Simon Pagenaud earns his place in Indianapolis 500 history

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INDIANAPOLIS – When Simon Pagenaud arrived at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 10 to begin preparations for the IndyCar Grand Prix followed by the Indianapolis 500, the driver from France was presumably racing to save his ride at Team Penske.

Pagenaud had a 22-race winless streak and had not won a race since the 2017 season finale at Sonoma Raceway. A plausible scenario of speculation had Andretti Autosport’s Alexander Rossi taking over Pagenaud’s No. 22 Chevrolet in 2020 because both drivers are in the final year of their contracts.

Rossi is extremely loyal to Honda, but who turns down a ride offer from Roger Penske?

Seventeen days later, Pagenaud, 35, has gone from being a driver with a long winless streak to the hottest driver in the NTT IndyCar Series. He won his first race in 23 attempts with a May 11 victory in the IndyCar Grand Prix, followed that the next week with the pole positions for the Indy 500 and won the 103rdIndianapolis 500 on Sunday.

It was an epic battle between Pagenaud and his supposed heir apparent in Rossi. The two drivers traded the lead over and over throughout the final 13 laps until Pagenaud made the race-winning pass in Turn 3 near the end of Lap 198.

A lap and a half later, Pagenaud was the Indy 500 winner.

The celebration began at Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s “Yard of Bricks” and lasted well into the night. The Team Penske celebration was at Punch Bowl Social in downtown Indianapolis, a popular nightspot that feature games and other events.

According to his fiancé, Hailey McDermott, they returned home shortly after midnight because a very busy week is ahead for the newest Indy 500 winner.

“My timeline has been busy,” Pagenaud said Monday morning at the scene of his greatest victory. “I haven’t had much time to myself. But I tell you, it’s all so sweet. Such great emotions, being able to savor the biggest race in the world. It’s quite amazing.

“It’s been a phenomenal following by the media. Yesterday we actually had seven hours of nonstop media after the race. I got back to my motorhome at 10 p.m. Got a quick steak, because I was a little hungry, then straight to celebrate with Team Penske downtown. Short night, but I feel real energized. I’m just feel so blessed and grateful for what happened obviously.

“This morning, I woke up after two hours of sleep, going to the photos, with no bags under my eyes surprisingly. It’s the sweetest photos you can do with your team, with your family. It’s great to be able to take that moment with them and just keep memories because it’s once in a lifetime, these kind of experiences.

“Obviously super proud. It’s good to be here.”

NBC’s first telecast of the Indianapolis 500 generated a 15 percent increase over last year’s telecast on ABC.

The telecast delivered a 3.86 overnight rating, (vs. 3.35 on ABC last year) and the best in three years. The overnight rating peaked in the final quarter-hour at 4.56 when Pagenaud outdueled Rossi to win his first Indy 500.

This was the highest overnight for a Sunday afternoon sports event on NBC in more than four months (Jan. 6, NFL Wild Card, 22.9) and the highest overnight for a sports event on Sunday.

The overnight rating does not include digital consumption. Final viewership, including digital, is expected later today.

Pagenaud woke up to about 700 text messages. He also said his emails have “blown up” with congratulatory messages.

“It’s quite phenomenal,” he said. “I had a lot of messages from friends. Obviously, when everybody woke up France, it was kind of a shock. Obviously a lot of messages from all my friends in America and other countries.

“What an incredible day. It’s difficult to fathom still. I haven’t had time to watch the race. That’s what I usually do. I go home always, I study the race, I look at it. If it’s a win, it’s obviously more enjoyable. Really want to watch this one and take the time for it.

I have other duties right now. I have to represent. I’m very proud to be an Indy 500 champion. I’ll do my best, like I do in the racecar, give it my 100 percent, be the best I can to represent you guys, represent the sport. To be honest, it’s the biggest spectacle in racing.”

One of those messages was from the President of the United States, who placed a phone call to team owner Roger Penske in Victory Lane. After speaking with President Trump for a few moments, Penske handed the phone to Pagenaud.

“President (Donald) Trump called me yesterday,” Pagenaud said. “I hope (French) President (Emmanuel) Macron will call me, as well. We’ll see what happens.

“I’m very lucky with Fred Lissalde, the CEO of BorgWarner is French. He said to me today, said it several times, ‘We’re going to take the Borg-Warner (Trophy) to France, celebrate there.’ That’s a phenomenal thing to do. I’m very thankful he wants to do that.

“BorgWarner is phenomenal for the sport. A trophy that exists since 1933. To think I’m going to be on it, we’re going to take it to France, probably the first time — must be the first time it’s ever going to happen.

“Again, I’m very blessed. That would be really cool to take it to the Champs-Elysées, celebrate with French people. We’ll see what happens.”

The victory has made Pagenaud a sports hero in France. He became the first Indianapolis 500 winner from France since Rene Thomas in 1914.

Pagenaud joined the ranks of Formula One’s Alain Prost of Formula One and rally racer Sebastien Loeb as great racing drivers from France.

“Those are big names, big names,” Pagenaud said. “Sebastien Loeb to me is the greatest driver ever. Rally is pure instinct driving, no calculation, just pure driving, being able to listen to the instruction and do it, in the dust, gravel, snow, tarmac, it’s special. You have to give it to him. I’m a big fan of Sebastien.

“Alain Prost was fighting with my idol (Ayrton) Senna, so it’s very special to be compared to them. I’ve got a lot to accomplish still. I don’t think of myself like that. I’m going to set myself more goals. That’s my nature.

“We’ll see when it retire, I can reflect on it later.”

In 1913, Jules Goux of France drank six bottles of champagne en route to his victory in the third Indianapolis 500. Pagenaud enjoys a good red wine, but on Sunday, he preferred the taste of milk.

“It was definitely amazing to drink the milk,” Pagenaud said. “To me tradition is everything, just like red wine can be. Tradition is everything. Being able to drink the milk yesterday was better than any wine or any champagne.”

Pagenaud arrived in Indianapolis fighting for his job. He leaves the capital city of Indiana leading the NTT IndyCar Series championship and is the hottest driver in the series.

He will be honored at Monday night’s Indianapolis 500 Victory Celebration at the JW Marriott in Indianapolis, where Pagenaud was awarded more than $2.6 million.

His springtime trip to Indiana has given the 35-year-old a renewed focus heading into this weekend’s doubleheader in Detroit – the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix.

“Tuesday morning, it’s back to business,” Pagenaud said. “I’ve got to focus on the championship. It’s been my goal the whole year. I’ve said it coming in, that I want to fight for the championship this year again. I want to do it again. I’ve done it once. I can do it twice. It’s just a matter of putting everything together, being consistent.

“I think it’s a year where you have to be consistently up front. Obviously we already have two wins. Realistically you want a minimum of three to have a good chance for the championship. We are almost right there. But you need consistency in the end.

“I think we’re ahead of the program. We’re already leading the championship now. The cars are behaving really well. It’s improving. It’s going to keep improving throughout the season as we go through.

“I’ve got a lot of expectation. Certainly feel like we have everything going in the right direction right now with Team Penske. The development is good. My teammates, we’re pushing each other really well. It’s fun.

“I enjoy my job more than ever. I’ve got so much drive. My motivation is the highest it’s ever been. I’m hungry. I want to win.

“Now I’m free. I can really focus on winning and going forward.”

Winning has allowed Pagenaud to free his mind of the challenges that come without a victory in more than one full season. His victory two weeks ago in the IndyCar Grand Prix started a roll of momentum that swept him to victory in the 103rdIndianapolis 500.

He is heading to Detroit at full throttle. He has a one-point lead over teammate Josef Newgarden, who finished fourth behind Pagenaud, Rossi and Takuma Sato in the Indy 500. Pagenaud has a 22-point lead over Rossi.

Pagenaud has gone from afterthought to legitimate championship contender over the past 17 days in Indianapolis.

He doesn’t expect to slow down anytime soon.

An IndyCar iRacing Challenge at Talladega? Drivers have discussed it

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If Dale Earnhardt Jr. is interested in an IndyCar iRacing event on an oval, he might like the latest idea being kicked around by NTT Series drivers.

“I personally would want to run at Talladega, but I don’t think that’s an option,” Arrow McLaren SP driver rookie Oliver Askew told NBCSports.com in a Friday interview about his simulation work for the second round of the IndyCar iRacing Challenge. “IndyCar drivers have a group chat with iRacing, and someone had the idea of running at Talladega, and I thought it was brilliant.”

It actually would be a throwback of sorts as a USAC-sanctioned race with Indy cars at Talladega nearly happened 40 years ago.

The IndyCar iRacing Challenge will be running its second consecutive road course Saturday at Barber Motorsports Park (2:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN or streaming here).

Of the four remaining races in the six-race series, there’s a chance that three of them could be ovals: A Drivers’ Choice track April 11; a “Random Draw” April 18 and a non-IndyCar “Dream” track May 2 (the April 25 race will be at Circuit of the Americas).

ENTRY LIST: Who will be racing at Barber

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IndyCar drivers are voting on next week’s track, and the options include high-speed ovals such as Texas Motor Speedway and Michigan Speedway.

A multicar crash at Talladega last October. (Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Talladega apparently isn’t on the list for next week, but surely it could be considered for a future race if it meant having Earnhardt in the field. The 15-time NASCAR Most Popular Driver is a six-time winner at Talladega, and the NASCAR on NBC analyst’s family is synonymous with the 2.66-mile oval where his late seven-time champion father won a record 10 times.

“I hope he can make that happen,” Askew said of racing against Earnhardt. “I hope IndyCar can grant his wish on that.”

The addition of Earnhardt would fit well with an IndyCar iRacing Challenge that already features champions from NASCAR (Jimmie Johnson) and Supercars (Scott McLaughlin).

Will Power would like to see more of that.

“I think that would be great if we can get big-name drivers from other series,” Power said. “Getting a couple guys from Europe would be cool.”