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.:”