INDIANAPOLIS — Remember this Simon Pagenaud?
Think back before a winless 2018 funk which became a maddening ongoing adjustment to a new car with a universal aero kit. Think back to when the fun-loving Frenchman emerged with Team Penske as a 2016 NTT IndyCar Series champion.
He wasn’t just strong then. He dominated with five wins.
It sure looks like that same unstoppable Pagenaud arrived this month at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. After splashing through the rain to overtake five-time series champion Scott Dixon and win the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the IMS road course on May 11, Pagenaud continued his solid recent run Sunday by earning the pole position for the 103rd Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge.
“We’re showing that we finally got to open up my confidence again,” Pagenaud said, “and that’s where we’re at.”
It takes a lot to impress legendary team owner Roger Penske, but consider “The Captain” quite enthused by Pagenaud becoming the first Frenchman to win the Indianapolis 500 pole since Rene Thomas in 1919.
“I’ve never seen a run like that in my life,” Penske said of the INDYCAR Grand Prix. “Then to come out here and win the pole, he’s got great momentum.”
Pagenaud’s No. 22 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet averaged 229.992 mph to edge three-time Indy 500 pole sitter Ed Carpenter at 229.889 mph for his 11th career pole. The celebration couldn’t begin until another Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet crossed the line, though. Spencer Pigot was fastest in first-day qualifying on Saturday, earning the right to make the last run in the Fast Nine Shootout. But like his boss, Pigot came up just short of Pagenaud at 229.826 mph.
When Pigot crossed the line and the outcome was confirmed that he had collected the NTT P1 Award and $100,000 prize, Pagenaud leaped into the arms of his crew, who thrust him skyward.
“Waiting (on Pigot) was the most stressful moment of my career,” he said. “We gave it everything we had. Fantastic balance in the car. The car was phenomenal.”
It’s the third time in five years at the Indy 500 that Pagenaud will start on the front row — he qualified second last year and third in 2015. But this race has humbled him. His best finish in seven starts was sixth last year.
“Life goes by cycle,” Pagenaud said. “I think you hit your stride sometimes when you manage to put everything together and the stars align. Quite frankly in ’16, that’s exactly what happened. In ’15, it was a different season. I personally struggled to adapt to this new car, but I worked hard, tried to understand how I could address my driving, and the team helped me.”
Penske likened Pagenaud’s qualifying consistency to the days of four-time Indy 500 winner Rick Mears, who won a record six poles for this race.
“It’s a team effort,” Pagenaud said. “I can’t take this for myself. This is truly what Team Penske does, and they give us the best equipment. Quite frankly, I’m at the very, very end of it all.”
On race day, he’ll be at the front of the closest field in Indianapolis 500 history — 33 cars separated by 2.748 mph.
“You can see that all the teams are raising their game, all the drivers are raising their game as well,” Pagenaud said. “It’s honestly tremendous to be in this era of the sport because you get better and better every weekend, and it never stops.”
Now he sets his sights on duplicating a teammate’s performance from last year, when Will Power became the first driver to sweep both IMS races. Power qualified sixth on Sunday while teammate and series points leader Josef Newgarden came in eighth.
Since winning his championship three years ago, Pagenaud has continually emphasized the Indianapolis 500 as his No. 1 goal. He reinforced that priority after winning the pole.
“I've got a lot more things to accomplish here,” he said. “My goal is to win Indianapolis. I'm here to win Indy, and that's what I'm focused on.”
That’s always the bottom line for his boss, who wants nothing more than to keep Team Penske numbers even by adding a record 18th Indy 500 victory to go with this team’s 18th pole.
“A combined couple of weeks here has been terrific,” Penske said. “Now we have to go on and get the big one.”
Penske relayed a conversation with his race strategist, Kyle Moyer, who said, “It looks like Pagenaud has showed up.”
Pagenaud smiled and reaffirmed, “I’m here.”
The 103rd Indianapolis 500 airs live on NBC and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network beginning at 11 a.m. ET Sunday.