If the 105th running of the Indianapolis 500 were just a handful of laps longer, it may very well have played into the hands of Simon Pagenaud.
Despite starting 26th, the 2019 Indy 500 winner came on strong late in the No. 22 Team Penske Chevrolet to finish third, behind race winner and the newest member of the four-timers club Helio Castoneves, and runner-up Alex Palou.
“I was hoping,” said Pagenaud, of catching the front two drivers. “I was really hoping. The big thing for us is obviously we got caught up in the first yellow (on Lap 34). We hadn’t pitted, so we had to take an emergency pit stop after (on Lap 36). From there, we got sent back to the back of the field because of the emergency pit stop. We had 156 laps to come back to the front.”
Which the 37-year-old Frenchman was able to do as he climbed into the top-10 by Lap 125. From there, it became a track position game with critically timed pit stops and fast in and out laps to jump ahead of the competition. Additionally, he made a race-high 26 on-track passes for position.
“What a shame,” Pagenaud sighed. “I really think we had the race car to get it done today. Certainly Chevy did an amazing job with the engine power and the race was amazing. Handling was phenomenal all day. We managed to really adjust the car through the beginning of the race. At the end I was pedal to the metal. I didn’t care. Just wanted to get to these guys and have some fun with them. I could see Helio was playing a very smart game. Obviously he knows how to win the race. Alex was trying his best to hold him off. Helio was just biding his time.
“Because of that the draft was difficult in fourth place. It was difficult to get through Pato (O’Ward). We did on the last lap. I thought I may have had a shot in Turn 4, but Helio was too fast.
“Congrats to him. He’s writing a huge page of the 500-mile history here. Finally a guy of our generation is going in the ‘four’ club. That’s very special. He’s a great friend. He just gave me 10 more years in my career to go catch him. Thank you, Helio!”
When Castroneves and Palou began battling for the lead once Takuma Sato, pitted from the lead on Lap 194, it set up a chain reaction that allowed Pagenaud to get the jump on O’Ward. Even though Palou was able to get the lead on Lap 196, Pagenaud had a front row seat to Castroneves’ winning pass on the penultimate lap.
“Alex was showing his game too early,” said Pagenaud. “No disrespect to him at all. He did an amazing job, great race. Obviously he’s young, learning the draft and all that. It’s not easy on an oval of this size.
“I could see what Alex was doing. He was trying to find ways to keep Helio behind, but there were too many laps to go. Helio was just waiting in the back, keeping Pato behind, judging the timing. He knew exactly where he could get him, when he could get him. All of a sudden you saw him, he jumped at his throat like a tiger. That’s when the attack started. …. I knew it was coming.
“I was waiting for Helio to do that because he disrupted the rhythm of the pack in front of me. That’s what helped me get Pato and maybe I could have gotten Palou quicker. It was very interesting to watch. Certainly there’s a lot to learn from that battle.”
While a second Indy 500 victory escaped Pagenaud, the double points value has him settled at fourth in the championship, just 47 points behind leader Palou.
“It’s a silver lining,” Pagenaud added. “I’m going to be honest, it hurts. All I’m thinking about is the 500-mile race I just lost. Like I said, no disrespect to Helio. I’m super happy for him and he deserved it, but I do believe I had the chance.
“I need to just mourn my loss tonight and get back into the championship rhythm. It’s obviously great to be fourth, I think that’s what I heard. That’s definitely going to help me going forward.
“We’ve got some great things for Detroit coming up. We know we have a strong car for the street course. Excited about that. But Indy to me is the one-off. I don’t really put it in the championship.”