Pagenaud’s third straight win brings back memories of last title run

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INDIANAPOLIS – The last time Simon Pagenaud won three straight races, he did it with at least one and sometimes two co-drivers, in three completely different ways.

The year was 2010 and Pagenaud drove for Patron Highcroft Racing in the American Le Mans Series, the sports car championship.

And the run began on the streets of Long Beach.

Pagenaud made a dramatic last lap pass in his HPD ARX-01c LMP2-spec car, a lighter, more nimble car passing the heavier, more powerful Lola Aston Martin V12 LMP1-spec screamer driven by IndyCar veteran Adrian Fernandez on the streets in a one-hour, 40-minute race.

Pagenaud’s ALMS title run started at Long Beach, 2010. Photo: Robert Laberge/Getty Images

It was his first win for Highcroft, after landing there once Gil de Ferran moved out of sports cars into IndyCar team co-ownership with Jay Penske and Dragon Racing for 2010 as Acura withdrew its factory sports car program at the end of 2009.

He then went to a flowing permanent road course at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca and along with full-season co-driver David Brabham and endurance race third driver and an ace in his own right in Marino Franchitti, to win a six-hour event.

After the month long break and a trip to drive for the factory Peugeot team at Le Mans – a race Pagenaud has long harbored ambitions of winning – Pagenaud returned to the next ALMS round, a standard two-hour and 45-minute race, and along with Brabham won in the high altitude at Miller Motorsports Park.

In case you’re wondering what the heck three sports car races six years ago has to do with three Verizon IndyCar Series races in 2016, there is a potential case of history repeating itself taking form.

Pagenaud and Brabham proceeded to win that year’s ALMS title on the heels of that early season three-in-a-row run.

We now come to where we sit five races into the 2016 IndyCar campaign, with Pagenaud having posted a near identical – and even better – form of results as a single driver in the No. 22 Team Penske Chevrolet, which so far has seen Hewlett Packard Enterprise, DeVilbiss, PPG Automotive Refinish and Menards serve as primary sponsors.

That year’s start was second, first, first and first, with Long Beach serving as the first win in a title campaign.

This year’s start is second, second, first, first and first, in a much, much deeper field.

Long Beach is the first win of three, and with a 76-point lead heading into the month of May, Pagenaud’s positioned himself pretty much perfectly for a title campaign of his own in IndyCar.

Pagenaud reflected on the moment after his and his team’s latest triumph Saturday afternoon.

“It’s incredible right now. The momentum we have now, this little domination that we are having is incredible,” he told NBC Sports in the post-race press conference.

“Because not only because you don’t see this happen often, but also, because it’s the Verizon IndyCar Series, and you guys saw it in qualifying yesterday: We had 22 cars in six-tenths of a second.

“So when you can perfect weekends like that several times in one race season is incredible. The level of the talent — the level of talent that teams have, that drivers have, is incredible.”

How rare is three in a row in IndyCar? It hasn’t happened in the same year since Scott Dixon in 2013, when he won Pocono, then Toronto twice in the same weekend. Will Power also won the last two races of 2013 and the first of 2014.

And in case you were wondering, Dixon won the 2013 and Power the 2014 title, so…

“Certainly it feels like being on a cloud, living a little bit of a dream,” he said. “I’m just super excited, and I’ll tell you, one of the biggest thing, the first thing that came to my mind is having this Menards livery and winning with it here on the Speedway.

“It feels very special because of the legacy it has and associating it to Team Penske name is incredible. Being that driver is also an honor, and being able to win with it was very special the last few laps, so I’m very thankful.”

What was interesting today about Pagenaud’s third win in the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis is that his past sports car experience, particularly in overnight and cold stints, really helped in one of the colder IndyCar races in recent memory.

“Thanks to my sports car experience, I’ve experienced a lot of out laps like today in IndyCars,” he explained. “But usually the tires, they come up a lot quicker because we usually run in much higher temperature.

“Definitely my stints in sports cars in the morning in this situation really helped. And you’ve really got to get it done, even if it’s slippery. Certainly the tires, they did a tremendous job today. I mean, the situation, the temperature is so low; this tire is not supposed to work in this temperature but they behaved really well. We had really good durability on them. And the (Firestone) red tires were obviously working the best in these conditions.

“The last stint, I had some new Firestone tires, so those felt really good.”

As we wrote after Barber though, the ascendance isn’t just a great story line, but it’s now a proper story.

The three-in-a-row streak is nice, but the ultimate goal for Pagenaud remains winning the Indianapolis 500.

Pagenaud has a chance to go for an IndyCar record-tying four-in-a-row race wins in the biggest race of the season, perhaps one of the biggest in motorsports history.

It would also match his feat achieved a year earlier in the ALMS, then driving the Acura ARX-02a with de Ferran, when the pair won four straight… again starting at Long Beach (Long Beach, Utah, Lime Rock, Mid-Ohio).

And he’ll enter riding the crest of momentum, a year after probably having the best of four Team Penske cars last year.

“I’m just going to put my head down next week,” he said. “It certainly would mean — it would be the accomplishment of my career, personally, if I can put my name on that one, some day. I would just be complete personally.”