Simon Pagenaud’s season of redemption includes Indy 500 win, second in championship

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MONTEREY, California – When the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series championship began, Simon Pagenaud of Team Penske was mired in a winless slump dating all the way back to the final race of the 2017 season. The 2016 IndyCar champion wasn’t in the early-season conversation of championship favorites for 2019.

Team Penske IndyCar Manager Kyle Moyer, who calls Pagenaud’s race strategy, told NBC Sports.com in an interview at Team Penske’s race shop in early May that drivers are expected to win at Team Penske and “if they don’t win, they don’t stay.”

In a sense, Moyer had delivered a message.

Pagenaud owned the “Month of May” at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, winning the IndyCar Grand Prix for the third time in his career, following that with the Indianapolis 500 Pole and then the dramatic victory in the 103rdIndianapolis 500.

After a winless June, Pagenaud won again in the Honda Indy 200 in July. From that point on, he never finished lower than sixth place until Portland, when he finished seventh.

Pagenaud entered Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey, third in the standings, 42 out of the led held by Team Penske teammate Josef Newgarden and just one point behind Alexander Rossi.

Pagenaud raced hard and aggressively, willing to challenge drivers around the 11-turn, 2.238-mile picturesque road course. He even attacked Newgarden on the track because Pagenaud knew the best way for himself to win the championship was to win the race.

The driver he really attacked, though, was Scott Dixon, a five-time NTT IndyCar Series champion and racing legend.

He stayed ahead of Newgarden the entire way, but when Pagenaud finished fourth and Newgarden eighth, it wasn’t enough for Pagenaud to claim the title. He moved up to second in the standings, leap-frogging Rossi, who finished sixth.

The final tally had Newgarden winning his second-career NTT IndyCar Series championship by 25 points over Pagenaud.

“If anyone doubted me, they are wrong,” Pagenaud said. “I won Indy. I’m second in the championship. I’ve been second twice and I won the championship in 2016.

“If the results don’t speak for themselves, I don’t think they know what they are talking about. I’m with Team Penske for a reason.”

When Pagenaud first climbed out of his car on pit road after the race, he had the bitter look of disappointment that he was not the champion.

“I gave it everything,” he told a crewmember. “I don’t know what else I could have done, man.”

Later, however, it became obvious that Pagenaud had a tremendous comeback season.

“It was an amazing race, I was very happy with the show,” Pagenaud said. “It was an amazing year for Team Penske. I won the Indianapolis 500 and Josef won the championship; it was a perfect picture for the team.

“I tried to give everything I had in the car. I had a tough battle with Scott Dixon, but it was fun.

“Twenty-nineteen was probably the best season of my career.”

Pagenaud believed if he could have passed Dixon, he could have had a shot at contending for the race victory. But Dixon is a five-time IndyCar Series champion and one of the greatest of all-time.

“I really had a lot of pace in the car, but behind I was using up my tires,” Pagenaud said. “He didn’t make it easy, but we tried. He’s a racer; I’m a race and that is what we have to do.

“I think Josef was the best all season long. He was the most consistent. I won the Indianapolis 500 and can’t be disappointed with that. Frankly, it was my most complete season and the season where I had the most fun. I’m proud and I’m proud of the team.

“We’ll see what we can do next year, but this will be hard to top.”

Pagenaud was one of the first drivers to congratulate Newgarden on his championship and stressed how much his teammate deserved the title.

Pagenaud had a car that allowed him to attack on longer runs because his setup worked best with the tire degradation.

“It’s a beautiful track and it’s really good racing, side-by-side battles,” Pagenaud told NBC Sports.com. “It was a lot of fun out there; we just fell short. I think I had the best car out there, if I could have gotten past Dixon, but he is a tremendous racer.

“That was probably my aggressive driver ever. This is where we ended up at the end. I don’t think I could have done it any better. From the beginning, I knew I had to go out there and win the race. That was my goal.

“I tried to get as much as I could all the way to the end. I attacked within reason, but there is nothing else I could have done.”

By finishing 2019 with so much success, Pagenaud believes he can carry this momentum into 2020.

“We are the only ones that have won on superspeedways, road courses and street courses this year,” Pagenaud told NBC Sports.com. “To me, it is the most complete season I’ve had. On superspeedways, we finished first and third at Indy and Pocono.

“We got off to a bad start and that is what cost us the championship.”

Indy 500 winner, second in the championship, not a bad season for Pagenaud.

Perhaps the biggest accomplishment, however, is he quieted the early season doubters.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter @BruceMartin_500

Australia SuperCar Champion gets IndyCar Test at Team Penske

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Scott McLaughlin’s latest reward for winning the 2019 Virgin Australia SuperCar championship is an INDYCAR test at Team Penske.

“Scott has been incredibly successful for DJR Team Penske over the last three seasons and he has become a true champion of our sport,” said team owner Roger Penske, who will become the owner of INDYCAR, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indianapolis 500 in early January. “He certainly embraces new challenges and we think this is a great opportunity to utilize the IndyCar Series rookie testing program so Scott can experience what it is like to get behind the wheel of one of our Indy cars.”

McLaughlin, who has scored back-to-back Virgin Australia Supercars Champion for DJR Team Penske (DJRTP), will participate in an INDYCAR Rookie Evaluation test at Sebring International Raceway in Sebring, Fla. on Monday, January 13.

“I am always open to new challenges and I’m thankful to Team Penske for providing this opportunity to test an Indy car,” said McLaughlin, who established a new Supercars single season record with 18 victories this past season. “We had an amazing year in 2019 and I’m looking forward to defending our Supercars championship next season. I’m also excited to grow as a driver and being with Team Penske creates cool opportunities to try something new. Although I have spent a few hours in a simulator earlier this year, it’s going to be a blast to see what one really feels like at a place like Sebring.”

McLaughlin joined DJR Team Penske in 2017 as one of the brightest stars in Supercars. He has produced 35 victories and 44 pole positions over the last three seasons while helping DJRTP claim team championships in 2017 and 2019, the driver’s title each of the last two seasons and the legendary Bathurst 1000 race in October, along with co-driver Alex Premat.

McLaughlin will defend his Supercars title for DJRTP in 2020 in the No. 17 Shell V-Power Ford Mustang.  He will build on his already successful racing career by driving a full-sized open-wheel car for the first time.

Team Penske enjoyed another successful IndyCar Series season in 2019. The team earned its record 18th Indianapolis 500 victory as Simon Pagenaud captured the checkered flag in May, while Josef Newgarden won his second series title in three years and the team’s 16th INDYCAR Championship. Team Penske will once again compete with three full-season entries in 2020, featuring series champion drivers Newgarden, Pagenaud and Will Power.

Team Penske is one of the most successful teams in the history of professional sports. Cars owned and prepared by Team Penske have produced more than 540 major race wins, over 620 pole positions and 37 Championships across open-wheel, stock car and sports car racing competition. Over the course of its 53-year history, the team has also earned 18 Indianapolis 500 victories, two Daytona 500 Championships, a Formula 1 win, overall victories in the 24 Hours of Daytona and the 12 Hours of Sebring along with a win in Australia’s legendary Bathurst 1000 race. Team Penske currently competes in the IndyCar Series, the NASCAR Cup Series, the NASCAR Xfinity Series and the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. The team also races in the Virgin Australia SuperCars Championship, in a partnership with Dick Johnson Racing, as DJR Team Penske.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500