Simon Pagenaud, Alexander Rossi return to Indy to celebrate epic battle

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They re-created one of the most thrilling finishes in Indianapolis Motor Speedway history by driving inches apart across the famous Yard of Bricks.

They also recounted the epic battle while sitting 6 feet apart (properly social distanced) and having to don masks during a shoot at the track’s iconic Pagoda.

For Simon Pagenaud and Alexander Rossi, two Indianapolis 500 winners whose connection is both intensely fierce and extraordinarily friendly, it was one of many moments of juxtaposition while filming “Back Home Again,” the special hosted by Mike Tirico that will showcase their stirring battle last year.

‘BACK HOME AGAIN’: Sunday at 2 p.m. ET, NBC

“It was awesome to be back there in a race car,” Rossi told NBCSports.com. “It didn’t feel like we were in this weird void of nothingness anymore. It felt like things were back to normal at least for a couple of laps.”

Said Pagenaud: “It’s a bizarre time, but we managed to get some amazing footage.”

The program, which also will honor the race’s military traditions as well as health-care workers battling the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), will air Sunday on NBC at 2 p.m. ET during the original time slot of the 104th running of the Indy 500 (which has been postponed to Aug. 23 because of the pandemic).

Reliving the 2019 Indy 500 through exclusive commentary on the race replay and an interview with Tirico, the winner and runner-up from the 2019 race alternated between images that were both comfortably familiar and strikingly odd.

NBC

“From a visual standpoint, it’s very impactful to see that (the track) was just empty,” Rossi, who won the race in his 2016 debut, said. “The fact that it was the middle of May, and there were Indy cars on the track, and there were maybe 20 people there, was really surreal and a very unique experience.

“It’s a sad story as to how we got to this point, but from a drama perspective, the whole point of this special is capturing how 2020 is going to be very different than years in the past. It’s tied to the legacy of this race and the importance of the fans and the community that make it what it is.

“As a racetrack and an event by itself, it’s awesome, larger than life. But you really miss a really key element when there’s not people there. I think that was all too clear when we were there and just a reminder of how important the fans are to our sport. And to the Indy 500 in particular.”

Pagenaud, the Frenchman who became a popular first-time winner from the pole position of last year’s Indy 500, also would have preferred a full grandstand “but we’re doing the best we can to represent our sport and give something to the fans.” During the COVID-19 era, that required necessary adjustments for sanitary precautions.

“We were wearing masks, and everybody was,” Pagenaud told NBCSports.com with a laugh. “Obviously, it’s not easy to understand the commands, especially for me, when people are wearing masks. So it is an adjustment, but we’re all getting used to the situation. The thing I’m really proud about is how IndyCar is reacting to it, being so proactive with NBC Sports. As partners, we’re able to showcase our sport, and that’s amazing to me in these times. I’m very proud to be part of it.

“Mike Tirico obviously is a really good host. And with Rossi, we have such respect with each other that we’re able to talk about things we never had the opportunity to before, so that was a really good time.”

It also was a fun return trip because the 2016 IndyCar champion had gone nearly a year since setting foot at IMS (which since has been purchased by his team owner, Roger Penske). The highlight was getting behind the wheel of his bright yellow No. 22 Dallara-Chevrolet to turn laps with Rossi.

“The filming on the track was awesome,” Pagenaud said. “Alex and I were inches apart trying to give the best footage we could. The camera was inches away from the nose of my car sometimes.”

Rossi joked that his No. 28 Dallara-Honda wasn’t quite close enough.

“It was annoying because in a lot of the camera shots, my car was behind the 22,” he laughed. “I didn’t love that as much as Simon probably did. But yeah man, it was cool to not only be in a car, but then to hear the other noise of the car and to have a small little bit of slipstream going on. I think some of the shots that we got required a little bit of some dancing and precision, so I’ll be interested to see how they turn out.

“From the inside, it looked pretty awesome.”


Despite engaging in such a rousing duel on Indy’s largest stage (trading the lead five times in the last 14 laps), it would seem odd to describe Pagenaud and Rossi as a rivalry. Their friendship features healthy respect that often crosses into admiration.

During a replay of the Indy 500 on NBCSN’s “Racing Week in America” last month, they live-tweeted the race and traded congratulatory musings that revealed a deeper level to a relationship that sprouted when they were teamed on Penske’s Acura sports car program for the Rolex 24 the past two years.

Both agree that the 2019 Indy 500 finish strengthened that bond. Rossi is an introverted sort who doesn’t socialize much but makes an exception for Pagenaud.

“I don’t go out of my way to spend extra amounts of time with people at the racetrack, except for my very close friends and teammates at Andretti,” Rossi said. “But Simon always was kind of an outlier from that standpoint. I always was happy to talk to him and just share in experiences and opinions, whether good or bad, with what was going on from a current events standpoint.

“I think he’s a great guy. There’s probably more to that. I really enjoy racing with him on the track but also the opportunities here and there to have conversations with him away from the track.”

Alexander Rossi and Simon Pagenaud chatted before a championship contenders news conference Sept. 19, 2019 in Monterey, California. (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).

Pagenaud, who is more outgoing, appreciates Rossi’s simplicity when it comes to a love of racing.

“I think he’s very reserved, but he’s got a very strong fire inside that’s boiling and ready to go at anytime when he sits in a race car,” Pagenaud said. “It’s very interesting to see. I think he’s most comfortable in his race car. And he’s a true racer, whether whether Baja off-road, or sports car racing, V8 Supercars or IndyCar.

“He’s able to compete in all these different categories, which is fun to watch. He’s an old-school kind of guy caring more about driving than anything else.”

Though they have a tenacity to how they fight for positions (Pagenaud describes them as a couple of Jack Russell terriers), there is a dichotomy to their driving approach.

Simon Pagenaud and Alexander Rossi shared a pace truck ride before the 2018 IndyCar Grand Prix (Jeffrey Brown/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images).

“It’s almost they are very similar in style but different,” three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves, who is teamed with both as an IMSA driver for Acura Team Penske, told NBCSports.com. “Simon is very detailed in his comments. Rossi also has great comments, but it’s more, ‘Just give me the car and I’ll drive.’ Very straightforward. But on the racetrack, they look very similar and close to each other, and that’s why they finished first and second last year.”

Castroneves was singled out by Rossi as one of the only drivers who is similar to his unorthodox style for IndyCar.

“There’s not many people who drive a car like I do,” chuckles Rossi, who prefers a looser rear end that often can mean dazzling displays of catching his car while oversteering through the corners.

Pagenaud, on the other hand, likes “a very positive” front end.

Having won multiple times in the NTT Series last season, both make it work.

“From a sheer internal competitive standpoint, I think Simon and I are probably close to the top from that standpoint,” Rossi said. “Where Simon is so impressive is his ability to articulate really small details. We can often have on the same feedback on a lot of things that go on throughout a race or qualifying lap, but he really differentiates himself with this minute level of detail. So that’s impressive to watch, and I think I’ve learned some things from him from that standpoint.”

Tim Holle/IndyCar

Pagenaud said he’s picked up things from Rossi’s often mesmerizing performances, such as last year’s comeback from a slow pit stop for fueling problems at the Brickyard.

“He’s relentless; I love the way he drives,” Pagenaud said. “His car control is something I admire. I always inspire myself from my competition. Certainly I think Alex has qualities that I don’t have, so I try to emulate what I don’t have and try to understand how I can get better by embracing what they’re doing. I think Rossi and I are very different styles, but we have the same driving side.

“He seems a lot more aggressive than I am. I’m more like the stealthy one that’s just going to be under cover even though my car is really bright. All of a sudden I pop up front, and people don’t know where I come from. Rossi is one of those guys that you know is going to do something spectacular, so you want to watch it. I’m not the same, but my consistency has brought me championships and a lot of very good wins.”


With 14 wins and a series title over 138 starts and eight full seasons in IndyCar, Pagenaud, who turned 36 on Monday, has been around twice as long as the 28-year-old Rossi (seven wins in 67 over four seasons).

But in taping “Back Home Again,” Pagenaud said he had witnessed growth in Rossi as “a very good ambassador of the sport. I feel like he sometimes hides that because he can seem so shy. But actually I learned a lot from him when we did that filming because the way he expressed his first win at Indy was spectacular.”

Like their driving approaches, there were both parallels and striking contrasts to their Indy 500 wins, which came four years apart with different circumstances and meanings.

Pagenaud had dreamed since childhood about becoming the first Frenchman to win the Indy 500 in nearly 100 years, and he celebrated with a victory tour of his home country.

Alexander Rossi celebrates after winning the 100th running of the Indy 500 (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).

Rossi was thrust into the spotlight much more abruptly as a rookie who won with a brilliant and perfectly executed fuel strategy in the 100th running of the race in 2016.

At the time, the Andretti Autosport driver only recently had left behind a longtime goal of becoming a star in Formula One, and with little oval experience, his IndyCar future didn’t seem certain.

He since has become a series fixture, re-signing a long-term deal last year with Andretti and Honda after a few months of being courted as the most coveted free agent (including being mentioned as a Penske candidate in place of Pagenaud, who re-signed with Penske after his Indy win).

The love affair with Indy bloomed in his unexpected victory.

Alexander Rossi does interviews after the 2019 Indy 500 Carb Day (Stephen King/IndyCar).

“Like Simon, I was blown away that I was in this position as an Indy 500 winner, but it wasn’t for the same reasons,” Rossi said. “His reasons were because of all the time it took and the dream, the desire, the effort and the failed attempts, etc. But for me, the fact I couldn’t believe it was because I didn’t ever imagine that a) I’d be participating in the Indy 500, but b) it didn’t even occur to me going into it that (winning) was even a remote possibility.”

The laid-back Californian took some criticism for a subdued victory celebration.

“When I got to the Victory Circle, I had no idea how to react,” Rossi said. “Because there wasn’t that thought process that went into it of, ‘Oh, this time that I win, I’m going to do this and feel that, and it’s going to be this culmination of all these years of finally coming through.’ It was like, “What the hell? What just happened? How did that happen? Why did that happen?” sort of reaction.

“So I think that was misinterpreted by a lot of people as a non-appreciation for it. I guess you could say that, but it wasn’t a non-appreciation for it because I wasn’t appreciative of the event or what the event meant. It was because I do not feel deserving to be in that position.”

Scott Dixon congratulates Simon Pagenaud after his Indy 500 win last year (Joe Skibinsk/IndyCar).

Pagenaud’s life-changing victory, which cemented his future at Penske, drew a long receiving line of former Indy winners that included Rossi, Takuma Sato, Scott Dixon, Will Power and Tony Kanaan.

“That was a surprise to see how many of my peers came to congratulate me,” he said. “I’m certainly one of the fiercest competitors out there, and it’s not like we’re old best friends, but there’s such respect. I really felt full inside when I realized the respect that I had from so many other competitors. So that was amazing.

“I think that’s the key in IndyCar racing. You have to look at the others to improve, and I think that’s why there’s such respect. Obviously at the speedway, it’s the fastest race in the world, so there is a need for respect that all the drivers have.”

Just being included in “Back Home Again” made Rossi feel respected.

“Obviously the 500 really ultimately rewards the winner,” he said. “So to be able to be a part of the special during these crazy times hopefully provides something fans can really be excited about with a memorable look back on last year that was really cool.”

Jimmie Johnson won’t race full time in 2023; leaves open possibility of returning at Ganassi

Jimmie Johnson race 2023
Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images
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Though he remains uncertain of his plans for next year, Jimmie Johnson won’t race full time in 2023, scaling back his schedule after running a full 17-race NTT IndyCar Series season.

“This was a difficult choice for me, but in my heart, I know it’s the right one,” Johnson said in a statement Monday morning. “I’m not exactly sure what the next chapter holds, but if an opportunity comes along that makes sense, I will consider it. I still have a bucket list of racing events I would like to take part in. Competing at this level in IndyCar has been such a great experience.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better team to race for than Chip Ganassi and Chip Ganassi Racing. Everyone worked extremely hard for the last two seasons, pushing to get the best performances out of me every single week. The support from my crew and teammates Dario (Franchitti), Scott (Dixon), Tony (Kanaan), Marcus (Ericsson) and Alex (Palou) went above and beyond anything I could have ever asked for.”

WHAT’S NEXT FOR JIMMIE JOHNSON: An analysis of his racing options for the 2023 season

Driving the No. 48 Dallara-Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing, Johnson ranked 21st in the 2022 points standings with a career-best fifth place July 24 at Iowa Speedway.

After running only road and street courses for Ganassi in 2021, the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion added ovals this year. In his Indy 500 debut, he qualified 12th and finished 28th after a late crash.

“I do have a desire to go back (to IndyCar), it’s just at this point, I know what’s required to do a full schedule, and I don’t have that in me,” Johnson told AP. “I don’t have that passion that I need for myself to commit myself to a full season.”

That leaves open the concept of Johnson returning part time with Ganassi, perhaps exclusively on ovals.

“We are fully supportive of Jimmie,” team owner Chip Ganassi said in a statement. “He has been a valued member of our team and if we can find a way to continue working together, we would like to do so.”

During IndyCar’s season finale race weekend, Johnson told reporters Sept. 9 that he planned to explore his options with wife Chandra and daughters Evie and Lydia. Johnson told the Associated Press that his family is considering living abroad for a year or two, and he has toyed with the idea of running in the World Endurance Championship sports car series because of its international locales.

Johnson hasn’t ruled out IndyCar, IMSA sports cars or even a cameo in NASCAR next year. Since retiring from full-time NASCAR after the 2020 season, he has entered the endurance races of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship in the No. 48 Ally Cadillac (including Saturday’s Petit Le Mans season finale). Johnson also wants to race in the 24 Hours of Le Mans and is a prime candidate for the Garage 56 entry (a joint project of NASCAR and Hendrick Motorsports).

Johnson told the AP he is interested in becoming the latest driver to try “The Double” and run both the Coca-Cola 600 and Indy 500 on the same day (the most recent was Kurt Busch in 2014).

“You know me and endurance sports, and ‘The Double’ sounds awesome,” Johnson, a four-time Coke 600 winner, told AP. “I’ve always had this respect for the guys who have done ‘The Double.’ I would say it is more of a respect thing than a bucket-list item, and I’d love to put some energy into that idea and see if I can pull it off.”

It is less likely that he would return to IMSA’s endurance events because its top prototype series is being overhauled, limiting the amount of inventory available for the new LMDh cars in the rebranded GTP division.

Johnson has confirmed that he would retain primary sponsor Carvana, which has backed him in IndyCar the past two years. He revealed his decision Monday during the last episode of “Reinventing the Wheel,” Carvana Racing’s eight-part docuseries about his 2023 season.

“I’m thankful for the partnership with a company like Carvana for allowing me to take this journey in IndyCar, for seeing the value in our partnership and being open to future opportunities together,” Johnson said. “They have truly showed me that there are no finish lines in life. Along with Carvana, The American Legion, Ally, cbdMD and Frank August were there every step of the way, and I couldn’t have done it without all of them. Most importantly — and the true rockstars in all of this –my family, Chani, Evie and Lydia. They have always allowed me to chase my dreams, and we are all just really excited about what the future holds for all of us. I have enjoyed every minute of these last two years.”

Said Carvana co-founder Ryan Keeton: “During the past two years, Jimmie Johnson has been so amazing to collaborate with. Our team admires his passion, hard work and commitment to continuous improvement while also having fun, and we look forward to continuing to support him next year in this new chapter.”