After a tough first season with Team Penske in the year prior, things finally began to click for Simon Pagenaud in 2016.
The Frenchman finished second in the first two races of 2016 at St. Petersburg and Phoenix and then scored his first victory in nearly two years in the Grand Prix of Long Beach.
One week later, the IndyCar Series traveled to Barber Motorsports Park for the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama. Pagenaud proved a legitimate contender early in the weekend, winning the pole position Saturday.
On Sunday, April 24, Pagenaud dominated the race, leading all but six laps. While he made the race look like an easy Sunday drive early, Pagenaud got caught up in lapped traffic in the closing laps, allowing Graham Rahal to catch up and challenge him for the lead.
On Lap 82 of 90, Rahal made contact with Pagenaud as he passed for the lead in Turn 7. The incident forced Pagenaud off track and damaged Rahal’s front wing.
While Pagenaud lost the lead, he still was able to catch up to Rahal four laps later. As Pagenaud attempted to pass Rahal at the exit of turn six, Rahal made contact with the lapped car of Jack Hawksworth, destroying his front wing completely and ending any chance he had to hold off Pagenaud.
Exiting Turn 14, Pagenaud retook the lead from Rahal. He won by 13.748 seconds over Rahal.
“I had a really fast car,” Pagenaud told NBC Sports in Victory Lane. “With traffic, it was all about making sure I could keep Graham behind me.
“Anyways, I won the race. Graham damaged his front wing, so I just took my chances. I didn’t know he was struggling. Then I just ran away. … I’m driving my best and having a fantastic time with the whole team.”
Pagenaud would continue to drive his best in 2016, winning three more times. His final victory came in the season finale at Sonoma Raceway on Sept. 18, clinching his first series championship.
Also on this date:
1966: Rodger Ward won the Trenton 150 in his next-to-last open-wheel start. Born on Jan. 10, 1921, in Beloit, Kansas, Ward served as a fighter pilot in WWII.
After leaving the service in 1946, Ward began a successful racing career that would see him amass 26 open-wheel victories including the Indy 500 in 1959 and 1962. After racing, Ward served as a broadcaster for ABC Sports and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Radio Network. He died on July 5, 2004.