Simon Pagenaud: He’s at it Again!

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photogrid_1464989173293.jpgQualifications for the first dual on the shores of Belle Isle in Detroit, MI are complete. Simon Pagenaud, the resident “it driver” of the 2016 Verizon IndyCar season reminded everyone that he is not done with his reign at the top of the charts.

The Team Penske driver had an Indianapolis 500 experience he is more than ready to put in the rear view, with mechanical issues that proved to be too much of an obstacle to overcome. But as far as we can see, the P19 finish this past Sunday was just a blip on the radar for the No. 22 Chevrolet team.

Today’s qualifications format was the standard three-round elimination that we are used to, with the Firestone Fast 6 battling it out for the Verizon P1 Award. Pagenaud was in Group 2 and came in P2 for the first round, his Penske teammate Helio Castroneves edging him out. He came in P3 in Round 2, Castroneves going fastest again (and breaking the track record by 1.4 seconds) with Dixon between them. The Frenchman easily made it into Round 3 and just narrowly ousted Castroneves from that P1 spot when it mattered the most – and he did so by less than twelve-thousandths of a second.

Yes. Twelve-thousandths of a second.
That’s IndyCar folks. I’ve been trying to tell ya.

As expected, the Firestone Fast 6 for Dual #1 was an impressive crew:

2016 marks the 8th start for Pagenaud on the Isle, with today producing his best start at the track to date. Team Penske looks to pick up Pagenaud’s hot streak where they left off with a victory on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway podium for the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indy three weeks ago. Could this weekend hold his third pole-to-win combination this season?

There are more than a few drivers stepping up their game to compete with Pagenaud, two of which are his own teammates. Castroneves, in the No. 3 Hitachi Chevrolet, now holds the track record with his qualifying attempt during Round 2 this afternoon – 1:14.6899. Castroneves has started this race 13 times in the past, going for numbers 14 and 15 on this lovely June weekend. He is no stranger to leading the field to green on the Isle, doing it in 2001, 2007 and 2014. Maybe he will give Pagenaud some pointers? I wouldn’t hold your breath seeing as they will both be on Row 1 and going for the advantage as soon as that green flag drops. After all, they both know the sweet taste of victory on this street circuit – Pagenaud in 2013 and Castroneves in 2000, 2001 and 2014.  

Not sure if there is anything quite as exhilarating as watching teammates fight for position. You know they both want it more than anything in the moment, but they need to ride a fine line so they don’t bring wrecked cars back to the boss. Get that car back in one piece and preferably on it’s way to victory lane… I mean, I assume that Roger Penske’s pep talks are something to that extent. Teammates will push the boundaries as far as they can to get results without hurting themselves or their contender. Sometimes it works, sometimes not. Hopefully we see it work in thrilling fashion Saturday afternoon!

An additional contender that might jump into that mix is Penske teammate Juan Pablo Montoya. Montoya makes his 8th start at Belle tomorrow. His Verizon-sponsored No. 2 Chevy will grid on the inside of Row 2, right behind Pagenaud. Back in 2000 and again in 2015, Montoya led the field to green and I don’t doubt for a moment that he will be looking for that clean air again.

James Hinchcliffe had an impressive showing in qualifying for Dual #1, securing a P4 start for the SPM Racing No. 5 Arrow Electronics Honda. Hinch’s best start on the picturesque Isle is P2, which he started from for both races in 2014.

photogrid_1464997367609.jpgThe other Honda in the Fast 6 was Carlos Munoz in the No. 26 from Andretti Autosport. He ended up P5 after Round 3 concluded – this is the best start here for Munoz. The Colombian won in the rain-soaked conditions of Belle Isle last year for Dual #1. While he is one of the more quiet personalities in the IndyCar paddock, he bleeds this sport and his investment in the series can not be questioned.

Everyone that makes it onto the starting grid for the Indianapolis 500 wants to win it. And for more than a century, some incredibly talented drivers have been denied that moment. Munoz has finished the Indianapolis 500 second in 2013 and again this year. He was visibly emotional about the results, which is understandable. That part I get. I mean, hello, it’s the Indy 500. I can’t even begin to fathom what it’s like to be that mentally and physically exhausted and end up THAT close to victory but not grasp it.

I hold no qualms with emotional responses – positive or negative – from drivers. I like seeing the personality shine through and the passion flow. But, I didn’t like the comment he made multiple times in interviews post-race, stating how he “WILL win the 500 one day.” I mean, yeah, confidence is great… but saying it like that? I find it rather arrogant. Nothing is guaranteed in life or in racing, and the 500 is the quintessential example of that. Just ask Munoz’ boss, Michael Andretti…

Scott Dixon rounded out today’s Firestone Fast 6 – the No. 9 Target Chevy will start from the outside of Row 3 in P6. The principal Chip Ganassi Racing Teams driver started from the pole position in 2008 and 2012, winning it in the latter year. Dixon is the reigning Series Champion and has his sights focused in on the No. 22 as strong as ever. Dixon trails Pagenaud by 57 points going into the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit and is looking to close that gap during this double-points weekend. 

Verizon IndyCar Series track times at the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit presented by Quicken Loans:
Friday, June 3: Practice #1 – 10:45 a.m.; Quals for Dual #1 – 3:30 p.m.
Saturday, June 4: Practice #2 – 10:05 a.m.; Dual #1 – 3:30 p.m.
Sunday, June 5: Systems Check – 8:45 a.m.; Quals for Dual #2 – 10:45 a.m.; Dual #2 – 3:30 p.m.

The Chevrolet Dual in Detroit presented by Quicken Loans (Duals 1 & 2) will be broadcast live on ABC. All other track action for IndyCar will be livestreamed via IndyCar – all information and links to that and radio coverage is available here.

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