IndyCar 2016 driver review: Simon Pagenaud

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MotorSportsTalk starts its run through the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series field, driver-by-driver, with a look at the newly crowned champion, Simon Pagenaud.

Simon Pagenaud, No. 22 Team Penske Chevrolet

  • 2015: 11th Place, Best Finish 3rd, 1 Pole, 2 Podiums, 4 Top-5, 9 Top-10, 132 Laps Led, 5.2 Avg. Start, 10.6 Avg. Finish
  • 2016: Champion, 5 Wins, 7 Poles, 8 Podiums, 10 Top-5, 12 Top-10, 406 Laps Led, 3.9 Avg. Start, 6.1 Avg. Finish

Those who’ve followed Simon Pagenaud’s career since the start of his journey in North America have known a year like 2016 was possible. Still, the fact it happened on the heels of a frustrating and out-of-body campaign like 2015 was a remarkable turnaround story, and spoke to how well the new fourth team at Team Penske had gelled over the winter knowing they would have to be better next year.

It’s funny to think that six or so months ago before St. Petersburg, Pagenaud was the Team Penske driver theoretically on the “hot seat.” But where the No. 22 team fell short of expectations in 2015 was just that – expectations. You naturally figure that when a driver as talented as Pagenaud and an engineer as talented as Ben Bretzman come as a new package with a new crew that while it may take a little bit of time to mesh, they’ll be winning races sooner rather than later. Instead, there were only a couple of strategy-aided podium finishes and more races when the finish didn’t match the qualifying.

That’s not to say there was pressure on Pagenaud this year but there was certainly a vibe that if he and the No. 22 team didn’t say, win one or two races and make a jump from 11th to the top-five in points – as Pagenaud had finished in 2012 through 2014 – it would be a second successive underwhelming year.

Luckily any doubts were removed with back-to-back runner-up finishes to kick off the campaign, and then, and this is where Pagenaud made a big step forward in my eyes this year, but a fantastic mix of aggression and defense that followed in the races at Long Beach and Barber. Putting aside Pagenaud’s pit exit that day, he still had to defend against Scott Dixon – who was driving angry in the moment because he felt Pagenaud should have been issued more than a warning. And Pagenaud didn’t let this win slip away, as perhaps he had to Juan Pablo Montoya following Montoya’s move on a restart at St. Petersburg. Then at Barber, the battle with Graham Rahal provided arguably the road course finish of the year, with Pagenaud prevailing following a pass for the win after he’d lost it earlier in that final 10-lap period. We hadn’t seen him do this much, so seeing it in IndyCar was a good sign.

He dominated in the frigid conditions of the Indianapolis road course. He then endured the second quarter of the season when he finished 13th or worse in three of the next four races, two of them owing to mechanicals, and crucially, didn’t lose the grasp on the points lead he’d built in the first five races.

When Pagenaud needed to drive smart, he did – fourth at Iowa and ninth at Toronto were not standout races but key results. Then when he needed to get aggressive again, he did – and that move he made on Will Power at Mid-Ohio goes down as his pass of the year and perhaps the pass for the championship. It positioned him so well going into the final four races that he still managed to avoid his one stumble, at Pocono, before getting up stronger in Texas and Watkins Glen before bringing it home at Sonoma with his most authoritative weekend of the year.

The final tally shows a year of domination that really hasn’t been witnessed in IndyCar in some time. Five wins is the most for an IndyCar champion in the Dallara DW12 era (since 2012) and most since Dario Franchitti won five in 2009; all other champs since have won four races or fewer since. He was the top qualifier, a season grid average of 3.9 (5.2 in 2015 and 8.6 in 2014 speaks to a marked improvement). He made nine of a possible 10 Firestone Fast Six appearances, including a whopping seven poles. He led 406 of 2,070 laps (19.61 percent) in 12 of 16 races; second most was Josef Newgarden’s 313, but 282 of those were in one race. And he won the title by a whopping 127 points over Power – perhaps a bit skewed by double points seeing as though it was as low as 20 points leaving Pocono – but still a significant number that was between the mid-50s and low-80s over second most of the year.

The Frenchman joins the illustrious list of champs on the 2016 grid: Power, Montoya, Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Sebastien Bourdais. And his was wholly deserved following a career year.

Heather Lyne, Dennis Erb Jr. make history in the World of Outlaws Late Model Series

Lyne Erb Outlaws Late
Jacy Norgaard / World of Outlaws
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More than two decades in the making, the pairing of Heather Lyne and Dennis Erb Jr. produced a historical milestone in Dirt Late Model.

Last month, Erb and his long-time crew chief Lyne won their first World of Outlaws Late Model Championship and with this achievement, Lyne became the first female crew chief to win in a national late model series. Their journey together goes back 21 years and tells the story of hard work, persistence and belief in oneself.

After a career-best season with the World of Outlaws, Erb and Lyne secured the points championship at US 36 Raceway in Osborn, Mo. with three races remaining in the season. The consistency and success of their season came down to pinpoint focus. Lyne and Erb are a team of two living out a David vs. Goliath tale. In order to be as successful as possible this year the duo knew they had to do as much as possible with the resources they had.

“It’s always a challenge when you only have two people, both at the racetrack and at the shop,” Lyne told NBC Sports. “I also work full time, so during the day, Dennis has to do a significant amount of work so that when I get down there I can start working and maintaining. It’s planning ahead. It’s having that system in place and making sure that you’re prepared ahead of time.

“When you have a problem at the track, making sure you have all that stuff ready so it’s a quick change and not a lengthy process to make a repair. We had zero DNFs in the World of Outlaws, we had only one DNF out of 96 races [combined among all series].”

Dennis Erb clinched his 2022 championship before the World of Outlaws World Finals. Jacy Norgaard – World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Taming Time

This was not an easy feat. Between a full travel schedule and Lyne’s full-time job as an engineer, time comes at a premium. What they lack in time and resources they made up for in patience and planning.

“We buckled down, and we got all the equipment that we needed back, motors freshened, and things of that nature,” Lyne said about the mid-point of last season. “We were able to keep up with that. We just had a higher focus. I tried to reduce my hours at my day job as much as I possibly could while still maintaining what I need to get done at work. I got rid of a lot of the other distractions and got a more refined system in place at the shop.

“We did certain tasks on certain days so we had time to recover. We were on the road a little bit more, as opposed to coming home to the shop. So we had to be more prepared to stay out on those longer runs. It was just really staying on top of things a little more. It was a heightened sense.”

This was Lyne and Erb’s fourth full season with the Outlaws, but they’ve been on the road together for the last 21 seasons starting in 2001. Their partnership began with Lyne’s bravery. When one door closed, she was quick to open another. In 2001, Lyne’s dad was ready to stop racing. Her mother wanted to regain her weekends, but Lyne knew this was her life path and wasn’t prepared to lose it.

“I’ve always been a tomboy at heart,” Lyne said. “I watched racing with my dad. Growing up he watched NASCAR. In high school, I got tired of playing at the lake house, so I went to the local dirt track and fell in love with it. I just couldn’t get enough. It took a year for me to convince my dad to come to the track with me. He finally did and we sponsored a car that year, the following year he started to race limited cars. He ran hobby stocks and limited late models.”

At some point, Lyne and her father’s level of commitment drifted apart.

“He did it for about five years,” Lyne said. “And then my mom said: ‘I’m done racing. I want my weekends back. It’s just not fun anymore.’ I wasn’t ready to hang up my wenches and Dennis raced out of the same hometown so I, on a dare, went down and introduced myself; told him if you ever need any help, I’ll drill out rivets, I’ll help wash, whatever you need. Twenty-one years later here I am.”

Heather Lyne became the first female crew chief to secure a national touring late model championship in 2022. Paul Arch / World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Breaking Through

Lyne entered a male-dominated job in a field that is also male-dominated – and where there were few examples of women creating these places for themselves. In this way, Lyne became a blueprint for other women as they strive to find a place for themselves in racing and in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) overall. She has her mother to thank for providing a strong role model, her father for sharing her passion, Erb for taking a chance on an unknow entity and most importantly herself.

“I was raised to believe that I can do anything, I want to do, as long as I put my heart and soul into it.” Lyne replied when asked about role models in the sport growing up. “My parents did not raise me to have that limitation. But from a racing role model perspective, I went in there completely green and just introduced myself to Dennis, the fact that he was brave enough to take that risk and bring a girl to the racetrack. Someone he didn’t know at all speaks volumes for him.”

Lyne and Erb have learned how to survive and succeed with each other on the road. They do this by leveraging decades of combined experience and an ability to adapt to the everchanging landscape of dirt late models. Next year the World of Outlaws visits nearly a dozen new tracks and Lyne sees it as an opportunity for continued success.

“I just want to do it again,” Lyne says going into next season, “I’m looking forward to the competition, I always do. I wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t competitively driven.

“There are some new tracks on the schedule that I’m looking forward to trying for the first time that I haven’t been to myself,” Lyne said of the 2023 season, “Dennis seems to do well on those first timers. We won out at Marion center, we finished second at Bloomsburg. We have a good solid notebook of information to tackle them over the last three years with these rocket race cars that we’re running. It’s good to have that information and leverage it to try some new things.”