Team Penske driver Simon Pagenaud dazzled everyone at the Iowa IndyCar 250s at Iowa Speedway this past weekend, coming home with a win in the first race of the doubleheader on Friday night, and fourth in the second race on Saturday.
After a fuel pressure issue in qualifying, Pagenaud and the #22 Menards Chevrolet team had the herculean task of starting from dead last in both races. This did not stop Pagenaud from fighting his way back up the grid in a masterclass of strategy, skill, and luck.
In the Friday race, Pagenaud raced through the field in his opening stint, jumping as high as 13th place, before his team took a gamble and pit on lap 59, taking a bit of an alternate strategy. With fresh tyres being so incredibly fast at the track for the first few laps of use, Pagenaud was able to move his way up the field.
The Frenchman would cycle into second place after the first pit stops, as he was the second driver to pit after then race leader Takuma Sato, who pit on lap 46.
As the second pit window came into sight, Pagenaud had inherited the lead as Sato pit on lap 127. Just as Pagenaud was preparing to come in for his stop on lap 144, his teammate Will Power crashed allowing the 2019 Indianapolis 500 winner to pit under yellow. This would mean that he would not lose a lap while getting service as you normally would around the 1.4 km oval.
Patricio “Pato” O’Ward of Arrow McLaren SP would have the lead when the race when it got back underway on lap 170 after another caution on an aborted restart caused a scary wreck between rookie Rinus Veekay and Colton Herta. It took Pagenaud eight laps to catch the 21 year old O’Ward and pass him.
Many assumed at this point that the top three of Pagenaud, O’Ward, and his teammate Oliver Askew had yet to pit, which O’Ward and Askew did eventually pit on laps 189 and 192 respectively, but Pagenaud was able to stretch it and after fighting off a late charge by championship leader Scott Dixon, Pagenaud completed his brilliant drive to win.
“Qualifying was disheartening, but these guys never give up. That’s what this team is all about,” Pagenaud said post-race.
“I can’t believe it. I have to rewatch the race. How did I get there? I don’t know. But the last 50 laps were certainly a lot of tension.
When (Scott) Dixon is chasing you, you better hit your marks.”
Saturday’s race saw Pagenaud aim for the same strategy, however he wasn’t able to pass nearly as many drivers as he did in Friday’s race, only passing two cars to get up to 21st.
He continued to pit early and take advantage of fresh tyres and gained track position, finishing in fourth place.
After the race, Pagenaud reflected on the incredible weekend the team had.
“It was a tough, dramatic weekend, but we prevailed,” he said.
“Maybe we didn’t have the outright pace but overall first and fourth is pretty good when we started last in both races. I’m pretty pleased with our results.
“It seems like the championship is shaping up so it’s pretty exciting right now. It’s satisfaction from a preparation standpoint.
“We just showed everyone in the paddock that you have to count on us no matter what happens. That’s the mark of a championship team. That’s what you want to do. That’s what you want to show every weekend. You want people to fear you. I’m pretty sure they feared us today.
“We’ll regroup again and go to Mid-Ohio. And be strong from there.”
Pagenaud became the first driver that doesn’t drive for Chip Ganassi Racing to win this season, and has slightly begun to dig into Scott Dixon’s stranglehold on the championship.
After a very poor weekend for Colton Herta, Pagenaud is now second in the points standings sitting 49 points behind Dixon.
Pagenaud’s next chance to hunt down Dixon comes on 9 August for the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio, at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.