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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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Michelin appoints new North American motorsports director

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Michelin North America has named Tony Ménard as director of motorsports, effective Jan. 1, 2020.

Ménard is succeeding Chris Baker, who has held the role for the past eight years. Baker is scheduled to retire in March of 2020, ending a lengthy career that began with Michelin in 1982.

“Chris has played a vital role in the growth and success of our motorsports program, both for BFGoodrich and Michelin in North America,” said Matthieu Bonardel, global director for Michelin Group’s motorsports business entity. “His passion and understanding for motorsport fueled growth in the organization and established credibility in the market. Chris’s leadership propelled the Group, which experienced tremendous success with race wins, and advanced the way the brands leveraged our motorsports participation to benefit the overall business.”

A native of Le Mans, France, Ménard has served in several positions during his 30-year career with Michelin, most recently serving global business leader for Michelin brand in the passenger-vehicle category. Ménard has worked closely with the North American motorsports team since early July in preparation for the transition.

Baker oversaw the development of the motorsports function for Michelin and BFGoodrich Tires brands as a single business unit in North America. He also directed the expansion of Michelin’s involvement in IMSA sports-car racing as the “Official Tire of IMSA” and BFGoodrich Tires partnership with SCORE International Racing as the “Official Tire of SCORE.”

During Baker’s tenure, BFGoodrich achieved an unprecedented 650 off-road class wins, including five overall victories in the Baja 1000. The brand also demonstrated performance in the Battery Tender Global Mazda MX5 Cup presented by BFGoodrich Tires, Lucas Oil Off Road Racing, Ultra4 King of Hammers, and provided strong support of grass roots racing across North America with the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA), National Auto Sport Association (NASA), and Super Production Challenge in Canada.

“I am incredibly grateful to Michelin for the opportunities and support throughout my career, and to all the folks that I have worked with and continue to work with,” Baker said. “I want to thank all the teams, partners, officials and fans who have made our relationships so successful and are essential to the brands’ successes. I look forward to witnessing the continued success of our motorsports programs under Tony’s leadership, as well as the contributions of the Michelin Motorsport North America staff and volunteers, who are completely dedicated and invested in representing our brands in competition.”