Pagenaud Continues 2016 Hot Streak in the Sunny South

photogrid_1461448396601.jpgHe has stood on the podium for every race in the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season thus far. Today he earned the Verizon P1 Award in qualifying for the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama. Simon Pagenaud has certainly received his fair share of southern hospitality over the past 2 months. Back in St. Pete in March, the Frenchman qualified P2 but ended up starting from the pole when his teammate and pole winner, Will Power, fell ill and was unable to compete. Oriol Servia ended up piloting the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevy as Pagenaud led the field to green, just as he will do tomorrow… this time from earning the pole at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Alabama.

Pagenaud was in Group 2 for qualifying this weekend, running P2 in Round 1 and P5 in Round 2 in order to advance to the Firestone Fast 6. He ran close with Power, ultimately overtaking him at the end of the final session and coming away with the Verizon P1 Award.

“That last lap I just dug deep and that was one of the best feelings that I have ever had driving.” – Simon Pagenaud

The fastest lap of qualifying was achieved by Sebastian Bourdais (No. 11, Hydroxycut KVSH Racing Chevy) in Round 2 when he clocked a 1:06.6001 lap, ousting Dixon’s record at Barber, set back in 2013.

photogrid_1461441456189.jpgWhen asked how he is handling all the success this season, Pagenaud expressed that he is taking things in stride. He and his crew at Team Penske are obviously having fun and enjoying the ride while still working really hard. He explained that one of the most important things for him when setting the car up for the race, is making sure that he is comfortable. They started the weekend running race trim, then qualifying, and back to race trim before the actual qualifying sessions this afternoon. He was very comfortable in the car and felt good to push it a bit farther – when things come together in that fashion, they are able to achieve things like they did on Saturday afternoon.

The current points leader also commented on tire degradation at Barber – he stated that you (the driver) are really able to “sense a trend” after about 15 laps. It’s more difficult to get that feel on an oval, so it’s nice to have it on road courses like Barber Motorsports Park. Any insight like that is valuable to the driver, their crew, their team, and ultimately, their fellow teammates. Bourdais had mentioned in the post-qual presser how unpredictable this track is – when you think things are going to go smooth, you have carnage… and when you think things are going to be a mess, you get a relatively uneventful outcome. Hawksworth made similar comments after practice on Friday, discussing how fun it is to “wheel around” at Barber.

Come to think of it, I can’t recall a single negative or even apathetic comment about Barber from the IndyCar drivers. Or the media. Or the fans. I have a friend who is here for the first time this year and within his first few hours at the track, he told me he now has to come every year. “World-class facility” were his exact words. And I would co-sign that statement in a heartbeat. My first trip here was to cover the race in 2014 and regardless of the thunderstorms, tornado watches, and flood in the media center, I wanted to come back again and again. I had to miss the race in 2015 and I think I will forever regret not figuring out a way to get down here – because being back this year further confirms my love for all things Barber.

Raceday will highlight all those reasons and then some. I have that deep-down gut feeling like we are in for one heck of a race. And while they might be obvious, these are my suggestions for who you should keep an eye on, on Sunday:

Simon Pagenaud, No. 22 PPG Automotive Refnish Team Penske Chevrolet: He is just starting to ride this wave of awesomeness, so jump on board and enjoy it. As long as he keeps a similar set-up and keeps finding the clean air that he will get to start the race with, he should podium at the least… if not get an outright victory.

photogrid_1461501848897.jpgScott Dixon, No. 9 Coca-Cola Chip Ganassi Racing Team Chevrolet: Sporting a new livery, but the same chops that have landed him on the podium in all past contests at Barber. Dixon is the #BarberBridesmaid but rest assured he is aiming to be the main event at the end of those 90 laps. He is hungry for a victory here as it is, but after coming in second last weekend at Long Beach, I guarantee you he wants to get one more step up on the competition… literally and figuratively.

Graham Rahal, No. 15 Penn Grade Oil Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda: He talked about being the top Honda in the qualifying field today but promised to harass the Chevy guys on Sunday because RLL wants to be the top overall, not just best among their manufacturer’s teams. Rahal broke through the pack here in Alabama last year, finishing on the podium with P2. He was the sole Honda in the Firestone Fast 6 yesterday and will start from P6 in the third row on Sunday.


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