ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Simon Pagenaud and Scott Dixon finishing on the podium in a Verizon IndyCar Series street race isn’t a surprise.
But how they did so today in the 2017 season opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg was.
Pagenaud had an uncharacteristically awful qualifying effort, taking the renumbered No. 1 PPG Automotive Refinish Team Penske Chevrolet to 14th on the grid.
Pagenaud started outside the top 10 only once total last season – 14th at Pocono – and had only once started outside the top-10 on a road or street course since joining Team Penske in 2015, when he started 15th and finished third at Mid-Ohio.
Dixon, meanwhile took the blue No. 9 GE LED Lighting Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing to second on the grid and arguably had the car to win before getting caught out on Lap 26 when the second full-course caution flew for debris on course following contact between Dixon’s teammate Tony Kanaan and Mikhail Aleshin at Turn 4.
The caution left Dixon and six others stranded on track before their first scheduled pit stops, while Pagenaud – ninth at the time of the caution – able to leap frog into the lead at that time.
“Obviously at that critical time where you’re trying to push the window for the pit stop, they threw a caution, which I still haven’t seen exactly why they threw the caution,” Dixon said.
“There was a small amount of debris in turn four, which typically race control, if it’s not on the racetrack or going to cause any issues, they’ll definitely let you get through the pit stop cycle, especially at that moment.
“The leaders are trying to obviously stretch the window a bit, then you have all the back markers that are pitting early to try to get lucky with a yellow. The yellow fell, which hurt us.”
Pagenaud, naturally, had a slightly different take on how the yellow helped him.
“It’s funny, it was such a well-oiled machine last year. You throw one new component into it, in this case it’s the brakes, and everything goes back to zero. You got to work on it again.
“That’s basically what happened this weekend. It threw us off. We had problems Friday. Couldn’t really tell what the car was doing because of the brakes. Then we fixed it, I would say, Saturday morning.
“Then we made an adjustment for the problems we were having Friday. Then it was a disaster in qualifying. So we regrouped. That’s where this team is incredible. It’s definitely a champion team for regrouping like they did, understanding the issue we had in qualifying. This morning in the warmup, I was back home in my car. It was great to get that feeling back.
“The race, the car was fantastic. We got very lucky at the start, I would say. We went through the chaos. I think God had something to play with it actually, because he put the car back where it needed to go. Very lucky.”
Both drivers had been hosed by a yellow timing in Toronto last year, which cost them a likely 1-2 finish there. Dixon, too, had felt aggrieved at Long Beach when Pagenaud exited the pit lane and was borderline crossing it early, but was issued only a warning from INDYCAR Race Control.
Anyway, the end result today was that Pagenaud had lucked into second while Dixon was unlucky to end in third. But for both to be on the podium spoke highly of their future prospects for the rest of the season.
Pagenaud used smarts to get through the first lap caution and avoid getting caught up in that.
“I haven’t started there in a long time actually. I was a bit rusty on that, too,” Pagenaud said.
“It actually worked out really well. I just trusted my instinct. The biggest thing is when Charlie hit the wall, and Rahal went spin, the biggest thing was knowing where to go was the biggest decision I had to make.
“I was fortunate in that wreck. I think I got touched in the back actually because I had some damage I saw at the end of the race. But I managed to go through. I managed to get some spots.”
Meanwhile Dixon was happy to end on the podium and fulfill his weekend pace in Ganassi’s first race weekend since switching to the Honda aero kit and engine.
“Generally, we were a little surprised, I think, with how our cars hit the track here, how much speed they had right out of the gate. We knew the car was good at Sebring, but Sebring doesn’t really account for too much,” he said.
“I think we had a pretty decent start with the new brakes, a lot of the development stuff. I think knowing we had to reset and go to a totally different package, we looked at a lot of different things that were in our control, too, mechanically and setups, areas that we can improve.
“It’s always hard to know. I think you set your sights on having the performance and being able to race for a race win, which I think personally we had the car to beat this weekend. It was definitely a very strong car.”
IndyCar returns to NBCSN on April 9 at Long Beach.