Pagenaud sets sights on repeating as INDYCAR Grand Prix winner

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He’s the Frenchman driving a fluorescent freight train.

It’s impossible to miss Simon Pagenaud, not just because his No. 1 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet is Day-Glo yellow. The defending Verizon IndyCar Series champion is leading the points standings again entering Saturday’s INDYCAR Grand Prix on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and is beginning to distance himself from competitors when running up front.

He celebrated his 10th career victory and seventh for Team Penske by dominating the previous race with 116 of 250 laps led in the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix on April 29.

Scott DixonINDYCAR GRAND PRIX: Qualifying groups

Now he’s revved up for the INDYCAR Grand Prix. The race has been run three times on the IMS 14-turn, 2.439-mile road course. Pagenaud has won it twice, sandwiching celebrations last year and in the inaugural event around teammate Will Power’s triumph in 2015.

And this just in: Pagenaud says IMS is his favorite road course, and not just because of his win percentage.

“It suits my driving style,” said Pagenaud, who ranked eighth in today’s final practice prior to Verizon P1 Award knockout qualifying this afternoon. “Everything about my philosophy about driving is very hard-braking, late-braking and traction out of the corner. And that’s exactly how I think about the race car, how I should set it up, and it suits this track perfectly.

“It’s a good track for us. It’s been good luck. Hopefully the luck continues. We’ll see the temperatures a little bit different to last year, but quite frankly, I think we’ll be strong again. It’s just a matter of executing and putting all the dots together.”

The enduring, emotional image from victory lane after last year’s grand prix was of car sponsor John Menard, the former longtime Indy car owner who had never won at this prestigious track. That was Pagenaud’s third consecutive win and propelled him into a front-running points position that he never relinquished.

Now, Pagenaud, 32, sounds poised for another winning streak.

“Phoenix was fantastic momentum for us, a good start of hopefully what’s about to come here,” he said. “It’s the most exciting month of the year. I couldn’t wait to get to May. This is my favorite road course here. Also, I feel like I’m at my best in performance because the track suits me. And then there’s my favorite event, the Indianapolis 500.”

Pagenaud’s 159 points after four of 17 races are 18 ahead of four-time series champion Scott Dixon of Chip Ganassi Racing. Team Penske teammate Josef Newgarden is third with 133. Four-time Indy car champion Sebastien Bourdais of Dale Coyne Racing is next at 128.

But forget about Pagenaud getting a big head from all the positive “pub” about how great he’s doing. He sounds immune to that, too.

“It’s nice to hear but it doesn’t create performance, right?” he said. “It doesn’t make you win the race. What I want is to win the race. I’m still the one behind the wheel. No matter what people think, it’s not going to change what I’m doing or how fast I’m going. You still need to be honest about yourself and honest about what’s going on.”

He’s one of the friendliest drivers in the series, eager to sign autographs and interact with fans. What’s changed the most in the last year has been the nonstop requests for media interviews.

“Sometimes, people just want to be nice to you just to talk to you,” he said. “I want to give it back. I feel thankful for where I’m at. But it’s becoming difficult because I’m starting to get such demand from everybody, to adjust everything.”

Before fulfilling another media obligation Thursday at the infield media center, Pagenaud checked out the special champagne bottles that will be presented to Saturday’s podium finishers. Artist Jojo Avavim’s creations are covered with screen-printed images of IMS patriarch Tony Hulman, the iconic IMS wing-and-wheel logo, American flags and the INDYCAR Grand Prix logo, and accented with vibrant acrylic paint, aerosol spray paint and glitter-like “diamond dust.”

The guy driving the colorful car now has a taste for colorful bottles.

“I’m looking forward to drinking from one of them,” Pagenaud said.

Three rounds of knockout qualifying begin at 4:20 p.m. ET today. A live video stream accompanied by Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network commentary is available at RaceControl.IndyCar.com.

The 85-lap race airs live at 3:30 p.m. ET Saturday on ABC and Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.

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