Defending IndyCar champ Pagenaud eager to have some fun at Indy

Photo: IndyCar

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) Simon Pagenaud can quickly recite his favorite and least favorite venues on IndyCar’s schedule.

Toronto has been nothing but trouble over the years. Indianapolis, on the other hand, has been fun.

It helps, of course, when Pagenaud comes to town in May with three major titles – reigning series champ, current points leader and defending IndyCar Grand Prix winner. He also has some momentum and is expected to contend for at least one more victory at Indy this month.

“The goal is to win. If you don’t win, then you probably should do something else,” Pagenaud said Thursday. “For me, it’s just a dream come true. You always want to be fighting at some level, and it’s exactly what you hope for.”

The 32-year-old Frenchman has been the most dominant driver in the series over the last 14 months.

A year ago, he won more races (five), more poles (seven) and had more top-five finishes (10) than anyone else. He also finished the season leading more laps and more races, running away with a 127-point win over Team Penske teammate Will Power in the final standings.

He can’t quibble with the encore, either.

Pagenaud has finished in the top five in all four races this season and grabbed the points lead after winning at Phoenix in late April. He’s done all this while dealing with more challenging obstacles than he had in 2016.

Pagenaud spent the offseason trying to turn himself into a better oval-track driver. After countless hours studying data, reviewing races and working on his race-day mentality, Pagenaud already has seen a payoff.

“Whether it’s hitting the pits faster or being able to manage your tire wear better or to have a better qualifying lap, things like that,” he said. “To me, the biggest improvement I could make was going to be on ovals and so I spent a lot of time on that, and I think it’s working.”

The first big test will come May 28 when he hopes to be starting near the front of the 33-car starting grid for the 101st Indianapolis 500, a race that hasn’t been kind to Pagenaud.

In five previous Memorial Day weekend starts on the 2.5-mile track, three with Sam Schmidt’s team and two for Roger Penske, Pagenaud has one front row start and has never finished higher than eighth. It’s simply not good enough in Pagenaud’s mind.

“After winning the championship, my No. 1 goal is winning the 500,” he said.

Practice for this year’s 500 begins Monday, with qualifying scheduled for May 20-21.

But it’s Saturday’s race, the IndyCar GP, in which Pagenaud has really excelled. He won the inaugural road-course race in 2014, was knocked out of the 2015 race with a bad gearbox and became the first two-time winner last season after taking the pole. It was Pagenaud’s third consecutive victory.

If he can do it again, Pagenaud can enjoy a couple more weeks in Indy with an even bigger lead in the standings.

“There are a few races where you know have bad luck and races you know you have good luck,” Pagenaud said. “For me, the bad luck has always been in Toronto and the good luck is always in the Indy GP. It (Indy) suits my style really well. It’s about braking and traction out of the corners, which suits me really well.

“The grand prix is my specialty and I have a lot of confidence going in and we feel like we can win that.”

More AP auto racing: