Simon Pagenaud on track Long Beach

LONG BEACH, California – They finished one right after the other in the top 10 of Sunday’s Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach, yet the postrace emotions of Simon Pagenaud and Will Power couldn’t have been more different.

Pagenaud started fifth and finished sixth in the No. 22 DXC Technology Team Penske Chevrolet, about 1.5 seconds ahead of Power’s No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevy.

Pagenaud, the 2016 race winner and NTT IndyCar Series champion, ended his day encouraged with his best finish of the 2019 season and third top-10 in four races. He qualified fifth for the race – his first time this season to reach the Firestone Fast Six – at America’s most famous street race. Eleventh in the standings, Pagenaud is just 10 points out of the top five in the standings.

Power is sixth in the championship despite only two top-10 finishes. He qualified third at Long Beach but finished seventh, largely because he drove into the Turn 1 runoff rather than risk hitting a tire wall after he ventured into marbles in the braking zone on Lap 34 of 85 circuits around the 1.968-mile temporary street circuit.

Will PowerPower’s close call originated coming out of the famed Turn 11 hairpin on the prior lap. He said he suffered an over-boost issue, effectively cutting power to the engine, which allowed five-time and defending series champion Scott Dixon to pull alongside as they drag-raced down Shoreline Drive in front of the main grandstand. Power tried to hold off the New Zealander for third place, but found the marbles as Dixon attempted to pass inside into the Turn 1 left-hander. That’s when Power put points before pride; he drove into the runoff, did a quick 180, and re-entered the race in eighth place.

“It was probably a podium finish there, but threw it away,” Power said. “I was debating whether to make the corner and I thought, nah, it’s better to be seventh than in the tires. I was close. I may have made it, but I didn’t want to take the risk.”

So, he played it safe and the 2018 Indianapolis 500 winner and 2014 NTT IndyCar Series champion experienced yet another day of frustration. Although Power began the season with poles at St. Petersburg and Circuit of The Americas, his third-place finish at St. Pete was negated by a 24th at COTA when the drivetrain failed on his last pit stop after dominating to that point. The Australian spun at Barber, dropping from seventh to 11th, and his trip to the runoff at Long Beach ultimately cost him four positions from where he qualified.

“I’ve been very frustrated this year considering our pace,” Power said. “The things that have happened – I don’t understand why I keep having bad starts to seasons. What have I got to do? It’s every year, and it’s not one thing, it’s different things.

“But you’ve got to keep the faith. The season’s long, you’ve got to keep your head. The team does a great job. We’ve got the pace, it’s just a matter of things falling into place for us.”

Last season, Power was 10th in the standings heading into May’s two races at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. After winning both the INDYCAR Grand Prix and Indianapolis 500 victory, he was first. He ultimately finished third in the championship, so he knows the value of May.

Simon PagenaudTim Cindric, Team Penske’s president, called the weekend a “confidence builder” for Pagenaud, who finished sixth in the 2018 championship, one spot behind teammate Josef Newgarden. Unlike Power and Newgarden, who each won three races last season, Pagenaud went winless.

“Last year, he didn’t qualify well, but this year he’s had the speed but red flags, different reasons, have kept him out of qualifying (better),” Cindric said of the Frenchman. “Since he’s been with us, he’s always raced well. It’s been a question of where he starts.

“Will’s trying to continue to put himself in position to challenge for the championship, and after Indy, that gets a bit more clear. Today was a matter of going into the runoff and getting the most out of the day.”

Getting the most out of the day seems to be exactly what Team Penske did. Newgarden, the 2017 champion and the current points leader after four of 17 rounds, finished second and stretched his points lead to 28 over Alexander Rossi, whose victory pushed him past Dixon (minus-33) in the standings.

Such days will be important in May with its two races, including double points for the 103rd Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge.

“I thought we had a really good weekend, we had a little more pace,” Pagenaud said. “We need to keep working at it to find more. I think it was really encouraging for the (INDYCAR) Grand Prix because we found some stuff this weekend that should work there. There’s a lot of points available at Indy, and the month can swing the whole championship around.”