Pagenaud, Rahal return to scene of epic 2016 race duel at Barber

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BIRMINGHAM, Alabama – Two visions about last year’s race at Barber Motorsports Park stand out: Simon Pagenaud's car sliding through a gravel trap and Graham Rahal’s white gloves.

Pagenaud, you may recall, lost the lead to Rahal late in the 2016 Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama after the two made contact. He slid through the gravel, dropped back to second place, then recovered to win the race. Rahal, his white gloves dancing on video from his in-car camera, fought ferociously to catch and pass Pagenaud, then fought again to hold him off before settling for second place.

They returned today to the 17-turn, 2.3-mile road course just east of Birmingham for a one-day Verizon IndyCar Series test session. They haven’t talked to each other about the 2016 race or the contact that sent Pagenaud hurtling off course, but their memories are as vivid as Rahal’s red-on-white gloves.

“We made contact,” Pagenaud said of the incident. “It was just racing stuff, it’s fine. But I was driving in anger after that. I was motivated because I was mad. All I wanted to do was catch him and pass him. … It was an epic finish.”

Rahal said he understands Pagenaud’s anger and the ability to squeeze motivation from it. But the problems for Rahal began early in the race, when a broken wing support hampered his car’s handling.

“When you’re mad, you can probably find a little bit of time, but I’ve always tried to race Simon clean,” Rahal said. “He blocked me going down the back straight and I thought I could get all the way up inside him. I didn’t quite get there. We made contact, but ultimately it made for a great race.”

Not only did Pagenaud run down Rahal to win the race, it was a crucial moment in his championship-winning season. Barber was the second of three consecutive victories that put Pagenaud firmly in control of the standings. He’s off to a good start in his effort to repeat after his runner-up finish in the 2017 season opener March 12, the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

“I feel like the competition is getting strong, but I feel like we’ve improved, too,” Pagenaud said. “We’ll see where it shakes out.”

As a study aid Monday night while preparing for today’s test, Rahal watched a replay of the 2016 Barber race. His white gloves will make a return appearance when the Verizon IndyCar Series returns to Barber for the April 21-23 race weekend. 

“My heart was racing just watching the replay last night,” Rahal said. “It was just two guys busting their butts, driving as hard as they could while tired. It’s a long, physical race here. You’re already worn out but still muscling these things around this track. Fans had a lot to see in that one.”

The 2017 Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama airs live April 23 on NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network (3 p.m. ET). Ticket information is available at barbermotorsports.com.

Watch the final hectic laps of the 2016 race from the vantage point of Rahal's in-car camera below:

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