Indy 500 Simon Pagenaud
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Simon Pagenaud wrestles with mixed emotions in defending Indy 500 win

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When the Indianapolis Motor Speedway opens Wednesday with its first practice for the 104th Indy 500, defending race winner Simon Pagenaud will be selective about his feelings.

The Team Penske driver will be embracing the chance to defend his title and become the first back-to-back winner in nearly 20 years. He will be reveling in being on racing’s biggest stage for the biggest race of the NTT IndyCar Series.

But he also is trying to block out that the atmosphere undoubtedly will be a stark contrast to his thrilling victory last year over Alexander Rossi — because the track’s mammoth grandstands will be devoid of a couple hundred thousand people cheering the closing laps for the first time in the race’s history.

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“Hopefully there is a battle that’s just as exciting for the fans, but it definitely is going to feel different, (and) the energy is going to be different,” Pagenaud said during a Zoom media availability Monday. “It’s going to feel flat. No reason to think differently. It won’t feel as energetic.

“It’s going to be very different, but it is the biggest race in the world and the fastest race in the world, and I’ve been very excited to get going and to please people with this competition. That’s really what I’m looking forward to right now.”

The stature of the Indy 500 is among the only certainties during a season filled with schedule upheaval and race cancellations.

The Mid-Ohio race weekend doubleheader, which was supposed to have been held Aug. 8-9 as the lead-in to Indianapolis, became the latest abrupt casualty. Its indefinite postponement underscores the most difficult challenge as IndyCar has returned during the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

“It’s the unexpected, quite frankly,” said Pagenaud, who was surprised by the Mid-Ohio announcement and needed a few days to switch from preparing for a road course to an oval. “We don’t know what tomorrow is about. A week ago. we were racing in Mid, Ohio and all of a sudden we’re not, and you prepare yourself (with) a regimen of training nutrition, hydration and preparation for an event, and then it has been canceled.

“It’s not easy to switch your mind to the next thing when you had a goal in mind, but Indianapolis (is) my No. 1 goal and he always has been since 2016. That’s my main focus every year. I know it’s happening this weekend and the next one. I’m very excited about it. So just want to get there and get going (and) strap in my car and get to feel good to feel what it’s like.”

One feeling that Pagenaud is sure about?

“Coming here being the defending champion just allows you to feel a lot less personal pressure,” he said. “Just allows me to be a lot more focused on doing the right thing and not worrying about the result, and I do believe when you don’t worry about the result, things come together better.”

The wait will be worth it for Pagenaud, who will have endured one of the longest waits as a defending winner when the race finally happens Aug. 23 (1 p.m. ET on NBC; 2:30 p.m. green flag). He enters the race second in the points standings to Scott Dixon with three podiums in six races (including the July 17 race at Iowa Speedway.

“It’s been a serious anticipation on my part just because I love that race,” he said. “I love the event and I want to go back. It’s the favorite feel I get throughout the entire year in the race car, and I was very worried we weren’t going to race this year. So I’m relieved that we are going to get to race, but it’s a pain that we won’t have any fans.

“I’m a very very spiritual person. As pragmatic as I can be with the race car. I am a very spiritual person for those who know me personally. I use the energy of the crowd to prepare me and give me give me wings. This year will be different, but the exciting part is to drive the race car at this track and when you know the history of the place, the previous winners and the stories for more than a century and you’re part of that. I just feel blessed I get to go back and I get to race it. It’s quite a great feeling.”

Zach Veach splits with Andretti Autosport for rest of IndyCar season

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Zach Veach will be leaving his Andretti Autosport ride with three races remaining in the season, choosing to explore options after the decision was made he wouldn’t return for 2021.

In a Wednesday release, Andretti Autosport said a replacement driver for the No. 26 Dallara-Honda would be named in the coming days. The NTT IndyCar Series will race Oct. 2-3 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and then conclude the season Oct. 25 on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida.

Veach was ranked 11th in the points standings through 11 races of his third season with Andretti. Since a fourth in the June 6 season opener at Texas Motor Speedway, he hadn’t finished higher than 14th.

“The decision was made that I will not be returning in 2021 with Andretti Autosport in the No. 26 Gainbridge car,” Veach said in the Andretti release. “This, along with knowing that limited testing exists for teams due to COVID, have led me to the decision to step out of the car for the remainder of the 2020 IndyCar season. I am doing this to allow the team to have time with other drivers as they prepare for 2021, and so that I can also explore my own 2021 options.

“This is the hardest decision I have ever made, but to me, racing is about family, and it is my belief that you take care of your family. Andretti Autosport is my family and I feel this is what is best to help us all reach the next step. I will forever be grateful to Michael and the team for all of their support over the years. I would not be where I am today if it wasn’t for a relationship that started many years ago with Road to Indy. I will also be forever grateful to Dan Towriss for his friendship and for the opportunity he and Gainbridge have given me.

“My love for this sport and the people involved is unmeasurable, and I look forward to continuing to be amongst the racing world and fans in 2021.”

Said team owner Michael Andretti: “We first welcomed Zach to the Andretti team back in his USF2000 days and have enjoyed watching him grow and evolve as a racer, and a person. His decision to allow us to use the last few races to explore our 2021 options shows the measure of his character.

“Zach has always placed team and family first, and we’re very happy to have had him as part of ours for so many years. We wish him the best in whatever 2021 may bring and will always consider him a friend.”

Andretti fields five full-time cars for Veach, Alexander Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti and Colton Herta.

It also has fielded James Hinchcliffe in three races this season.