By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
Third-place starter Simon Pagenaud never got a chance of getting past Turn 1 after retiring from the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach in California Sunday.
Entering the first corner, fifth-place starter Graham Rahal was sent high across the track by Scott Dixon, and passed him. As soon as he got by the multi-time champion, Rahal tapped into the back of Pagenaud’s No. 22 DXC Technology Chevrolet, sending the 2016 Long Beach race winner around with his left rear hitting the concrete wall.
Rahal went on to finish fifth, while Pagenaud was unable to continue and ended his day 24th, which marks his first retirement in the Verizon IndyCar Series since August 2016 at Pocono, and his first last-place effort since the Grand Prix of Indianapolis in May 2015.
“Terrible day,” said Pagenaud. “We didn’t even make one corner. We had a really good start, blocked the run, I went to the outside and we had a good braking point. We were going to be three-wide and I was three-wide on the outside.
“It’s not like I went on the brake early, and Rahal forgot to brake. It was a shame, we had such a competitive car and a fast car all weekend. I feel bad for the DXC Technology people here.
“The biggest shame is that we can repair the car and go back to earn valuable points for my championship, but the decision from INDYCAR on the stand is very costly for me today.”
Three races in, Pagenaud felt his bid for a second IndyCar championship take a hit after dropping from 11th to 16th in points.
A frustrated Rahal told his No. 15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan team over the radio that he tried braking into the corner, but his rears locked up, and like the season opener at St. Petersburg, ran into the back of another competitor.
Consequently, IndyCar officials posted Rahal with a drive-thru penalty for avoidable contact. Rahal didn’t let a penalty from ruining his afternoon, crossing the line in fifth and sits third in points.
Rahal apologized for the incident after the race.
“I’m sorry about what happened to Simon,” said Rahal. “That’s not how I like to do things. It’s just like St. Pete, the rears (tires) locked up and I barely made the corner. I think Dixon bailed out because he thought I wasn’t going to make it. It hurt my race, too, obviously, with getting the penalty, having to go to the back and battle our way through.”
Ultimately, Rahal also believes that if not for not the incident, he may have been able to take the fight to race winner Alexander Rossi.
“I think we had a car that could have had a shot at Rossi today,” added Rahal.
“We made some changes for the race and the Total car was fantastic. I’m really disappointed in myself and disappointed in the way that it all began, but I’m proud of the Total team for the way that it finished. We made a lot of passes today. I passed more cars here today that I have passed in a long time. We had a lot of fun, but we want to win.
“Yes, it’s a good start to the year and with our United Rentals Turns for Troops program, we raised a lot more money. To be third and finish all the laps so far and finish in the top-five a couple of times and get a podium so far is good, but this was our best weekend yet.
“We deserved to be there this weekend and that’s why it’s a little bittersweet.”
Pagenaud’s early exit could result a sense of urgency to return on the top step of the podium at a convenient time, as IndyCar heads to Barber Motorsports Park for the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama.
It was his championship run in 2016 where he captured his second of five wins at Birmingham, beating Rahal. Out of 90 laps, Pagenaud led 84 of them at the 2.3-mile road course.
Pagenaud finished third last season, extending his streak to seven top-10 performances in seven starts.