The challenge of Simon Pagenaud replicating his impressive Verizon IndyCar Series championship from last year has been arduous, to say the least.
Still, the Frenchman flashes an upbeat smile and speaks with optimism about his chances to repeat as he sits fourth in the points with four races remaining.
Last year, the Team Penske driver won five races, including a double-points season finale in the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma to clinch the crown and finish 127 points ahead of teammate Will Power.
This season, Pagenaud has one victory in April’s Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix and nine other top-five finishes, including fourth in the most recent start, the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio on July 30.
Pagenaud has 436 points, 17 behind leader and teammate Josef Newgarden. Teammate Helio Castroneves is second and Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon, a four-time series champion, is third.
After Newgarden won at Mid-Ohio, Pagenaud playfully sent a message in an NBCSN television interview: “We’re going to catch you, buddy! Don’t go too fast!”
Graciousness aside, Pagenaud has circled that season-ending race at Sonoma Raceway in California’s wine country as the key once again. Last year, it was a showdown between him and Power, the 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series champion.
Until that 2017 finale on Sept. 17, the goal is to stay in the hunt.
“We’re going to have to be really strong at Sonoma,” he said. “Getting the pole and winning the race, I think, will get you the championship.
“We’ve got to bring our A game the last four races to leapfrog them. These next four races are going to give you a good idea of who is really the leader, but the last race is going to decide it.”
His No. 1 Team Penske Chevrolet has been in contention almost every race weekend, so what’s been different this year?
“Last year, we just hit our stride really well and everything went right,” he said. “This year, we just haven’t had a great season yet. Hopefully it will start. I haven’t been bad, but it hasn’t been as brilliant.
“There’s an explanation for everything. I think it’s just the nature of INDYCAR. Obviously, so many dogs in the fight, that’s what INDYCAR wants to see. The points system makes it so you get rewarded when you win, but you don’t get rewarded when you finish third in so many races. If one guy wins two races and doesn’t do too well in two other races, you’re still going to look good in the championship. It rewards more for race wins, and there’s been a lot of race winners, so I think that’s the reason.”
Newgarden, in his first season with Team Penske, has a series-best three victories. Teammate Power, who sits fifth in the points, has won twice. So, too, has the driver sixth in points, Graham Rahal of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.
The other top three competitors, like Pagenaud, have each won once. Nine different drivers have triumphed in 13 starts.
“You’ve got to be satisfied with being in the hunt for the championship with four races to go,” Pagenaud said. “I won last year, so why not? We’ll certainly give it a good push at the end. I’ve found my stride again, but there’s really strong competition. There’s a lot of guys on top of their game right now. It’s going to be important to bring your A game at the right time.
“I’m pretty happy. We gained points on the lead (at Mid-Ohio). At the end of the day, there’s 100 points (for winning) at Sonoma, so as long as you’re within 35 points of the leader (heading into) the last race, you’ve got a shot.”
Pagenaud, 33, endured a frustrating winless first season with Team Penske in 2015, when he had a fast car but encountered his share of misfortune. He broke through in last year’s dominating run. In addition to the five wins in 2016, he was second in three other races and fourth twice.
This year, he’s finished outside of the top 10 just twice, but one of those was another double-points race, where he placed 14th in the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil. Like most drivers, he can mention his share of missed opportunities, but Pagenaud prefers to look at those experiences as lessons learned.
“I think that’s the only way you improve,” he said. “When you’re having a great day, it’s good to know why. But it’s in the bad days that you learn the most. In the bad days, when you don’t win and you understand why you didn’t win, the next time you’ll do better.
“It’s still there, but it takes very little to unsettle a ship. You can’t have perfect years every year. This year, a lot of people are having a better year than last year. Newgarden is doing a great job.”
What seems clear is the margin for error has shrunk dramatically.
“The one that makes a mistake, it’s going to be heavy consequences,” Pagenaud said. “We’re known on this team for not making mistakes, but we’ve got to bring 100 percent in every single department.”
The next Verizon IndyCar Series race is the ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway on Aug. 20 (2 p.m. ET, NBCSN and Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network). It is the first of three races in as many weekends.
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