FORT WORTH, Texas – The pressure of leading the Verizon IndyCar Series championship by a declining margin with just three races to go isn’t getting to Simon Pagenaud.
The 32-year-old Frenchman broke out of the gate with five top-two finishes, including three consecutive wins, to start the season and jumped to what appeared an insurmountable lead. It was just six rounds ago, in the second race at the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit presented by Quicken Loans, when Pagenaud left with an 80-point lead over Scott Dixon.
The driver of the No. 22 Hewlett Packard Enterprises Chevrolet at tonight’s conclusion of the Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway looked a near lock to win his first title.
However, a Team Penske teammate had other plans.
In those same six rounds since Belle Isle, Will Power has charged to four wins and six straight top-two finishes himself. Power has closed within 20 points of his championship rival.
Despite the wave of momentum from the 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series champion, Pagenaud has enjoyed how his season has gone.
"It's been a really good season, pretty much a dream season up to now, for sure,” Pagenaud said.
"Overall, I’m really happy where we're at. If you told me at the beginning of the year that we would have a 20-point lead going into the last three races, I would've been very excited. So I'm pretty happy where we're at right now."
The Sunoco Rookie of the Year for the 2012 Verizon IndyCar Series season and winner of eight career Indy car races maintains that his focus has to remain on himself and his No. 22 team. It’s important to not get caught up in what his teammate is doing.
"I'm really focused on myself,” Pagenaud continued.
“At the end of the day, whatever Will does is great for him, but it's not going to make me any better to focus on that. So I'm just trying to focus on myself and get the best of myself and my team. If we do that knowing what we've got, we should be strong."
Team owner Roger Penske had many wondering how the dynamic of four championship-caliber drivers (Helio Castroneves, Juan Pablo Montoya, Pagenaud and Power) with strong personalities could work given the likelihood of them battling for the title. Pagenaud insists that as the title bout heats up, his relationship with Power is good and that the current situation is the best thing for the organization celebrating its 50th anniversary in racing.
"I think we actually work really well together,” Pagenaud said, “so it's very surprising the way it functions right now. We make a point to get the cars as good as possible and then focus on the race, and so far we've done that.
“The two of us have won eight races (combined), so I’m very happy to see that happening. The best guy will win in the end. So it's an ideal situation and I think we both understand that's what's happening"
The seven-year Indy car veteran is in his second season at Team Penske and believes that hoisting the Astor Cup as champion after the Sonoma Raceway finale could be the key to a successful next chapter in an already-promising career.
“Well, for me, it (winning the championship) would mean a lot,” Pagenaud said. “Obviously, (being in) my second year at Penske, it would be great to grab it, because for the future it would make everything easier in terms of how to tackle the next championship and the next one after that.
“After it, maybe I’ll be able to not count as much on being consistent, but count more on just driving instinctively. If you’ve done it once, you can do it twice. It would certainly help a lot and I hope I can make it happen so the next part of my career is very different.”
The championship quest continues tonight when the Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway is completed (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN and Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network) following its suspension after Lap 71 by rain on June 12. Pagenaud approaches it the only way he knows how: positively.
“It's going to be a very interesting race,” Pagenaud said. “I'm actually very excited for it. It's a night race, the temps are going to be a bit different from what we're used to seeing, so we might see very edgy cars. We only have 10 minutes (to practice before the race), so we won’t have any time to make changes to the car. So what you have is what you have. I think we’ll be all right, but it's the same for everybody.
“It’s going to be a bit of a sprint race compared to last time (in June), so we’re going to have to get going really quick. It’s a bit of a different situation to be sure, but I like it because you know there is just no thinking. It's just about going forward."
James Hinchcliffe, in the No. 5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda, will lead the field for the restart. The start engines command is set for 9:17 p.m. ET and lap count will continue with Lap 72 as soon as the cars exit pit lane in single-file formation. The first three laps will be run under caution before the green flag is scheduled to be waved as the 20-car field completes Lap 74 of a scheduled 248 on the 1.455-mile oval.
Firestone 600 completion fast facts: