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

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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.”

Starting lineup grid for IMSA Petit Le Mans: Tom Blomqvist puts MSR on pole position

Petit Le Mans lineup
IMSA
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IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar championship contender Tom Blomqvist put the Meyer Shank Racing Acura at the front of the starting lineup for the Motul Petit Le Mans at Michelin Road Atlanta.

Blomqvist turned a 1-minute, 8.55-second lap on the 2.54-mile circuit Friday to capture his third pole position for MSR this season. Earl Bamber qualified second in the No. 02 Cadillac for Chip Ganassi Racing.

Ricky Taylor was third in the No. 10 Acura of Wayne Taylor Racing, which enters Saturday’s season finale with a 19-point lead over the No. 60 of Blomqvist and Oliver Jarvis (who will be joined by Helio Castroneves) for the 10-hour race.

PETIT LE MANS STARTING GRID: Click here for the starting lineup l Lineup by car number

PETIT LE MANS: Info on how to watch

With the pole, MSR sliced the deficit to 14 points behind WTR, which will field the trio of Taylor, Filipe Albuquerque and Brendon Hartley in Saturday’s race.

“We really needed to put the car in this kind of position,” Blomqvist said. “It makes our life a little less stressful tomorrow. It would have given the No. 10 a bit more breathing space. It’s going to be a proper dogfight tomorrow. The guys gave me such a great car. It’s been fantastic this week so far, and it really came alive. I’m hugely thankful to the boys and girls at MSR for giving me the wagon today to execute my job.

“That was a big effort from me. I knew how important it was. It’s just awesome for the guys to give them some sort of reward as well. It’s always nice to be quick. If you do the pole, you know you’ve got a quick car.”

Though WTR has a series-leading four victories with the No. 10, MSR won the Rolex 24 at Daytona and has five runner-up finishes along with its three poles.

The strong performances of the ARX-05s ensure that an Acura will win the final championship in IMSA’s premier Daytona Prototype international (DPi) division, which is being rebranded as Grand Touring Prototype in the move to LMDh cars next season.

Taylor qualified third despite sliding into the Turn 5 gravel during the closing minutes of qualifying while pushing to gain points.

“Qualifying was important for points,” Taylor said. “Going into it, if we outqualified the No. 60 Meyer Shank Acura, they had a lot to lose in terms of championship points. So, we were trying to increase the gap over 20 points which would’ve made a big difference for tomorrow. We would have loved to get the pole and qualify ahead of the No. 60, but in the scheme of the points, it didn’t change a whole lot. I’m feeling good since it’s such a long race, and the No. 10 Konica Minolta Acura team does such a good job strategizing and putting us in a good position.

“I’m very confident in our lineup and our team compared to them over the course of 10 hours. I’d put my two teammates up against those guys any day. I think we are all feeling optimistic and strong for tomorrow.”

In other divisions, PR1 Mathiasen Motorsports (LMP2), Riley Motorsports (LMP3), VasserSullivan (GTD Pro) and Paul Miller Racing (GTD) captured pole positions.

The broadcast of the 10-hour race will begin Saturday at 12:10 p.m. ET on NBC, moving at 3 p.m. to USA Network.


QUALIFYING

Results

Results by class

Fastest lap by driver

Fastest lap by driver after qualifying

Fastest lap by driver and class after qualifying

Fastest lap sequence in qualifying

Best sector times in qualifying

Time cards in qualifying

PRACTICE RESULTS: Session I l Session II l Session III