Simon Pagenaud

Simon Pagenaud tries to accentuate the positive in any situation, including how he accepted finishing second to Team Penske teammate Josef Newgarden in last year’s Verizon IndyCar Series championship.

As the 2016 series winner, Pagenaud knows from experience how being the champion means more offseason appearance commitments. This time, he got more time off, which he took advantage of by returning home to France.

“I really needed some time to go home,” he said. “The biggest thing was my sister was having a baby. Luckily, we managed with Penske to arrange my schedule so I could go back and be with her for this moment, which was really cool. I’m so happy for my sister. That was very nice.

“I went home and restarted my training. My trainer was in France and I was able to do a full month of training. I feel super refreshed. It was a long season, but not being a champion, it helps to rest. It’s a very different situation for me than it was last year, where this time of year I was a little worn out. Now I’m excited about 2018 already and ready to go, fresh and excited.”

That said, he would still prefer to be the champion. He’s set his mind to regaining the title this season.

“I want to get the No. 1 back,” he said with a smile. “It’s just a loaner.”

While owner Roger Penske will field a three-car team of past champions that also includes 2014 winner Will Power, the drivers will have to adjust to the absence of Helio Castroneves, who will be driving a sports car this season. Castroneves will still return in May for the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil in search of his fourth win in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”

“It’s going to be different, for sure,” Pagenaud said. “Helio was the daddy of the group. It was good to have him. His attitude is different than anyone else I know. He’s so positive at all times. Even on tough days, he still is, he’s able to just be happy and find the positive in any moment, which as a human being is a big quality. I’ve always tried to understand how he does it and become better at it. I think it’s his strength.”

He laughed when asked about Power, the 36-year-old Australian, being the elder statesman.

“He’s the daddy now, I guess,” Pagenaud said.

Power is known for having a dry sense of humor.

“I don’t know if it’s Australian or from Jupiter,” Pagenaud said. “I don’t know where it’s from, that guy. Definitely not from Australia.”

As the focus inevitably shifts toward the new Indy cars with universal aero kits, Pagenaud was asked recently about the competition between engine manufacturers. While Chevrolet has won six consecutive manufacturer championships, Honda has celebrated victories in three of the past four Indianapolis 500s.

“I expect Chevy to make big progress. They’ve been working so hard since the beginning of 2017 to keep improving and we saw it at the end of the year, neck and neck with Honda,” Pagenaud said. “The Chevy boys have been bringing updates. They’ve won the championship six times, so it’s a testament to their work.

“Honda has been putting a lot of effort into the Indy 500. We’ve been very focused on the championship. We’ll see. I’m pretty convinced we’ll have a big evolution this year, but you never know how much the competition is going to step up, too. You can only focus on your game.”

The fun-loving Pagenaud also says he’s been training for another competition, the comedic Penske Games video series that debuted last year. It put the team’s INDYCAR, NASCAR and Australian Supercars drivers in amusing situations like trying to twirl a hula hoop or figuring out how to build a Lego race car. Castroneves won the crown last year.

“Yeah, I think the Penske Games were phenomenal for revealing what we are,” Pagenaud said. “Even Helio, even though you know him so well, I think he showed exactly who he is in the games. Same with myself. Will had the opportunity to also show more through the camera. That was a great idea from the Penske guys.”

And it will be back in 2018, according to this video released today by Team Penske:

“I’m training right now,” Pagenaud professed. “Legos (is) not being my forte, I’m working on the puzzle as well. I never used to do puzzles when I was a kid.

“I was down the order. I think I might entertain being last at this game because I got more (social media) likes from people for being so bad at it. You can win being last. It depends on how you look at it.”

The 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season begins with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 11. It airs live on ABC and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network at 12:30 p.m. ET.