With IndyCar 2016’s first half complete, it’s Pagenaud’s title to lose
After his third successive Verizon IndyCar Series victory at the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis, Simon Pagenaud completed something he hadn’t done in six years - the in-season three-peat.
Then after the three races since that point to kick off May, Pagenaud has also built his points lead, despite missing two big opportunities in back-to-back races at the Indianapolis 500 (double points) and the first race at Detroit.
Pagenaud left the Angie’s List Grand Prix with a 76-point lead over Scott Dixon.
Three races later, despite finishes of 19th and 13th occurring before a runner-up on Sunday, that lead is now 80 points at the halfway point of the season.
“We leave here with an 80-points lead. We were strong everywhere,” Pagenaud said after finishing second on Sunday. “We were strong in Indy, just couldn’t finish the way we wanted it. Hopefully we can be strong in Texas and it will be okay.
“But, yeah, I’m very happy. I think we salvaged a pretty good weekend. Helio had a pretty bad day today. Dixon is behind. Those are the main contenders. So 80 points lead is big.”
Three golden opportunities to make up points and bring the field back to him have passed.
For a comparison of just how big Pagenaud’s lead is compared to the rest of the field, here are the respective gaps in positions down to 14th-placed Sebastien Bourdais, who was the highest-scoring driver in the field in the Detroit doubleheader weekend:
- First (Pagenaud, 357) to second (Dixon, 277): 80 points
- Second (Dixon, 277) to 14th (Bourdais, 210): 67 points
In simplest terms, that means there is a heck of a lot of shuffling that can go on for most of the field, but none of it will matter from a championship standpoint if Pagenaud doesn’t come back to the field with one or two more sub-15th place finishes to lower the gap.
He dodged two major bullets with the fact no one made up too much ground on him at either the ‘500 or Detroit race one.
And with only 67 points separating that next group of 13 drivers, it’s going to be difficult for any one driver to make too much headway from here unless someone gets on a roll of about two or three win/second-place finishes in a row.
The challenge from here for Pagenaud and Team Penske is to maintain enough calculated aggression to ensure he never settles the rest of the way.
Without that aggression, it can bite you and cost a championship. To be honest, that more or less undid Juan Pablo Montoya last year. He starred through his win at the Indianapolis 500, but then went nine more races before scoring his next podium at Pocono, the second-to-last race of the year.
This is also Pagenaud’s first true opportunity at being the “lead title contender” and will be a great test of his mental fortitude and resolve these final eight races.
Ryan Briscoe and Will Power in their first respective shots in 2009 and 2010 both failed to deliver the title in their first shot at it.
Ryan Hunter-Reay, meanwhile, pulled it off in 2012 - albeit with a bit of help when Power crashed out at Auto Club Speedway.
It was only after losing a title, and three of them in a row, that Power was able to pull through and deliver his first and thus far only championship in 2014.
After his phenomenal first half of the year - three wins, three runner-ups and four poles - it’s now time to see if Pagenaud has what it takes to secure his.
Otherwise, it could set up for another year for Chip Ganassi Racing to steal it away. Scott Dixon cleaned up Helio Castroneves’ lost chance in 2013, courtesy of a legendary second half comeback (then in a 19-race schedule), while he also famously capitalized on Montoya’s demise last year. Dario Franchitti took the 2009 and 2010 titles after Briscoe and Power faded late.
You can see the quest to catch Pagenaud in the final eight races of the year starting this Saturday night, at 8 p.m. ET on NBCSN, from Texas Motor Speedway.
Here’s the points breakdown after the Indianapolis 500 on the left, and then after Detroit on the right, with positions gained: