By Joey Barnes, Editor-in-Chief
Simon Pagenaud dominated early and came back late to score back-to-back wins in the Verizon IndyCar Series. Capturing his first win for team owner Roger Penske last weekend at Long Beach, the Frenchman scored the pole at Barber Motorsports Park and extended his championship lead in what has been a phenomenal start to the season following a thrilling finish in the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama.
A spin on the pace laps by Mikhail Aleshin followed by a run-off by Jack Hawksworth delayed the start of the race, but once the green flag waved there was no shortage of action. Defending series champion Scott Dixon was clipped by Sebastien Bourdais on the opening lap, forcing a mad scramble for position as the field split the Chip Ganassi Racing driver.
The pace of Pagenaud became apparent at the start as the Penske driver paced the field for the entire first half of the race, but the frontrunners closed in as the Frenchman was halted by a desperate Conor Daly.
Daly fought hard to stay on the lead lap and in front of the leaders, allowing Will Power to close up on his Penske teammate, along with Graham Rahal. Eventually the leaders got by Daly on the ensuing pit stops.
Rahal moved into second and began to charge to the back of Pagenaud, and quickly the young American attempted his move. Rahal dove under the inside of Pagenaud as the pair approached a tricky segment of corners and the two made contact, sending the Frenchman off-track briefly as Rahal flew by.
As the end of the race drew closer Pagenaud began to reel in Rahal, who had front wing damage from the previous contact.
In a similar fate that Pagenaud had with Daly many laps before, Rahal found himself halted by Hawksworth. Coming out of Turn 5, Pagenaud made a move to get past the leader and the to the same effect Rahal tried to make a pass to get around Hawksworth, but what was left of his front wing was quickly destroyed as he made contact with the Brit.
Pagenaud made quick work of Rahal after his Honda was left with no front wing assembly.
With no front downforce, Rahal failed to keep up with the Chevy of Pagenaud, but managed to fend off a late surge by Josef Newgarden to secure his second consecutive runner-up finish at Barber Motorsports Park.
Pagenaud sailed away to a 13.7 second victory, acknowledging the momentum he and the team are on as they head into the Month of May at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
“Yeah, it was interesting with Graham there,” said Pagenaud. “We decided to make it exciting for the fans at the end. I guess we had a terrific race. The PPG Chevy car was just fast on the stint today. I was very comfortable on all sorts of tires. The black tires were working really well. The red tires were really good, as well.
“The pit sequence actually worked out really well for us, even though we were stuck in traffic halfway through the race, and then that was a bit of an issue because I could have really gone. But once you’re behind someone, even if that someone is eighth tenths slower than you, you can’t really pass. And you obviously have to be really careful about the tire degradation when you’re behind someone. So ultimately I couldn’t really create the gap I wanted to create.
“But in the end, Graham really caught up, and he gave me a good piece of driving that was amazing from him. I put my hat off to him for that. He got me really excited, and I wouldn’t say that — the redness came up after I went off track. I said, yeah, I’m going to get that one back no matter what. We had so much pace in the car that I could get back to him, and then it was about being aggressive. He got a little too aggressive over the curb, and that was my chance.”
A clearly upset Rahal had a differing viewpoint on the contact.
“Trying to get through traffic there,” said Rahal. “It’s a nice block, so you can see (Pagenaud) just completely turns into me, it’s fine. You can see that it’s just a racing incident. He obviously came completely back on and is behind us.
“If he is going to drive like that’s fine. I mean, I gave him room on the outside and I could have pushed him off.”
Of note: After qualifying last, Juan Pablo Montoya drove up through the field to finish fifth. Additionally, no Andretti Autosport driver managed to finish among the top ten – Ryan Hunter-Reay was scored in 11th just in front of Marco Andretti.
Honda Grand Prix of Alabama – Race Results
1. (1) Simon Pagenaud, Chevrolet, 90, Running
2. (6) Graham Rahal, Honda, 90, Running
3. (3) Josef Newgarden, Chevrolet, 90, Running
4. (2) Will Power, Chevrolet, 90, Running
5. (21) Juan Pablo Montoya, Chevrolet, 90, Running
6. (8) James Hinchcliffe, Honda, 90, Running
7. (7) Helio Castroneves, Chevrolet, 90, Running
8. (9) Tony Kanaan, Chevrolet, 90, Running
9. (10) Charlie Kimball, Chevrolet, 90, Running
10. (4) Scott Dixon, Chevrolet, 90, Running
11. (18) Ryan Hunter-Reay, Honda, 90, Running
12. (19) Marco Andretti, Honda, 90, Running
13. (16) Takuma Sato, Honda, 90, Running
14. (15) Carlos Munoz, Honda, 90, Running
15. (20) Alexander Rossi, Honda, 90, Running
16. (5) Sebastien Bourdais, Chevrolet, 89, Running
17. (13) Mikhail Aleshin, Honda, 89, Running
18. (12) Luca Filippi, Honda, 89, Running
19. (14) Jack Hawksworth, Honda, 89, Running
20. (17) Conor Daly, Honda, 89, Running
21. (11) Max Chilton, Chevrolet, 89, Running
Image: Matthew Bishop/Tribute Racing