With all due respect to Alex Palou and Pato O’Ward, the NTT INDYCAR SERIES driver that most concerned Helio Castroneves on the final lap of the 105th Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge was former Team Penske teammate Simon Pagenaud.
For those who had eyes on more than Castroneves and Palou in those closing minutes at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, they knew Pagenaud indeed had a car on the move. The Frenchman had twice charged from the back of the pack and seemed to have the fastest car over the final 10 laps.
Pagenaud ended up passing O’Ward for third place on the last lap and was nearly alongside Palou at the checkered flag, a separation of 0.0698 seconds. Pagenaud knew he was within reach of Castroneves, and Castroneves knew it, too.
“He was the one I was most worried about,” Castroneves said. “Another lap and he might have been right there (for the win).”
“At the end, I was pedal to the metal,” Pagenaud said. “I didn’t care (about anything). Just wanted to get to those guys and have some fun with them.
“I could smell blood.”
Pagenaud finished 0.5626 seconds from winning his second “500.” Unfortunately, Indy has a way of making everything short of victory lane feel like a loss, which made this loss hurt as much as any Pagenaud has suffered in his 10 starts.
“I’m hurting in my heart,” Pagenaud said after the race. “I drove my heart out and my soul out of (the No. 22 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet). I need a little time to digest (and) switch my mind over to Detroit.”
That time has come. Friday, the INDYCAR SERIES will be practicing for the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix presented by Lear, with the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit doubleheader held Saturday (2 p.m. ET) and Sunday (noon ET). Both races will air on NBC and the INDYCAR Radio Network.
Those paying attention also will notice that Pagenaud is on the charge in the season point standings, too, gaining ground fast in pursuit of his second series championship. While Pagenaud technically lost one point to the series lead as Palou’s second-place finish vaulted him to the top spot, Pagenaud passed three drivers to take fourth place.
Obviously, much is left of this season. Eleven races remain before the Astor Challenge Cup is awarded following the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach on Sept. 26. But Pagenaud is indeed on a roll.
While Pagenaud hasn’t won a race in the past 15 starts, he has posted five consecutive top-10 finishes, with his third-place Indy finish the second such result in that span. He also finished third in the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on April 25.
Surprisingly, Pagenaud has led only four laps this season, three of those coming during the final pit cycle of the “500.” He could use better starting positions as his average over the past two seasons is 14.6 after never averaging worse than 8.7 in his first five seasons with Team Penske.
If there’s a win in Pagenaud’s future, this Belle Isle event is a good place to secure it. Detroit is Roger Penske’s hometown, and this grand prix was Penske’s pride and joy long before purchasing IMS in January 2020.
Pagenaud is a one-time Detroit winner, that victory coming on the back end of the 2013 event. Pagenaud was driving for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports that year, which means he hasn’t experienced victory lane with Penske as teammates Will Power (twice) and Josef Newgarden have. Pagenaud did, however, win poles for both races in 2016 and has twice finished on the podium for Penske (three times overall).
Thus, it’s a 70-lap box to be checked.
The event was not held in 2020 due to the pandemic, which makes Newgarden and Scott Dixon the most recent winners (in 2019).