By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
MONTEREY, California – “I tried as hard as I could all weekend. You saw me drive with my heart,” Simon Pagenaud on finishing runner-up in the final NTT IndyCar Series standings Sunday at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca.
Pagenaud finished fourth after trying his absolute all to catch Scott Dixon and Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey winner Colton Herta to put himself in excellent position of scoring his second INDYCAR championship.
“I had a blast. I had a blast today,” Pagenaud on his race at Laguna Seca. “It was disappointing not to get Dixon because I really thought I had a shot for the win and Herta. But it is what it is. I tried everything I had and it didn’t work out.”
That bid wasn’t meant to be indeed as his Team Penske teammate Josef Newgarden crossed the line in eighth, good enough to win his second title in the last three years by 25 points.
Despite not winning the Astor Cup, Pagenaud was pleased to have been a contributor of Roger Penske’s continued storybook success as he scored three wins including the 103rd Indianapolis 500.
“Do I want to win the championship? Of course,” Pagenaud said. “But I’m just equally happy for Josef and the whole team, to wrap up the Indy 500 and the championship in one year is just absolutely incredible.”
Entering the 2019 season, Pagenaud came off a poor campaign where he went winless and finished sixth points. This brought in critics saying he’s on the hot seat of perhaps losing his No. 22 Chevrolet ride.
Now he exits 2019 with a whole new brash of confidence knowing what he’s accomplished albeit it’s the second time he’s finished second to Newgarden in points.
“I won Indianapolis this year. There’s nothing to be disappointed about,” Pagenaud said. “We finished second. That’s the second time we’re second in the championship. We won the championship in ’16. I think the numbers talk for themselves.”
Pagenaud’s road to a runner-up campaign almost became endangered early in the race as he had a moment with Alexander Rossi, who was one point ahead of Pagenaud for second entering the race. The duo battled hard and saw him getting pushed into the dirt in Turn 4 on Lap 14.
He knew that his target was to beat Rossi to assure a Penske 1-2 championship finish was doable. The block Rossi made was on his mind, but he wasn’t going to fret about it because it was all about pressing his luck to beat him.
“I had a mission. The mission was to be ahead of Rossi, so I was going to be ahead of Rossi at any cost,” Pagenaud said. “He came out of the pits, he was on cold tires, I was on warm tires, I went to the inside, he blocked. I was like, man, you’re blocking, I’m going for it. And I think he knew that.
“I was in a position today that I had nothing to lose. I didn’t really care if I was going to be third or fourth in the championship, to me it was either second or first.
“So my mission and the Team Penske mission was to be ahead of Rossi to lock it in for the team. I was going to do it at all costs.”
Going forward, Pagenaud hopes for one change shouldn’t happen and that’s repaving the 2.238-mile road course because he finds it “absolutely perfect” as he believes tire degradation has always created high quality racing.
Even using some tricks he learned back in the American Le Mans Series days along the way.
“No need to change anything. It’s perfect. It creates the perfect racing because there’s some tire degradation,” Newgarden said. “The last corner is a hairpin and you’re going into a double left, which allows you to run two lanes because the inside is so used up, the outside lane has got more grip.
“So it opens up opportunities for inside lane, outside line, like you saw me and Rossi — Dixon do. That’s the biggest thing, I think tire degradation always creates great racing because it differentiates aggressive cars and setup versus more conservative like we had. So you know, I think Laguna has always been a great racetrack for racing in sports cars. Certainly I used a lot of my tricks here that I learned in sports cars today. I hope nothing changes because I think they’ve got the perfect format.”
At the end of the day, Pagenaud has a lot of positives from 2019 that’s helped him become an even more confident competitor once the performances he’s showcased paid off when it mattered most.
Specifically, his sweep during the Month of May and being the only other man leading the championship standings, a time period he’ll never forget for the rest of his life.
“I took the approach of staying positive and trying to let the universe go my way this year, and certainly we turned things around in that aspect in May. We had a lot of bad luck to start the season, despite having performance, and we just kept getting better and better through the year.
“But certainly winning Indy, on a personal, note was a huge relief, just because personally I feel more relevant in my sport. I feel like I’ve stamped my time. It’s a very fulfilling accomplishment, and it certainly helped me to drive better and be a better driver after that, a hundred percent.”