Simon Pagenaud fell just short of adding a second IndyCar championship to his resume his year, but he succeeded in completing a remarkable turnaround to a season that began with his being dogged by speculation — unfounded, he’s quick to point out — about his future.
Pagenaud went winless in 2018, a year spent struggling to find a sweet spot in last year’s new aero package, which led to rumors through the winter about his future with Penske. But a clean sweep in Indianapolis — including a career-defining Indy 500 win — snowballed into a strong second half of 2019 that included another win at Toronto, and a championship push that ultimately left him second to Penske stablemate Josef Newgarden.
“There were a lot of rumors about me, which was very negative,” Pagenaud said. “It was all made up, and I don’t know why that was happening. The performance was there, and we turned things around in the winter already; and I felt really confident going into the season.
“So I took the approach of staying positive and trying to let the universe go my way this year; and certainly we turned things around in that aspect in May. We had a lot of bad luck to start the season, despite having performance, but we just kept getting better and better through the year.
“Certainly winning Indy, on a personal note, was a huge relief, just because personally I feel more relevant in my sport. I feel like I’ve stamped my time. It’s a very fulfilling accomplishment, and it certainly helped me to drive better and be a better driver after that, a hundred percent.
“I think you’ve seen me drive even better than [2016, when he won his championship]. I’ve managed to work on other areas of my driving style, and I think you saw it today. I can be really aggressive — I can pass people, and it was something I couldn’t really do before. I had to start up front and go.”
Some of that renewed aptitude for overtaking was evident at Laguna Seca on Sunday until he came up against Scott Dixon — a hard driver to pass at the best of times, but even harder when the driver trying to do the passing has already burned through most of his push-to-pass.
“I realized that I had the pace to go get Dixon and [Colton] Herta, so I tried; and unfortunately the lock was Dixon,” said Pagenaud, who essentially needed to win to keep his championship hopes alive. “It was very, very difficult to get around him. I was out of push-to-pass, which I had to use in a pit sequence to jump people. I spent too much money, basically, too quickly!
His best chances came at the hairpin in the closing laps, but those, he admitted, were mostly bluster.
“I was bluffing,” he said. “I thought he was going to give up, and he did not. Certainly surprised me. He was more aggressive than usual. You know your opponents, you know what you can do with them or not, and I knew with Scott, if I was overly aggressive, that maybe he would maybe give up. But he did not give up. He’s a tremendous champion. I could have, maybe, pushed him off, but that’s not my style. I’m a clean racer, and I respect him a lot. I tried — I gave it an honest try — and it wasn’t enough.
“But overall I thought it was an amazing race. I thought we gave a great show for the fans, and it was a great crowd out here today, and there’s nothing to be disappointed about. I tried as hard as I could all weekend. You saw me drive with my heart. I won Indianapolis this year. There’s nothing to be disappointed about. We finished second. That’s the second time we’re second in the championship. We won the championship in ’16. I think the numbers talk for themselves.
“I had a blast. I had a blast today. It was disappointing not to get Dixon because I really thought I had a shot for the win and Herta. But it is what it is. I tried everything I had, and it didn’t work out.”