IndyCar 2017 driver review: Simon Pagenaud

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MotorSportsTalk continues its annual review of the Verizon IndyCar Series drivers that raced in 2017 with this year’s runner-up, Simon Pagenaud. Carrying the No. 1 for the first time in his career, Pagenaud had an excellent encore campaign to his title season of 2016 that in almost any other year would have netted a repeat – but was marginally short at a couple of occasions.

Simon Pagenaud, No. 1 Team Penske Chevrolet

  • 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
  • 2017: 2nd Place, 2 Wins, 1 Pole, 6 Podiums, 13 Top-5, 15 Top-10, 187 Laps Led, 8.6 Avg. Start, 5.3 Avg. Finish

Evaluating Simon Pagenaud’s 2017 season is a real challenge. On one hand, Pagenaud turned in a year that, more than 90 percent of the time, should have been enough to defend his title. He completed every single lap of competition, won twice, and was the series leader in top-five and top-10 finishes. Pagenaud was the king of picking up valuable points at nearly every opportunity, and together with longtime engineer Ben Bretzman and strategist Kyle Moyer, executed at nearly every round.

And yet, it was the mere fraction of races when Pagenaud didn’t exert his inner lion from last year that he’ll look back on and realize that was where his title defense was lost, even as he was the best-finishing champion in his championship defense his year since the introduction of the base Dallara DW12 chassis in 2012.

Three occasions stick out in the latter category and it’s any of these three that could have been enough to erase the 13-point gap. At Texas, Pagenaud drove smartly while most of the field lost its head and finished third – but those were 15 points lost to Will Power, who won. At Toronto, Pagenaud was the dominant Penske driver all weekend from his lone pole position of the year, but he and Helio Castroneves got caught out by Tony Kanaan’s incident that brought out a full-course yellow. He ended seventh, which was his fourth worst finish of the year. And of course at Gateway, he left the door open just enough for Josef Newgarden to barge through, and the resultant 25-point swing as he dropped to third shifted a would-have-been 18-point deficit to Newgarden to 43. Alas, the “what if” game is dangerous to play.

Where Pagenaud excelled this year was in overcoming adversity from qualifying struggles, which was the biggest surprise of his season. The absolute qualifying star of 2016 with seven poles, and an eighth inherited when Power was forced out of St. Petersburg, only managed the one pole this year, along with a 4.7-average grid spot drop year on year from 3.9 to 8.6. Only twice was Pagenaud Penske’s top qualifier – at Toronto and Pocono – and he only made four of nine Firestone Fast Six rounds. Some circumstances dropped him back outside his control, namely the opening two street races in St. Petersburg and Long Beach, the latter where he got a penalty for impeding and started stone last. Pagenaud admitted at the end of the season that sustaining pace and setups was a challenge; by trying to improve what was optimal pace from 2016, the No. 1 team actually took a step back performance-wise.

All that said, minor critiques are easy to overlook in a year where Pagenaud represented IndyCar well as defending champion. His personality came out a bit more, namely in the Team Penske “Penske Games” digital series, with his “hula hoop on a regular day” line even becoming a T-shirt. His two wins were statement drives for his career – Phoenix as he finally won an oval and was ebullient about it, and Sonoma after a brilliant strategic effort to win pushing despite making an extra stop. It was a great season all told, if just that fraction off his 2016 title campaign.

Hunter and Jett Lawrence walk a delicate balance between winning races and favoring the fans

Hunter Jett Lawrence fans
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ANAHEIM, California – Hunter and Jett Lawrence are two of the most popular riders on the Monster Energy Supercross circuit, with fan bases that established and grew immediately when they came to America to ride for HRC Honda. Connecting with those fans came naturally for the charming Australian brothers, but it has not come without cost.

“It’s cool they’re there and it’s one of the things we try to do is give the fan that interaction,” Hunter told NBC Sports during Supercross Media Sessions ahead of the 2023 season. “It’s why we do ride days, meet-and-greets, press conferences  – all that stuff, because it’s exciting for them. We are trying to bridge the gap so they get personal interaction. Because that’s all they’re after. It’s all about getting that fan to think, ‘I know that guy. I didn’t meet him, but I get him. I get his humor.’ ”

There is no artifice in either brother. Their fan appeal is directly attributable to who they are at their core. And it’s that very genuineness that has throngs of fans standing outside their hauler, waiting for just a moment of their time.

“It’s about being yourself – talking to people,” Hunter said. “It’s not like I turn it on or turn it off; it’s just about being yourself. This is who we are, this is who you get and this is how it will be. You can’t portray something you’re not. If you keep saying you’re an orange, but apples keep popping out, it’s only a matter of time [until they figure it out].”

The key word is ‘throngs’, however. One person wanting just a few moments of time is incidental. Dozens are an entirely different matter.

“It’s tough in Supercross because it’s such a long day,” Hunter said. “The recovery side of it’s tough to do everything. We get stuck outside the grid; we can’t be there for like 10 minutes. We’re stuck there for like an hour. It gets overwhelming at times.

“You feel bad because you want to sign everything, but you’re still here for a job. Every race day is like that. We do the best we can, but there are so many people who wait out front. They’re screaming for you. Even when we’re coming off the sessions, they’re already yelling before you put your bike on the stands. You don’t even get time to take you helmet off.”

It can be a double-edged sword. Personality is only one part of the equation. A much bigger part of the brothers’ fan appeal comes because of their success. Hunter finished second in the last two Supercross 250 West title battles and third in the past two Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championships.

Jett won the last three titles he competed for, including last year’s 250 East Supercross Championship and the last two Motocross contests.

“I think they expect me to have nothing else to do on a Saturday and that I have unlimited energy,” Jett said. “But, I’m trying to recover for the next race.”

It’s a matter of timing. Jett has gained a reputation last year for handing out hundreds of donuts before the races during Red Bull fan appreciation sessions. And after the race, once the business at hand has been settled, Jett is equally available to the fans.

“After the race it’s fine; I’ll stay behind.” Jett said. “My job is done on the racing side of things, but until that last moto is done, my main thing is dirt bikes. The fans come along with it. The fans are part of the job, but main job at hand is the racing side of things. After the race, I’ll stay there for an hour or so. It’s a lot calmer.”