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

Attention NASCAR teams: IMSA drivers available for Daytona!

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NASCAR will be making its debut on the Daytona International Speedway road course next month, and there’s a big fan who’d like to join the historic weekend.

This fan actually has impressive credentials, too — a few thousand laps around the 12-turn, 3.56-mile layout that annually plays host to the Rolex 24 at Daytona in January.

In 2014, the winning GTLM team in the sports car endurance classic included IMSA Porsche driver Nick Tandy, who rabidly has followed NASCAR for more than 30 years since growing up in England.

So why not try racing NASCAR? Especially because Tandy has the weekend of Aug. 14-16 free.

He’s not picky, either — offering up his services on Twitter (as well as those of Porsche teammate Earl Bamber) for an ARCA, Xfinity, trucks or Cup ride.

Tandy’s affinity for American stock-car racing runs deep.

His first trip to the World Center of Racing was as a fan attending the 50th running of the Daytona 500 on Feb. 17, 2008. During Rolex testing in January, Tandy, 35, said he hadn’t missed a Cup race on TV in 15 years.

Among his favorite NASCAR drivers: the Earnhardts, Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch. When IMSA ran the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course in 2014, Tandy stayed a few extra days at the Brickyard and bought Kyle Busch gear for himself and his children.

He briefly took the stage during a NASCAR weekend last October. After IMSA’s season finale at Road Atlanta, Tandy made a few demonstration laps and a burnout in his No. 911 Porsche before the Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway.

He also has some experience in stock cars, having raced Modified-type grass-roots series on England’s quarter-mile short tracks.

Couple that with a Daytona road course record that includes two consecutive podium class finishes (including last Saturday) and a sports car resume with 13 IMSA victories and an overall win in the 2015 24 Hours of Le Mans … and maybe a NASCAR team should take a look.

And Tandy isn’t the only IMSA driver who likely would be available.

Corvette driver Jordan Taylor, who won the 2017 Rolex 24 overall title with Jeff Gordon as a teammate (and the inspiration for his Rodney Sandstrom persona), also tweeted his availability for the weekend on the high banks.

Sports car veteran Andy Lally, a GTD driver with multiple class wins in the Rolex 24 as well as 38 Cup starts (he was the 2011 rookie of the season in NASCAR’s premier series), also hung out his shingle.

There also is AIM Vasser Sullivan’s Jack Hawksworth (who just won at Daytona last Saturday), the Englishman who teamed with Kyle Busch at the Rolex 24 in January and made an Xfinity start at Mid-Ohio last year with Joe Gibbs Racing.

Many sports car drivers (such as Taylor) already live in Florida, and many are hunkering down in the Sunshine State with IMSA returning to action at Daytona last week and Sebring International Raceway next week. Because of COVID-19-related travel concerns and restrictions, several IMSA stars who live outside the country are riding out the pandemic within a few hours of Daytona with nothing to do.

Why not a weekend at the World Center of Racing?

Over the years, scads of “road-course ringers” (including some Formula One veterans) have tried their hands in stock cars at Sonoma Raceway and Watkins Glen International.

How about considering the many sports car drivers who already have reached victory lane at Daytona by making a few right-hand turns, too?