The season didn’t end with the championship that Simon Pagenaud wanted, but he emerged from Sunday’s season finale at Laguna Seca with a confident smile.
The reason? Pagenaud considers the season a success, saying he’s improved as a driver since his NTT IndyCar Series championship season of 2016. He’s got a point -- several of them, even. The 2019 season, Pagenaud’s 10th in Indy car racing, featured three victories -- including the 103rd Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge -- three pole positions and four podium finishes. He also was awarded the NTT P1 Award during Thursday night's season-ending Victory Lap Celebration for scoring the most points in races where he started on pole.
“I've managed to work on other areas of my driving style, and I think you saw it today,” Pagenaud said. “I can be really aggressive. I can pass people. … It was something I couldn't really do before. I had to start up front and go.
“Now I can start in the middle and go to the front, which is a new thing that I can do. I've improved myself, and I feel like, especially this weekend, we've come to a point where I really enjoy driving this car just as much as '16.”
Try as he might to catch Team Penske teammate Josef Newgarden for the championship, Pagenaud fell 25 points short. However, he passed Rossi, who trailed Newgarden by 41 points coming into Sunday’s race, for second place in the final standings. Rossi, who finished sixth Sunday, finished third in the final count, 33 points behind Newgarden.
Afterward, Pagenaud praised his teammate, who stayed atop the standings from a June 1 victory in Detroit until his eighth-place effort Sunday secured the second championship of his career.
“He had the most consistent season,” Pagenaud said of Newgarden. “He was fast when he had to be. He took care of his own destiny. … He had the championship from the first race. I think he was the most deserving guy to win it this year. I love personally working with Will (Power) and Josef because we push each other and improve each other every session.”
Their numbers were surprisingly similar. Pagenaud took the lead in points with the Indy win, but Newgarden got it back a few days later in Detroit. While Newgarden added victories in Texas and Iowa, Pagenaud, who never dropped lower than third in the standings, finished outside the top six only twice in the final nine races, including a win at Toronto.
“Josef really deserves it. He does,” Pagenaud said. “I think he was the best championship driver this year, and his crew did a great job, too, and Team Penske was the best team. (I’m) very happy for them, for sure. We'll see what we can do next year, come back and try to beat them.”
A slow start to the season hindered Pagenaud's effort. After finishing outside the top five in the first four races, Pagenaud recovered with a sweep of the Indianapolis Grand Prix and the Indy 500 in May. Before Indy, though, rumors persisted that Pagenaud’s job was in peril. Funny how winning can silence doubt.
“There were a lot of rumors about me, which was very negative,” Pagenaud said. “It was all made up, and I don't know why that was happening. The performance was there, and we turned things around in the winter already, and I felt really confident going into the season. So I took the approach of staying positive and trying to let the universe go my way this year, and certainly we turned things around in that aspect in May. We had a lot of bad luck to start the season, despite having performance, and we just kept getting better and better through the year.
“But certainly winning Indy, on a personal note, was a huge relief just because personally I feel more relevant in my sport. I feel like I've stamped my time. It's a very fulfilling accomplishment, and it certainly helped me to drive better and be a better driver after that, a hundred percent.”
By the time he got to Laguna Seca, Pagenaud’s primary goal was to finish ahead of Rossi.
“I had a mission,” Pagenaud said. “The mission was to be ahead of Rossi, so I was going to be ahead of Rossi at any cost. He came out of the pits, he was on cold tires, I was on warm tires, I went to the inside, he blocked. I was like, ‘Man, you're blocking. I'm going for it.’ And I think he knew that. I was in a position today that I had nothing to lose. I didn't really care if I was going to be third or fourth in the championship, to me it was either second or first.”
And sometimes second isn’t such a bad place to be.
“I still have a grin on my face,” Pagenaud said. “I enjoy myself driving, which is the most important thing.”