The eyes of Texas were upon him Saturday night, but Simon Pagenaud didn’t blink.
Five days earlier, the Team Penske driver crashed on his own at Pocono Raceway and saw his Verizon IndyCar Series championship lead dwindle to a mere 20 points to eventual race winner and teammate Will Power.
Instead of faltering in the completion of the Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on Saturday night, the driver of the No. 22 Hewlett Packard Enterprises Chevrolet mixed it up for the lead late before coming home with a strong fourth-place finish and extending his points lead by eight.
While Graham Rahal enjoyed the closest finish in the track’s history at 0.0080 of a second, Pagenaud continued to solidify himself as the championship favorite after finishing ahead of teammates and title rivals Helio Castroneves and Power, who finished the thrilling race in fifth and eighth place, respectively.
Pagenaud, the eight-time career race winner, came close to grabbing his ninth and fifth of the season – and first on an oval. However, a mad four-car scramble in the closing laps forced Pagenaud to ease off the throttle to prevent a potential late-race pileup.
“I thought I was going to get my first oval win there on the four-wide stuff, but I had to get back out of it, otherwise there was going to be a big crash,” Pagenaud said.
Despite leaving the 1.455-mile oval with a 28-point advantage over Power in the championship standings, Pagenaud refused to believe that he is a lock to hoist the Astor Cup in three weeks at the season-concluding GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma.
“No,” Pagenaud said. “I’m not going to be thinking that until I cross that start/finish line in first place. You can’t think that way. I’ve got to focus on doing my job the best I can and we count (the points) afterwards.
“It will make you stall to think that way. So right now I’m full of fire, hunger in my belly, and that’s how I race.”
Castroneves battled hard all night in the No. 3 AAA Insurance Team Penske Chevrolet and looked like a contender to win for a fifth time at Texas, leading on two separate occasions for seven laps before settling for his seventh top-five finish of the season (without a win). The 41-year-old Brazilian had an adventurous night, overcoming damage from incidents on Lap 213, avoiding the crashed car of Scott Dixon, and on Lap 224, when he made contact with the Turn 4 SAFER Barrier after brushing the spinning car of Ed Carpenter.
Castroneves sits fourth in the point standings, a daunting 114 points behind Pagenaud with a maximum of 158 available in the final two races. However, with the final round at Sonoma Raceway worth double race points, the three-time Indianapolis 500 champion isn’t ready to give up just yet.
“No, not at all,” Castroneves said, on the notion that his hopes for a first Indy car title are over this season. “I know the margin, with Simon finishing just in front of us, is a little bit away. We’ve got to stay at a 100-point situation (heading to Sonoma). We have two more races left in Watkins Glen and Sonoma.
“It’s going to be decided in Watkins Glen if we have a chance or not. Right now, we’re out, because he has 100-something points ahead of us. But I’m not going to give up, man. I’m not going to give up.”
Power, a 2011 Texas winner, unconventionally flew under the radar much of the night, battling hard for a top-10 finish. The driver of the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevy snapped a phenomenal streak of six consecutive top-two finishes this season, which included four wins.
For the 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series champion, it was just about holding on and surviving for a decent finish.
“It’s still definitely within striking distance,” Power said. “Obviously, (I’ve) just got to have a good last two races. Survived Texas, we’ll see what happens.”
Nine drivers remain mathematically eligible for the title heading to Watkins Glen International this week. In addition to the Team Penske trio, the list includes Tony Kanaan, Josef Newgarden, Dixon, Rahal, James Hinchcliffe and Carlos Munoz. Six drivers were eliminated from contention with the Firestone 600 results.
The next round in the Verizon IndyCar Series, the INDYCAR Grand Prix at The Glen, takes place Sept. 2-4 at the historic permanent road course in upstate New York. NBCSN will blanket the weekend with coverage, televising Friday’s opening practice live from 11 a.m.-noon ET, showing same-day coverage of Verizon P1 Award qualifying from 6-7:30 p.m. ET Saturday and the race live at 2 p.m. ET Sunday. The Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network provides live coverage of every practice, qualifying and race session on a variety of outlets that includes IndyCar.com.