Simon Pagenaud hadn’t led a lap all season, hadn’t won a race since last July in Toronto and had to start last on Friday night in the doubleheader opener at Iowa Speedway. But the 2019 Indianapolis 500 champion made up for all those negative statistics with one of the best drives of his career.
The 36-year-old Frenchman parlayed good pace, great fuel saving and a timely caution flags to score the most improbable triumph of his 15 trips to victory lane by holding off Scott Dixon.
Pagenaud, who joined Mike Mosley, Tom Sneva, Sebastien Bourdais and Dixon in going last-to-first, stretched the final 103 laps on one tank of fuel in his Penske Chevrolet and snapped Chip Ganassi’s unbeaten 2020 streak. He took the lead with 72 laps remaining.
“I can’t believe it; how did I do it?,” said Pagenaud to NBCSN afterwards. “I mean, I have a great team and I never give up, but this place is tough and I had my hands full at the end.
“There’s a lot of tension in those final 50 laps with Dixon chasing, and you better hit your marks. It’s not Indy, but it’s a pretty cool win on this oval.”
Second in the point standings (51 behind Dixon) after five races, Pagenaud had to start 23rd because he had a fuel problem and didn’t get to qualify. Because of IndyCar’s new rule for this weekend where each of the two qualifying laps set starting grids for the respective races, the 2016 IndyCar king will have to line up 23rd again Saturday evening.
“If I’ve got to do it again, I will,” he declared with a smile.
Pagenaud’s charge wasn’t the only one of the 250-lap race, because Dixon had to come from 17th in his Chip Ganassi Tacing Honda.
“The fuel mileage was excellent and the caution helped, because this car was dreadful in qualifying and it took a while to get it going,” said the championship leader, who’d gone a lap down on Lap 66. “But hats off to this team.”
Rookie Oliver Askew earned his first podium for Arrow McLaren SP and teammate Pato O’Ward finished fourth in a race that was tame early and wild late. Josef Newgarden passed polesitter Conor Daly on Lap 14 and led comfortably for most of the first stint before pitting on Lap 70. Takuma Sato took the point from Laps 78-126 using a different strategy, and then things changed dramatically.
Power was running third when his left front tire came off and sent him into the fourth-turn wall on Lap 144, and that gave Pagenaud a very helpful yellow-flag stop that set the scene for his win. And that was greatly enhanced when Colton Herta ran over Rinus Veekay on the Lap 157 restart.
Herta sailed through the air, bouncing off both the SAFER barrier and Veekay’s cockpit, before crashing back down on the track right-side up. Both drivers were OK, but it was a nice advertisement for the aeroscreen because it very possibly saved the rookie from injury.
By the time all the debris had been cleaned up there had been 26 laps of caution, and that proved to be exactly what Pagenaud and Dixon needed to make it on fuel to the end. Newgarden had been caught out by that first yellow because he’d just pitted under green, so he lost a lap and charged all the way back to fifth by the checkered flag.
After scoring the initial pole of his IndyCar career, Daly soldiered home in eighth place for Carlin Racing.