From last to first: Simon Pagenaud wins IndyCar race at Iowa

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Simon Pagenaud overcame a last-place starting spot to win Friday night at Iowa Speedway, stopping Chip Ganassi Racing’s bid for a fifth consecutive victory to begin the 2020 NTT IndyCar Series season.

The Team Penske driver started 23rd (and will start last again Saturday) after failing to post a qualifying lap because of a mechanical problem but still managed the 15th victory of his IndyCar career and first since Toronto last July.

“Wow, this place is tough,” Pagenaud said after leading a race-high 83 laps and finishing 0.4954 seconds ahead of Scott Dixon for his first IndyCar victory at Iowa. “What a night. What a day for us. Amazing group effort from the whole Team Penske. We unloaded really well. Qualifying was disheartening, but these guys never give up, and that’s what this team is all about.

“I can’t believe it. I have to rewatch the race. How did I get there? I don’t know. The last 50 laps were lots of tension. When Dixon is chasing you, you better hit your marks.”

Dixon, who was trying to keep Ganassi’s streak intact with his fourth victory of the season, finished second at Iowa for the second consecutive year.

“Congratulations to Pagenaud, that was an awesome race,” said Dixon, who started 17th. “Proud to be powered by Honda; they did a tremendous job on fuel mileage. That’s really what enabled us to stay out, get that fuel mileage and jump a couple of cars. We had a pretty dreadful car in qualifying. We worked on it.”

Rookie Oliver Askew finished a career-best third, followed by Arrow McLaren SP teammate Pato O’Ward and Penske’s Josef Newgarden, whose No. 1 Dallara-Chevrolet led 68 laps and might have been the fastest car but got burned by a 26-lap yellow flag

 “I wish everyone could see my smile right now,” Askew said. “This No. 7 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet just absolutely came alive when the track became cooler. ‘If that yellow didn’t come out there near the race end, I think we would have had a shot at least 1-2 there. That’s probably one of the funnest races I’ve done in my life.”

Said Newgarden: “The caution was certainly the nail in the coffin. Without sounding sound too overconfident, we had the car to beat tonight. Hands down. So it’s frustrating. I’ve got to be honest: I’m so angry about the way that this all transpired. Some of it is just bad luck. The yellow coming out when it came out, you can’t predict that stuff. I had a rocket ship, and I’m sad we couldn’t put our car in victory lane. I’m really proud of my guys.”

The race was run under green for the first 143 of 250 laps, but two long caution flags changed the complexion of the event. The first was when Will Power hit the Turn 1 wall on Lap 146 because his left front-wheel came loose after a pit stop.

On what was supposed to be the ensuing restart, Colton Herta and Rinus VeeKay collided in a spectacular crash (video above) during a restart that was waved off because O’Ward was ruled to have jumped the green flag.

Herta and VeeKay were unhurt, and the running order was significantly jumbled by the race’s lone caution going so long during a critical pit-stop sequence.

Despite starting last, Pagenaud was among the first lead-lap cars to pit on Lap 58, putting him on fresher tires that helped him gain 3 seconds a lap (as tire degradation, always a major factor at Iowa, seemingly became even more magnified by the heavier aeroscreen). He took his first lead on Lap 138 of 250.

“All of a sudden they said, ‘You’re the leader,’ ” Pagenaud said. “I’m like, they’ve got it wrong, there’s no way I’m the leader. I know we’re fast, but I didn’t think I passed everybody.

“I realized at the start we were really strong. I realized on long runs we were really strong, but we short pitted, and then I passed a lot of people during the pit sequence. So I didn’t get to see the cars I passed, but all of a sudden they’re telling me that (indiscernible) is for position, Josef is for position, I’m like, wow, we’re right there in the mix, we’re right there for the win, and that was early in the race, too. I think that was by lap 80. So pretty early on we were right back in it.”

From there I just kept my head down really. I just kept pushing. I just kept attacking and I just kept listening to the race car and what we needed to keep going. We didn’t have to make any changes at the end. It was just a matter of being on the right tire at the right time. Glad it didn’t go yellow at the end there, that would have thrown a big curve ball.

Pagenaud said it was a “turbo pressure issue … a problem that’s really rare” that kept his No. 22 Dallara-Chevrolet from starting on the qualifying grid. The 2016 IndyCar champion said it might have been the first mechanical problem he’d had in seven seasons at Team Penske.

“Luckily we were able to fix it,” Pagenaud said. “You have to be fortunate about the situation you’re in sometimes, and sometimes there’s going to be outside factors you can’t control, but this team, as you see, is able to always bounce back, and I think that’s the strength, and that’s what’s impressive to me.

“I think we had a car for both poles, so (Saturday) we’re going to have, again, a lot of work to do, but actually starting at the back allows you to learn really early on about lane usage, tire wear. So I think I started really aggressive and dialed it back a little bit afterwards, so that was a different approach to some of the races I’ve been starting at the front on ovals. Interesting for sure, but yeah, just very fortunate that my team had a great strategy, were able to lay down some fast laps in pit sequence and get to the front.”

After a dismal race weekend at Road America (where he was 12th and 13th), Pagenaud gained a spot to second in the points standings behind Dixon.

The Frenchman has three podium finishes in five races despite starting in the top 15 only once this season — a trend he hopes to continue when he will start last in the second race at Iowa.

“Hey, I never give up,” Pagenaud said. “I’m going to go to bed, I’m going to rest, and then (Saturday) morning I’m going to put the knife between my teeth and I’m going from last to first.:”

Jack Miller wins the MotoGP Japanese Grand Prix as Fabio Quartararo stops his downward points’ slide

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Jack Miller ran away with the MotoGP Japanese Grand Prix at Motegi as Fabio Quartararo stopped his downward slide in the championship when a last-lap accident from his closest rival in the standings caused Francesco Bagnaia to score zero points.

Starting seventh, Miller quickly made his way forward. He was second at the end of two laps. One lap later, he grabbed the lead from Jorge Martin. Once in the lead, Miller posted three consecutive fastest laps and was never seriously challenged. It was Australian native Miller’s first race win of the season and his sixth podium finish.

The proximity to his home turf was not lost.

“I can ride a motorcycle sometimes,” Miller said in NBC Sports’ post-race coverage. “I felt amazing all weekend since I rolled out on the first practice. It feels so awesome to be racing on this side of the world.

“What an amazing day. It’s awesome; we have the home Grand Prix coming up shortly. Wedding coming up in a couple of weeks. I’m over the moon; can’t thank everyone enough.”

Miller beat Brad Binder to the line by 3.4 seconds with third-place Jorge Martin finishing about one second behind.

But the center of the storm was located just inside the top 10 as both Quartararo and Bagnaia started deep in the field.

Quartararo was on the outside of row three in ninth with Bagnaia one row behind in 12th. Neither rider moved up significantly, but the championship continued to be of primary importance as Bagnaia put in a patented late-race charge to settle onto Quartararo’s back tire, which would have allowed the championship leader to gain only a single point.

On the final lap, Bagnaia charged just a little too hard and crashed under heavy braking, throwing away the seven points he would have earned for a ninth-place finish.

The day was even more dramatic for the rider who entered the MotoGP Japanese Grand Prix third in the standings. On the sighting lap, Aleix Espargaro had an alarm sound, so he peeled off into the pits, dropped his primary bike and jumped aboard the backup. Starting from pit lane, he trailed the field and was never able to climb into the points. An undisclosed electronic problem was the culprit.

For Quartararo, gaining eight points on the competition was more than a moral victory. This was a track on which he expected to run moderately, and he did, but the problems for his rivals gives him renewed focus with four rounds remaining.

Next week, the series heads to Thailand and then Miller’s home track of Phillip Island in Australia. They will close out the Pacific Rim portion of the schedule before heading to Spain for the finale in early November.

It would appear team orders are not in play among the Ducati riders. Last week’s winner Enea Bastianini made an aggressive early move on Bagnaia for position before the championship contender wrestled the spot back.

In his second race back following arm surgery, Marc Marquez won the pole. His last pole was more than 1,000 days ago on this same track in 2019, the last time the series competed at Motegi. Marquez slipped to fifth in the middle stages of the race, before regaining a position to finish just off the podium.

In Moto2 competition, Ai Ogura beat Augusto Fernandez to close the gap in that championship to two points. Fernandez holds the scant lead. Alonso Lopez rounded out the podium.

Both American riders, Cameron Beaubier and Joe Roberts finished just outside the top 10 in 11th and 12th respectively.