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.”

Meyer Shank Racing wins Petit Le Mans to take final DPi championship in dramatic finale

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Meyer Shank Racing outdueled Wayne Taylor Racing to win the Petit Le Mans and clinch the championship in a thrilling final race for the DPi division.

Tom Blomqvist, who started from the pole position, drove the No. 60 Acura ARX-05 to a 4.369-second victory over Pipo Derani in the No. 31 Action Express Cadillac.

“That was incredible,” Blomqvist told NBC Sports’ Matt Yocum. “I’ve never dug so deep in my life. The adrenaline. I did that for the guys. I was so motivated to win this thing this weekend. But I’ve got to thank everyone on the whole team.”

With co-drivers Oliver Jarvis and Helio Castroneves, Blomqvist helped MSR bookend its season-opening victory in the Rolex 24 at Daytona by winning Saturday’s IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season finale at Michelin Road Atlanta.

In between those two victories, the No. 60 earned five runner-up finishes to stay in the thick of the championship hunt and trail WTR’s No. 10 Acura by 14 points entering Saturday’s race.

WTR’s Filipe Albuquerque had a lead of more than 10 seconds over Blomqvist with less than 50 minutes remaining in the 10-hour race.

But a Turn 1 crash between the Chip Ganassi Racing Cadillacs brought out a yellow that sent both Acuras into the pits from the top two positions.

Though he entered in second, Blomqvist barely beat Albuquerque out of the pits, and he held the lead for the final 45 minutes.

Blomqvist said he gained the lead because of a shorter fuel fill after he had worked on being efficient in the second-to-last stint.

“The team asked a big job of me with the fuel; I had a big fuel number to hit,” Blomqvist said. “We knew that was probably our only chance. The yellow came at the right time and obviously we had a bit less fuel to fill up, so I was able to jump him and then it was just a matter of going gung-ho and not leaving anything on the line. And obviously, the opposition had to try too hard to make it work. I’m so thankful.”

Albuquerque closed within a few car lengths of Blomqvist with 14 minutes remaining, but he damaged his suspension because of contact with a GT car in Turn 1.

It’s the first prototype championship for Meyer Shank Racing, which also won the 2021 Indy 500 with Castroneves.

“We’ve had in the last four years, three championships for Acura, the Indy 500 win and the Rolex 24, it doesn’t get any better,” team co-owner Mike Shank told NBC Sports’ Kevin Lee.

It’s the third consecutive runner-up finish in the points standings for Wayne Taylor Racing, which won the first Daytona Prototype international championship in 2017. The premier category will be rebranded as the Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) class with the LMDh cars that will establish a bridge to racing in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Kamui Kobayashi finished third in the No. 48 Cadillac of Action Express that also includes Jimmie Johnson and Mike Rockenfeller.

The podium showing marked Johnson’s last scheduled race in IMSA’s top prototype division. The seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion has raced in the No. 48 Ally Cadillac lineup as the Action Express entry has run the Endurance Cup races.

Johnson said a lack of inventory will preclude him having a 2023 ride in the top category. But he still is hopeful of racing the Garage 56 Next Gen Camaro in next year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans and possibly running in a lower class for the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

“I’d love to be at Le Mans next year,” Johnson told NBC Sports’ Dillon Welch after his final stint Saturday. “I’d love to be at the Rolex 24. The series is going through a shake-up with the reconfiguration of the rules and classes, so I don’t have anything locked down yet, but I’m so thankful for this experience with Action. The support Ally has given us, Mr. Hendrick, Chad Knaus, all of Hendrick Motorsports. It’s been a fun two years, and I certainly hope I’m on the grid again next year.”