LEXINGTON, Ohio – Sunday for Simon Pagenaud at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course was a dream day for his title hopes, as the Frenchman collected a big points payday while several of his championship rivals faced difficulties.
A day after earning his sixth Verizon P1 Award of the season with a new track record, Pagenaud led 23 laps en route to victory at The Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio, his fourth win of 2016 and third from pole.
“Whew, that was a race there, that was fun,” said Pagenaud, the driver of the No. 22 PPG Automotive Refinish Team Penske Chevrolet who extended his championship lead to 58 points. “The car was really good today, so when it was time to push it was easy to lay down some fast laps.
“The red Firestone tires were amazing today on the car. I just pushed as hard as we could and here we are. It’s awesome.”
Despite the pace and result, the weekend was anything but a breeze for Pagenaud. He suffered a back injury in Friday practice that required treatment to calm the pain, and made contact during an exchange with teammate Will Power (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet) while making the pass for the effective lead of the race on Lap 66 of 90.
“It was an awesome battle with Will there,” said Pagenaud. “I knew that was my chance on that restart, it was time to go. It was a pretty interesting lap, fun driving like that. That’s racing. It was fair, it was clean, it was hard racing I’m just glad I won, really.”
Power followed Pagenaud to the checkered flag, 4.1620 seconds behind, with Carlos Muñoz (No. 26 Andretti Autosport Honda) claiming third for his first podium since May’s Indianapolis 500.
“Great strategy by the Verizon Chevy team and we did a great job saving on fuel,” Power said. “But Simon did a bloody good job and it's turning into a pretty good battle. We're not racing for 11th place. It's for a win and for a championship and you have to go for it."
Power was ahead of Pagenaud on the Lap 66 restart, but the two banged wheels up Thunder Valley and through Turns 11-13 before Pagenaud was able to clear his teammate, leading to the eventual win.
“It was my bad for not being on it on the restart,” Power noted. “I regret that, but he's got to push. I thought of the team on the last corner when we went side-by-side. I had to back out or we were going to crash. It's racing. It's tough."
“Strategy today,” admitted Muñoz, who went off strategy by pitting on Lap 14 and benefitted from an early caution to advance position. “We have to be honest, the strategy of the whole track, Mid-Ohio, everything, track position, you get in front, you stay up front and you can go quicker because you have more clean air. I think our pace was much better than we showed on the track in qualifying, that's for sure.”
Defending race winner Graham Rahal (No. 15 Steak ‘n Shake Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda) and James Hinchcliffe (No. 5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda) rounded out the top five.
Dale Coyne Racing’s Conor Daly (No. 18 Jonathan Byrd’s Hospitality Honda) used fuel strategy to lead 22 laps, but had to pit on Lap 84 for a splash of fuel. The American returned to the course and climbed back to earn his third sixth-place finish of the season.
While Pagenaud and Power enjoyed bolstering points days, fellow championship competitors suffered issues.
Scott Dixon (No. 9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet) entered the race fourth in points, but contact with the No. 3 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet of Helio Castroneves – who entered the day third – took the four-time champion out of contention on Lap 15 and caused the first caution of the race. Castroneves suffered wheel guard damage and lost a lap while his crew changed the rear wing assembly.
“Helio was coming out of the pits on the pit exchange and we were trying to go off sequence,” explained a frustrated Dixon. “He was off pace and we caught him on the exit of Turn 1. I got alongside him and he kept edging me over until I just had nowhere to go.”
Castroneves finished 15th and Dixon 22nd, dropping from fourth to fifth in the championship standings.
“It was definitely an aggressive move (on my part), but I should have known better trying that with Helio. It usually ends like this with him.”
Ed Carpenter Racing’s Josef Newgarden (No. 21 Fuzzy’s Ultra Premium Vodka Chevrolet) also sustained damage to his rear wheel guard when he made contact with Power on Lap 21 and also lost a lap, but the Tennessean was able to recover for a 10th-place finish.
Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ Mikhail Aleshin seemed poised for a great result, as the No. 7 SMP Racing Honda assumed first place on Lap 17 when most of the leaders pitted. Aleshin led a race-high 33 laps, but fell out of contention on the final round of pit stops under yellow on Lap 62 when he made contact with Newgarden on pit lane. The Russian incurred a drive-through penalty for making contact with a crew member.
Vance Welker, outside front tire changer and chief mechanic on Team Penske’s No. 2 Hawk Performance Chevrolet of Juan Pablo Montoya, was checked, cleared and released from the infield medical center. Aleshin finished 17th.
The Verizon IndyCar Series next heads to eastern Pennsylvania for the ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway. Practice and qualifying will take place on Aug. 20, with the race broadcast Aug. 21 at 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.