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DiZinno: Pagenaud’s ascendance a welcome story line for IndyCar


Chris Jones-IMS/IndyCar Photo

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - Four less than spectacular races on the whole - save for the final 10 laps of Sunday’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama - along with inner paddock politics and way too many domed skid mentions have had the usual side effects of taking the focus off on-track stories in the Verizon IndyCar Series.

Luckily, with his second straight win coming in dramatic fashion after being the dominant driver of the weekend in Barber Motorsports Park, Simon Pagenaud is going a long way towards making himself a top story line heading into the month of May, 2016.

The story for Pagenaud, though, is really anywhere from the last five to 10 years in the making.

The then-long-haired, unheralded 21-year-old arrived on U.S. shores to the new look Formula Atlantic series in 2006, which was going through a rebirth at the time thanks to the arrival of the new Swift 016 chassis and a deep field.

The kid who you could barely pronounce his name at the start of the year wound up winning the title at the end of it, ahead of future IndyCar stars Graham Rahal and James Hinchcliffe, along with a number of others who’ve gone onto further racing success in other disciplines.

After a year in Champ Car in 2007, his first as Will Power’s teammate, Pagenaud was a casualty of the Champ Car/IndyCar merger in 2008. Gil de Ferran offered a career lifeline and Pagenaud ascended in the sports car world in a variety of HPD/Acura prototypes. He and David Brabham won the 2010 LMP class title for Highcroft Racing in the American Le Mans Series.

Barber Motorsports Park, though, will always have a special place in Pagenaud’s heart as it marked a chance for him to return to open-wheel racing.

This is his true love even though in the interim he’d kicked ass and took names in sports cars - all while doing so with a smile as wide as the 2016-spec aero kits on his No. 22 Team Penske Chevrolet.

In 2011, Ana Beatriz sustained a broken wrist and Pagenaud, who’d never driven the previous spec IndyCar before, got called up last-minute as a substitute at Dreyer & Reinbold Racing. He qualified 23rd, and finished eighth, in a chaotic race that was littered with yellow flags.

“In 2011, that race here was probably what propelled my IndyCar career,” Pagenaud told NBC Sports on Friday during his pre-race media availability. “I don’t think I would have had a chance with (Sam) Schmidt if I didn’t have this opportunity to show what I could do here with Dreyer & Reinbold, so yeah, I finished eighth in that race just behind Helio.

“It was amazing. We started at the back. I had never drove this car before, never been at this track, so it was an amazing weekend. Everybody was really happy.”

Pagenaud proceeded to get two more fill-in opportunities later that year, again with DRR in for Justin Wilson at Mid-Ohio and then at Sonoma for Simona de Silvestro at HVM. Wilson sustained a back injury in practice while de Silvestro was held up at customs prior to Sonoma.

“Then it got me the chance to drive again to replace Justin in Mid-Ohio. That was a strong run, and it got me another opportunity at Sonoma for HVM that same year. By then things were already done with Sam, so that really helped me to get ready for 2012, and then the three years at Schmidt were really useful to understand the game.

Pagenaud - who’s enjoyed a long-term relationship with engineer Ben Bretzman through his various phases in racing even with different teams - made a point of overachieving at Schmidt during his three years there from 2012 to 2014.

Still, things were fascinating for his relationship with the bigger field at large those three years.

As a single driver on a one-car team, Pagenaud didn’t have additional resources or data, but did enjoy full focus in 2012. He and rookie Tristan Vautier failed to gel too well in 2013 even though Pagenaud improved from fifth to third in points, and won his first two races. He and Mikhail Aleshin got on better in 2014, but Pagenaud endured more inconsistencies throughout the year - even though he sustained a title challenge until the season finale.

By mid-2014 it was apparent Pagenaud was ready for the leap to a bigger team - but few would have pegged it as a fourth car at Team Penske for 2015, a team that had never run that many before in IndyCar.

What Pagenaud has done to open 2016, though, has to be beyond most folks’ expectations.

It took most of 2015 for Pagenaud and the No. 22 crew to integrate and gel as a collective unit.

And as the new kids on the block within Team Penske, there’s the inevitable inner-team ladder they needed to climb compared to Helio Castroneves, who’s been there since 2000, Power, since 2009, and Juan Pablo Montoya, since 2014.

Pagenaud’s 2015 season failed to match expectations only because they were so high going in. In actuality, that probably set him and the team up for disappointment - it’s unrealistic to expect new units, great as the individual parts may be, to achieve huge first-year success. Plus, once he was out of the title battle, his season was almost lost to becoming a guinea pig and trying new things for the betterment of the team.

Now though, Pagenaud has come out refocused and with a better edge than we’ve seen in past years.

The Pagenaud of two or three years ago, perhaps, might not have been able to get back by Rahal on Sunday after Rahal muscled by for the first time.

He seized the opportunity when he had the chance yesterday, and followed up his semi-controversial first win for Penske at Long Beach with a far more authoritative win - and weekend - at Barber in the No. 22 PPG Automotive Refinishes Team Penske Chevrolet.

Pagenaud beat Power to the pole (which probably rattled Power, who seemed guarded all weekend), was fastest in morning warmup, led 84 of 90 laps in the race and made the winning move when he needed to. And post-race, he’d come out the other side with a 48-point lead in the championship standings.

“It feels great. I’ve got to tell you guys, the biggest thing is when your work pays off, when you work so hard and it pays off like this, it’s so rewarding. You feel so grateful,” Pagenaud said post-race.

“I’m very thankful for my position right now, for being in this team. They give me the best car. My engineer for the digitation, he shows every day, working so many hours with a little baby at home. Kyle Moyer, for just understanding the kind of driver I am and trying to just bring his top game every day for the strategy. That’s something you need to learn, and we get along really well now.

“And first and foremost, it’s the crew. Pit stops are just flawless. We never think about it anymore. We don’t even think about are we going to be in the pits. It’s just, no, are we going to be T1 in the pits this time.

“So it’s the whole team, and it’s not just me. I’m definitely driving my best right now, but they’re also doing the best job they can do.”

Pagenaud is nice enough to share the credit around, but he admitted on Friday he’s at the best level he’s been too.

“Now I’m definitely in a different level, at a different level of my game,” Pagenaud said. “Things are a lot easier to understand. It’s just like a chess game. But it’s like if you had different rules of chess game. You just have to understand all the details before you can perfect it.”

All the while, he’s still smiling just like the kid who showed up at Barber five years ago just wanting a chance.

For the first time in five years since his IndyCar full-time return, Pagenaud has firmly arrived not just as a great talent with a great personality, but as a proper championship contender with one of the two best teams on the grid.

Follow @TonyDiZinno