NEWTON, Iowa – Some of the best stories in sports are those that go from “worst to first.” Teams that have finished with the worst record the previous season, then go on to win the championship the very next year.
Add Simon Pagenaud’s name to the “worst to first” category after his incredible win Friday night in Race 1 of the Iowa INDYCAR 250s Doubleheader at Iowa Speedway.
First off, Pagenaud is far from “worst.” In fact, he’s one of the best drivers in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES and is the defending Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge winner
It all started just a few hours before the start of race on the 7/8th-mile short oval surrounded by the rich Iowa cornfields that help feed the world. As Pagenaud was about to go out on his qualification attempt, his engine would not start. A fuel pressure problem forced Pagenaud’s No. 22 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet out of qualifications.
Without posting a speed, Pagenaud had to start last in Friday night’s 250-lap race. He will also start last in Saturday night’s second race of the Iowa INDYCAR 250s.
That’s before Pagenaud strapped himself into a rocket ship.
He made up 10 positions before he pitted for the first time on Lap 59. From there, he kept passing cars, one-by-one, until he got a surprising message from his race strategist, Team Penske INDYCAR General Manager Kyle Moyer.
“All of the sudden, they said, ‘You are the leader,’” Pagenaud said. “I thought: ‘They’ve got it wrong. There is no way I’m the leader. I know I’m fast, but I didn’t think I had passed everybody.
“I realized at the start I was very fast and realized on long runs we were really strong, and then we short-pitted and I passed a lot of cars during the pit sequence. I didn’t see all the cars I passed, but when they told me I was passing Will Power for position and Josef Newgarden for position, I realized we were right back in it.
“From that point on, I just kept pushing and attacking and listening to the race car. It was a matter of being on the right tire at the right time.”
This “go for it with nothing to lose” strategy was devised by Team Penske engineer Ben Bretzman. Starting last was not in the plan, but it simplified the approach dramatically.
“It was not the qualifying we wanted because we had a car for both poles,” Pagenaud said. “Starting at the back allows you to learn lane usage and tire wear. I started really aggressive and dialed it back afterwards. That was a different approach to the way races are at the ovals.
“Pit sequence was big today. There was a big game to be played there. We were able to play a very aggressive game on pit stops and pit sequence, and it worked out better here than anywhere else.”
Pagenaud explained that on new tires, he could run a lap in 19 seconds while drivers on the older tires were running 22-second laps. That three-second gain gave him a tremendous advantage.
Pagenaud raced his way to the lead on Lap 138.
But it was 26 laps of running under caution that allowed Pagenaud’s strategy to work. The first caution came when teammate Will Power lost a wheel and crashed hard into the wall on Lap 144. The second came on an aborted Lap 157 restart when Colton Herta’s No. 88 Capstone Turbine Honda ran into the back of Rinus VeeKay’s No. 21 SONAX Chevrolet, sending Herta airborne, over the top of VeeKay’s cockpit.
None of the drivers were injured, but the 26 laps of caution gave Pagenaud the right numbers he needed to make it to the end of the race.
“We needed that yellow to help us out because a lot of guys bailed and went to the three-stop strategy,” Bretzman said. “We stuck to the two-stop strategy. The yellow came out, we managed to the end, and it worked.
“We knew what number we needed to get to. Luckily, we made that yellow. If it wasn’t there, we would have fallen pretty far back.”
Pato O’Ward was in the lead on Lap 148 and stayed there for the next 30 laps in his No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet. Pagenaud took the lead on Lap 178 and nursed his final tank of fuel to the end of the 250-lap contest.
He was able to go slow enough to finish and fast enough to win.
“We are in a situation this weekend where we've got nothing to lose,” Pagenaud said. “We're starting last. We've got a really good car. We've got to go for it. The only thing is I don't want to crash the car because it's a good car, you know.
“That's the only thing in the back of my mind. You want to be there at the end to play for good position. I certainly did not expect, quite frankly, to win the race today, but I certainly put as much effort as I could to go get it. Yeah, it was certainly one of my best overall races, yeah, but winning the Indy 500 will always top it.”
It was actually a victory that started because one of the fastest cars in the race couldn’t qualify and had to start last in the field.
“When that happens and you are starting last, you can do whatever you want to do,” Bretzman said. “In our case we knew we had one of the fastest cars on track, we just didn’t get to show it in qualifying. The question for us is, how do we get him in clean air as possible. We bided our time on that first stint and waited. When we saw three-quarters of the track opened up, we pitted him during that.”
Pagenaud went from 14th to second in that exchange. That put his rocket ship on a path to victory under the lights at Iowa Speedway.