Simon Pagenaud’s victory in the inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis on May 10 didn't catch anyone by surprise, especially other Verizon IndyCar Series competitors.
"Simon has been on the radar already for quite some time. But I think, to be honest, not only Simon, but a bunch of drivers,” said Castroneves, who finished 1.8 seconds behind in the eventful 82-lap race in the No. 3 Verizon Team Penske car. “It's been so competitive. It's amazing how close it is out there.”
Four different race winners and pole sitters in as many events this season and one point separating front-runner Will Power (149) and Ryan Hunter-Reay in the championship standings support the three-time Indianapolis 500 winner’s assertion.
Also, 10 different drivers have scored top-five finishes, and 22 of the 25 competitors have at least one top 10 in the spate of road/street course races.
Pagenaud, who recorded his third Verizon IndyCar Series victory, is third in the championship with 143 points, with Castroneves and reigning series champion Scott Dixon tied with 102 points. After four events last year, Takuma Sato took a 13-point lead over Marco Andretti into the 500 Mile Race. Pagenaud was 12th in the standings.
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“I think we are a championship contender. We were third last year. We were in the championship hunt until the last race,” said Pagenaud, who drives the No. 77 Honda-powered entry for Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsports. “It's fair to say that we are where we want to be, fighting for wins. Being consistent in the championship is what gives you championship wins.”
Qualifications for the Indianapolis 500 on May 17-18 are incentivized with points, and the 200-lap race on the 2.5-mile oval May 25 offers double points for competitors.
The winner of the Verizon P1 Award, in addition to the monetary bonus, could reap 42 points over the two days of qualifying (33 points on May 17 and 9 points for winning the Fast Nine on May 18). Overall, May 17 qualifiers earn 33-1 points corresponding to their four-lap average times. The Fast Nine qualifiers receive 9-1 points based on their times in the afternoon session.
Additionally, race finish points at Indianapolis, Pocono Raceway and Auto Club Speedway are doubled (100 points to the winner). Leading at least one lap (1 point) and leading the most laps (2 points) are bonuses.
So, if the fastest first-round qualifier/pole winner were to lead the most laps and win the race, that’s a 145-point payday. That certainly would boost the title aspirations of Pagenaud, who hopes to mark his 30th birthday May 18 with his first Verizon IndyCar Series pole, and many of the 32 other starters in the race (11 a.m. ET on ABC).
“(The GP victory is) very important before going to the Indy 500. It's a good dynamic for the team, for myself, my confidence level,” Pagenaud said. “God knows how confident you have to be around here on an oval.
“Even though I won, tomorrow I could be at the back of the field. That's my motto. That's what gets me to work every day. I don't want to be at the back of the field. We're going to work and try to do the same at the Indy 500.”