By Aaron Bearden, Open Wheel Editor
LEXINGTON, Ohio — Two years ago Simon Pagenaud found Victory Lane at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course en route to his first-career Verizon IndyCar Series championship.
In Sunday’s Honda Indy 200 the Frenchman was content to come home in eighth.
Pagenaud overcame a dismal 17th-place qualifying effort to gain nine spots on the narrow Mid-Ohio circuit and salvage a top 10 result. The run was the Team Penske ace’s sixth-consecutive top 10, though he failed to score a podium for the 11th time in 13 starts this season.
“The weekend didn’t start the way we wanted,” Pagenaud admitted afterward. “We suffered from not testing here. We’re still in search for the right setup for me in this package, but we made big progress in the race today, similar to Indy GP.
“I’m very happy about that. We didn’t have any warmup, so it was difficult to guess right. But we did. The car was very good in the race, and as you saw I could attack and be myself.”
Pagenaud knew he had a tough task ahead of him when he rolled off for the 90-lap event in 17th. The 34-year-old started the race on the attack, rising to 12th in the opening five laps. From there the myriad pit strategies began, and Pagenaud was left mired in the pack and attempting to move forward.
The varying pit calls saw Pagenaud rise as high as fifth, but in the end he slotted in the midst of a pack of cars that began with fourth-place Josef Newgarden. Trapped in the aero wash, Pagenaud would rise no further than eighth when the checkered flag flew.
It wasn’t a perfect result, but Pagenaud was happy with his performance in the end.
“The first lap was quite eventful, and the whole race was fun,” he said. “With this package you can really follow close and take chances.
“I blew through my push-to-pass too early, but we came back through the field, gained a lot of positions – which is incredible. The strategy was good, and there was good driving from everybody. As a competitor that’s what you want to see. I had a good time.”
Searching for the Setup
In the end Pagenaud believed the key to his pace on Sunday to be comfort with his No. 22 Chevrolet.
The Penske star had previously struggled through the opening two thirds of the season with the new 2018 aerokits, but on Sunday in Mid-Ohio he felt like the driver of the past two IndyCar seasons.
Running strong like teammates Josef Newgarden and Will Power felt good. Pagenaud just wished his team had found the pace sooner.
“We’ve got to find what I need sooner in the weekend, and we didn’t do that,” Pagenaud said. “Whoever won today was the rightful winner. We just need to make some improvement in qualifying to allow me to unleash myself like I did in the race today.”
After his successful road course run, Pagenaud believes his team is capable of contending on any track type. With the championship long gone, the Frenchman hopes to contend for victories in the final four races.
He also hopes to find the consistency he’s been missing this season before returning in 2019 to give the title pursuit another go.
“The goal is definitely to win races before the end, but also to understand everything,” he said. “This weekend was a bit of a shock when it came to finding what I needed. We’re still lacking a little bit of information, so at this point it really is about trying to understand and make a run next year for the championship.”