last week in San Deigo and a third this week.

With results of 2-3-4, he earned his first podium of the season, which lands him fourth in the standings.

“This was hard earned,” Roczen said after the race. “I completely botched the start and then to have to work my way up. I only happen on the very last lap to step up here on the podium.”

Webb’s solid second-place finish in the third race allowed him to leapfrog several riders and finish fourth overall, but a seventh in Race 1 kept him off the podium. He improved in each race in Anaheim, however, with a 7-4-2.

With a 4-6-5, Dylan Ferrandis rounded out the top five.

The intensity of the race was a little too much for Tomac.

While battling side-by-side with Webb in Race 3 at the one-third mark, Tomac jumped wide and crashed hard. He fell to 14th, doing some damage to his bike in the process. He advanced only one position in that race to 13th. His first two races, a third and second, were strong enough to give him sixth overall. He retains the points lead, but it has shrunk to a gap of only four over Sexton and Webb.

Malcolm Stewart injured late in the week and was not able to mount.

Levi Kitchen became the first rider to unseat Jett Lawrence in the Triple Crown format at Anaheim 2 and won the overall with consistency. In his three races, Kitchen finished 4-2-2 to narrowly edge the winner of the first two races.

“This whole day; this is unbelievable. I took a few good slams in practice and I was down on myself,” Kitchen told NBC Sports Jason Thomas afterward. “The first moto I got a good start and got shuffled back, then I knew I just needed to be consistent.”

Jett Lawrence saved his best for last – which wasn’t hard given the struggles he experienced in the first two races.

Despite those problems, he entered Race 3 of the Triple Crown three points behind Kitchen after suffering a pair of disappointing races by his personal measuring stick. In the first and second 250 races of the night, Lawrence hit the ground. He dropped to the final rider in the running order in Race 2 with a Lap 1 fall. But in both races, he was able to overcome his mistake and close the gap so that he had a chance to take his first Triple Crown win of his career.

Click here for full 250 West Main Results

Lawrence rode to third in Race 1 and sixth in Race 2. In the final race of the night, Lawrence did all he could. He earned the holeshot, but when Kitchen fell in behind him, Lawrence’s fate was sealed. His 3-6-1 tied him in points with Stilez Robertson, but the tiebreaker goes to the final round and his win secured second-place.

“I can definitely say Triple Crowns are not my thing,” Lawrence told NBC Sports Will Christien. “We have one more to try and fix this, so hopefully we can get that done.”

Lawrence will move into the 450 class for the Lucas Oil Motocross outdoor season and his 250 record book will be closed.

The best news for Lawrence is the other riders who entered this round in the top three had a worse night, so Lawrence leaves Anaheim with a 16-point gap on Cameron McAdoo and 17 over RJ Hampshire.

Roberston finished 6-1-3 to take the final step of the podium.

“Getting that win in the second Main meant a lot,” Roberston told Thomas. “I wish I could have done a little better in the third one, but we’re still up here on the box.”

Mitchell Oldenburg used consistency to earn fourth in the overall. He finished 5-4-6.

After missing the Main last week in San Diego, Max Vohland finished 7-8-4 to round out the top five.

RJ Hampshire set himself up as the early favorite with his Race 1 win. In Race 2, it all fell apart. He fell in the sand section and damaged his bike, finishing last in that race. The final event of the night for the 250s provided only a 13th-place finish, leaving Hampshire deep in the points.

Cameron McAdoo hard crash in qualification, which was scary news for a team that has seen three of their riders sidelined with injury. McAdoo was never quite able to get his rhythm with an 8-7-5.

2023 Race Recaps

San Diego: Eli Tomac, Jett Lawrence double down
Anaheim 1: Tomac wins opener for the first time

Anaheim 2 coverage

Power Rankings Week 2
SuperMotocross tightens playoff schedule
Eli Tomac, Jett Lawrence go two-for-two in San Diego
Results and points after San Diego
Seth Hammaker to miss 250 E season opener with wrist injury
Jo Shimoda joins Seth Hammaker, Austin Forkner with injury
Injury sidelines Austin Forkner for remainder of 2023 SX