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IndyCar Season in Review: Simon Pagenaud’s triumphant comeback

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Josef Newgarden may have stolen the headlines when he won his second NTT IndyCar Series championship last month at Laguna Seca, but the man who finished second to him in the points standings deserves an equal amount of praise for his phenomenal 2019 performance. 

That man is Newgarden’s teammate, Simon Pagenaud, who made a triumphant comeback this season after a lackluster 2018 campaign that saw the Frenchman fail to win a single race.

Though every driver experiences a lengthy winless streak at some point in their career, Pagenaud entered this year’s IndyCar Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course having not won a single race since September 2017 – disappointing to say the least considering that he races for Team Penske, the most sucessful team in IndyCar history. 

If there was any time for Pagneaud to win, it was then, and he did just so by passing Scott Dixon for the lead with two laps remaining to end a lengthy 21-race winless streak. 

“I know what I’m worth,” Pagenaud told NBC Sports following his first victory of 2019. “The stars just didn’t align before, but the performance has always been there this year. The team has been fantastic at giving me what I need, so here we are.”

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The stars continued to align for Pagenaud through the remainder of the month of May. One week later, he won the pole position for the 103rd running of the Indianapolis 500, a race he went on to win the following weekend after a memorable battle with Alexander Rossi for the checkered flag.

Pagenaud wasn’t just done after Indy, however. He would win once again on the streets of Toronto in July, and finished no worse than seventh in the final six races. Pagenaud showed consistency all season, finishing outside of the top 10 only twice in the 17 races contested this year.

Though he didn’t win the series championship, Pagenaud’s consistency allowed him to remain in the title hunt all year, and he even briefly took the points lead following his win in the Indy 500.

For Pagenaud, his 2019 performance was more satisfying than his 2016 championship season.

“2016 was pretty awesome, but I think I’m having the most fun I’ve ever had,” Pagenaud told NBC Sports. “Winning Indy really allowed me to just step back and enjoy things a bit more.”

Indeed, winning Indy gave Pagenaud plenty of opportunities to celebrate his accomplishment. In June, Pagenaud and his crew were invited to the White House to meet President Donald Trump – becoming the first Indy 500 winner to visit the White House since Sam Hornish, Jr. in 2006.

Later in August, Pagenaud also had the opportunity to return to his native France to celebrate his Indy triumph with his fellow countrymen.

“Winning the race [as a Frenchman] for the first time in almost a century was very special for people, and it meant a lot to them,” Pagenaud said. “Racing still means a lot to people over there.”

Though Indy cars have never raced in the country, Pagenaud stated that those he met in France expressed a significant amount of interest in the series, and he feels the need to continue to further educate European audiences about the sport that has given him so much. 

“I feel like it’s a duty,” Pagenaud said. “I’m faithful to IndyCar and I will continue to be faithful. I’ve loved it. 

“IndyCar has really helped my career take off. The Indy 500 has changed my life and made my career what I wanted it to be. Now my goal is to try to be more present in Europe educating people and letting them know what the Indy 500 and IndyCar is.”

If Pagenuad’s comeback performance this season was any indication of future success, expect to see the No. 22 car up front once again in 2020.

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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?