BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Simon Pagenaud’s dominance in the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama was interrupted briefly by a late charge from Graham Rahal, but it didn’t last long.
Rahal stole the lead from Pagenaud with a pass on Lap 82 of the 90-lap event that involved contact between the two Verizon IndyCar Series drivers’ cars, only to see Pagenaud return the favor four laps later and drive on to victory.
CLICK HERE: Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama box score
It gave the Team Penske driver his second straight win of 2016 and sixth of his Indy car career, continuing the impressive start to the season that has seen the Frenchman finish in the top two at all four races and extend the championship lead.
Driving the No. 22 PPG Automotive Refinish Chevrolet, Pagenaud led all but six laps around Barber Motorsports Park’s 2.3-mile permanent road course and accepted the checkered flag 13.747 seconds ahead of Rahal in the No. 15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda.
"We are just on a roll," Pagenaud said. "The car is amazing and I am so comfortable driving that PPG car. ... We made it exciting at the end for the fans, which is great. I am happy there was some action."
With the win, Pagenaud has accumulated 188 points in the first quarter of the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season and holds a 48-point advantage over Scott Dixon. The series turns its attention now to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the historic month of May that includes the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis on the IMS road course on May 14, followed by the much-awaited 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil on the legendary 2.5-mile oval May 29.
The Verizon P1 Award pole winner Saturday, Pagenaud started first and had little issue maintaining a gap until coming upon lapped traffic. Slower cars in front allowed the charging Rahal to close late, similar to what he did a year ago at Barber when he finished second to Josef Newgarden.
On Lap 82, Rahal dove inside Pagenaud in Turn 8, Rahal’s left-front tire making contact with Pagenaud’s right rear. Pagenaud drifted wide and Rahal took the lead.
Three laps later, while trying to lap Jack Hawksworth in the No. 41 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Honda, Rahal ran into the rear of Hawksworth’s car, causing significant damage to Rahal’s front wing. Pagenaud seized the opportunity on the next lap, passing Rahal in Turn 16 of the 17-turn circuit.
"In the end, Graham really caught up and he gave me a good piece of driving that was amazing from him," Pagenaud said. "I put my hat off to him for that. He got me really excited ... after I went off track. I said, 'Yeah, I'm going to get that one back no matter what.' We had so much pace in the car that I could get back to him, and then it was about being aggressive."
As Rahal struggled without the aerodynamic benefits of the front wing, Pagenaud pulled away to 180th in Indy car victory for Team Penske.
"I thought I was the best on the long run all day, and quite simply we just let this one slip today," Rahal said. "This one I feel like should have been ours. I let the guys down.
"Definitely felt like at the end we had the car to beat and just kind of took my eye off the ball there for a second when Jack was in front of us and (I) looked down, pressed push-to-pass and by the time I looked up and got my reaction, it was a little too late. … Just had a brain lapse there for a second and I got into the back of Jack."
Newgarden finished third in the No. 21 Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet, the same place he started the race. Will Power, a two-time Barber race winner, was fourth in the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevy.
Juan Pablo Montoya mounted the strongest charge of the day, starting last in the 21-car field and moving all the way to fifth in the No. 2 Verizon Team Penske Chevy, just ahead of James Hinchcliffe in the No. 5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda.
"At the start of the race, if you would have told me I would have finished fifth, I wouldn't have believed it. I'm pretty happy where we finished and now we look ahead to Indy," said Montoya, the reigning Indianapolis 500 winner.
Dixon, the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series champion in the No. 9 Coca-Cola Chevrolet from Chip Ganassi Racing, was turned around on Lap 3 by Sebastien Bourdais in the No. 11 Team Europa – KVSH Racing Chevrolet and fell to 20th position. Dixon rebounded to finish 10th, setting a race lap record of 1 minute, 8.4533 seconds (120.958 mph) along the way.
The race had only one lap of caution when the start was aborted after contact among the cars of Carlos Munoz, Mikhail Aleshin and Hawksworth. Pagenaud's winning average speed of 114.254 mph broke the race record of 110.818 mph set in 2013 by Ryan Hunter-Reay.
Country music star Evans enjoys triple role at Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama
Country music star Sara Evans pulled triple duty at the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama. Not only did she lend her musical talent to the event by singing "The Star-Spangled Banner" before the race, she served as grand marshal and issued the command for the Verizon IndyCar Series drivers to start their engines.
All Evans asked in return was for the track to make a donation to one of the Alabama resident’s favorite charities, Children’s of Alabama, the third-largest pediatric medical facility in the United States. Race promoter ZOOM Motorsports obliged with a $10,000 check.
"It’s a huge honor," Evans said before performing her prerace duties. "I’m very, very nervous. Singing the national anthem always makes me nervous. Once that’s over, I know that being the grand marshal is going to be one of the funnest things I’ve ever done in my career."
Evans was also presented with a commemorative 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 milk bottle by 2014 Indy 500 winner Ryan Hunter-Reay.