LONG BEACH, California – It wasn’t worst to first, but it was close.
Simon Pagenaud endured an eventful afternoon to go from last and finish fifth at Sunday’s Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.
The 32-year-old Frenchman was levied a penalty from INDYCAR during Saturday’s qualifying for interference with Team Penske teammate Helio Castroneves, erasing Pagenaud’s two best laps and relegating him to the back of the 21-car grid for the race. Castroneves went on to secure the pole position.
VERIZON INDYCAR SERIES: Point standings
The defending Verizon IndyCar Series champion and Long Beach race winner attacked the 85-lap event with a three-stop strategy, which tossed fuel conservation out the window and forced him to go all out, all day on the 1.968-mile, 11-turn temporary street course.
The No. 1 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet charged through the field early on, picking up nine spots in the opening six laps before pitting early on Lap 12. Pagenaud climbed as high as fourth place before suffering a flat left rear tire on Lap 31, necessitating another stop that dropped him to 16th.
So once again, Pagenaud put the bit in his teeth and barreled toward the front. Seventh place appeared to be Pagenaud’s final destination until Ryan Hunter-Reay pulled off course with an electronics issue and Graham Rahal sustained a cut tire on the same lap. Pagenaud was the benefactor to complete his 16-position improvement from start to finish – the best of any driver in the race.
“It was an eventful one,” said Pagenaud. “We passed a lot of cars to start. The first stint was phenomenal. The Menards car has been phenomenal all weekend, it’s a shame we couldn’t demonstrate it in qualifying, but Helio did that for us, which is really cool.”
The nine-time IndyCar race winner believes that the outcome may have been different had he not encountered the cut tire that forced him to pit earlier than planned on his second stint. Still, Pagenaud leaves Long Beach third in the championship standings, 22 points behind Sebastien Bourdais.
“From our side, we unfortunately had a flat tire that really cost us a lot,” said Pagenaud. “I really feel that we could have fought for victory. Starting last and finishing in the top five is a very strong championship showing there.”
Part of the day was also met with insecurities of his own car from track conditions.
“The cars are so fast these days,” said Pagenaud. “We go so fast in the corners and the tires have so much rubber coming off of them and there’s a lot of pickup on the racetrack.
“So, with no yellow (until later in the race), INDYCAR didn’t have time or the opportunity to sweep (the track). I tell you, some laps it felt like something was broken on the car. But we recovered from that a few times and it was OK.”
The strong rebound Sunday has Pagenaud looking forward to the next round at Barber Motorsports Park, where he again is the defending race winner. “I think we found our groove,” he said.
“Now, I think we launch to the next part of the season. Barber is a good track for the team and a good track for me, so now we’ll try to fight for victory again.”
The Verizon IndyCar Series heads to the 2.3-mile permanent road course in Birmingham from April 21-23 for the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama. Live race coverage on April 23 begins at 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.