Simon Pagenaud

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- Simon Pagenaud has emerged as the Verizon IndyCar Series points leader and threat for the 2016 championship following his April 17 win at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. If not for the Honda Grand Prix of Alabama five years ago, however, the fleet Frenchman may not even be here.

Pagenaud had been out of Indy cars three full seasons after finishing eighth in the standings as a Champ Car World Series rookie in 2007. He succeeded in sports car racing but yearned to get back behind the wheel of an Indy car. That opportunity came at Barber Motorsports Park in 2011, when Dreyer & Reinbold Racing tabbed him to drive the race in place injured Ana Beatriz (photo at right).

Simon PagenaudPagenaud impressively moved from 23rd starting position to finish eighth that day. It opened eyes in the paddock.

“That race here was probably what propelled my Indy car career,” Pagenaud said. “I don't think I would have had a chance with Schmidt (Peterson Motorsports from 2012-14) if I didn't have this opportunity to show what I could do here with Dreyer & Reinbold.

“I finished eighth in that race just behind Helio (Castroneves). It was amazing. We started at the back. I had never driven this car before, never been at this track, so it was an amazing weekend. Everybody was really happy.”

Pagenaud filled in later in the season for injured Justin Wilson with Dreyer & Reinbold at Mid-Ohio, then drove for HVM at Sonoma Raceway. By then, he had signed with Schmidt Peterson for 2012, a pairing that would see him win four races and finish fifth-third-fifth in the point standings over the three seasons together.

Pagenaud moved to formidable Team Penske last season, but took time to adapt in the fourth team car. He did qualify in the top five for 13 races, including a Verizon P1 Award for the pole at Auto Club Speedway, But the results were lacking, with just a pair of third-place finishes the highlights in a 2015 season that saw him finish 11th in the championship.

The driver of the No. 22 PPG Automotive Refinish Chevrolet has been the pacesetter this season, starting with back-to-back second-place finishes at St. Petersburg and Phoenix prior to the Long Beach win. He credits much of his current success to the years of hard work leading up to it.

“The three years at Schmidt were really useful to understand the game,” he said. “Now I'm definitely at a different level of my game. Things are a lot easier to understand. It's just like a chess game, but it's like if you had different rules of the chess game. You just have to understand all the details before you can perfect it."

Expectations are high for returning Barber winner Newgarden

Think it’s easier returning to a racetrack after you’ve won a race there? According to Josef Newgarden, think again.

Newgarden won the 2015 Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park for his first Verizon IndyCar Series victory. Now, he said today, the presumption is he will always run up front on the 2.3-mile road course.

“People expect you to be really good when you come back,” said Newgarden, driver of the No. 21 Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet. “If you won somewhere, they're like, ‘Wow, you're going to go back and have a really easy time, right, because you guys were good last year?’

“That's not always the case,” he added. “Things change year to year. We've got differences on the Chevy side with the (aero) kit that we've got to figure out. Confident in that, but that's one of the changes. And then the tires can slightly change year to year, the track can change slightly, other teams can improve or drop depending.

“So there's a lot of things that change over season to season. I don't think it's a guarantee that you come back and just have a smoking-fast race car again and you go out and win. You could be 12th the next year.”

Growing up in Nashville, about three hours north of Birmingham, many consider Barber to be Newgarden’s home track, “which is fine with me,” he said.

“I grew up in Nashville and this was one of the tracks when I was a kid. Kid? I was 16, 17. But when I was racing junior formula cars, this was one of my favorite tracks. I loved running Skip Barber cars around here. I always thought it was just a blast.

“It's close to home. It's one of my favorites, the place where I got my first win. It's going to be a very special track, I think, for me forever.”

Dixon’s crew wins Firestone Pit Stop Performance Award at Long Beach

With a total accumulated pit-lane time of 1 minute, 15.26 seconds, the No. 9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing crew for Scott Dixon won the Firestone Pit Stop Performance Award during the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. The No. 9 crew – nicknamed “The Wolfpack” – will receive its $10,000 award during prerace festivities Sunday at the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama.