‘Next year’ is now a quest for Pagenaud to defend IndyCar title

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Throughout his IndyCar career, Simon Pagenaud was the quintessential example of a driver who would give it all, but at season’s end would invariably fall short, likely saying to himself, “Wait until next year, we’ll get ‘em then.”

Well, Pagenaud can’t say that anymore. As the defending Verizon IndyCar Series champion, the French native is now in an all-new position in the open-wheel series: that of the hunted rather than the hunter.

But that’s fine with Pagenaud. He firmly believes there’s still a lot more to draw upon after last season’s career year.

“There’s still a lot to iron,” he said at Wednesday’s Media Day at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “It’s only our second year together (with Team Penske), so we still have a lot to improve, so that’s what’s exciting for 2017.

“I think it’s about being disciplined. It’s easy to relax after you’ve won one time, but it’s about being disciplined. Myself, it’s to reflect on ’16 and see how I can improve myself physically, mentally, all the aspects of driving, the craft basically. I can definitely improve on a lot of those things.”

Which is not good news for his opponents.

Pagenaud roared through last season, capturing single-season career-highs in wins (five), podiums (eight) and poles (eight) in the No. 22 Team Penske Chevrolet.

By comparison, coming into 2016, Pagenaud had earned just four total wins, 12 podiums and two poles in his 85 combined Champ Car and IndyCar starts.

Now, after nearly doubling most of those totals in just one 16-race season, Pagenaud can’t wait to get started on this season’s 17-race campaign – and potentially a second consecutive championship.

One of the biggest keys will be not to become complacent.

“One of the big things for us having won is not to rest on our laurels and keep going, keep pushing to get more,” Pagenaud said. “So being hungry is going to be very important for everybody, not just me but the whole team. … But we can do better.”

While it’s hard to say Pagenaud had any marked weaknesses after the season he just had, he admits he needs personal improvement on ovals.

“I think it’s mostly focusing on the oval for 2017 and trying to raise the level there,” Pagenaud said.

Now that he’s won his first IndyCar championship, the next big goal on Pagenaud’s agenda is to win the Indianapolis 500.

In five starts to date in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, success has been mixed for Pagenaud. His best finish was eighth in 2013 for Schmidt Hamilton Motorsports. His second-best finish – 10th — came in 2015, his first season for Team Penske, and that was one where he had a car to contend.

Ironically, even with the overall stellar season he had in 2016, his finish at Indianapolis left Pagenaud with a bad taste in his mouth. A mechanical issue relegated him to a 19th place finish, his worst finish ever at the legendary 2.5-mile Brickyard.

Pagenaud knows that as good as his season was in 2016, he could just as easily have a bad campaign this coming season. But he’s ready for it all and however it turns out.

“It’s a job — it’s endless, this job,” he said. “There’s no limit to improving. … You can always improve. It’s just you being curious about it and trying to find more ways.”

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