INDIANAPOLIS (May 11, 2014) — If you're looking for a driver outside the Andretti-Ganassi-Penske power trio who might have a shot at winning the Indianapolis 500 this year, Simon Pagenaud might be your guy.
Although Pagenaud's victory in Saturday's IndyCar Grand Prix of Indianapolis doesn't have any direct bearing on his performance once practice for the 500 opened on Sunday — Saturday's race was run on a road course that winds through the Indianapolis Motor Speedway infield, using only a portion of the traditional oval — the win was a boost to a driver who already was coming into Indy on a hot streak.
"It's very important before going to the Indy 500," Pagenaud said following Saturday's victory. "It's a good dynamic for the team, for myself, my confidence level. God knows how confident you have to be around here on an oval. I guess it's a good thing. Obviously I need time to understand what just happened and realize that I'm the man of the hour and thank my team by buying them a drink. But then (Sunday) we get back to work."
As Pagenaud celebrated Saturday's win, the dust — and debris — was still settling from a wild race that was marred by a huge crash at the start and several other incidents that led to driver complaints about the series' restart procedures.
Caught up in one crash was driver James Hinchchliffe, who apparently was hit by flying debris from another car and was diagnosed with a concussion. With Hinchcliffe expected to sit out at least seven days under the IndyCar series' concussion protocol, driver E.J. Viso was expected to be on hand Sunday to turn practice laps in Hinchcliffe's place.
Teams also had plenty of work to do to be ready for Sunday's practice.
"Yeah, it's going to take a while to get the cars ready," Pagenaud said. "The teams, that's what they do. The mechanics are very passionate about their job. It's the Indy 500. It's a big race, a big event."
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And Pagenaud, a native of France who turns 30 on May 18, might have a shot to win it. Although his three career victories have all come on road courses, he finished 16th as a rookie at Indy in 2012, then finished eighth last year.
And he's third in the IndyCar series points standings, behind Will Power and Ryan Hunter-Reay.
"I think we are a championship contender," Pagenaud said. "We were third last year. We were in the championship hunt until the last race. It's fair to say that we are where we want to be, fighting for wins."
Pagenaud's strong performance highlights the success of the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports team and the compelling story of team owner Sam Schmidt — a former driver who was injured in a crash in 2000, leaving him a quadriplegic.
"He's a great team owner and a great friend, becoming a great friend," Pagenaud said. "We've gone through a lot in three years. It feels like it's been short, but in the meantime it feels like a lifetime. I have to tell him thank you because he was the only one to believe I could be where I'm at today."
Because the team doesn't have the financial horsepower of some of IndyCar's elite, Pagenaud said he and his crew are under more pressure to get the best out of the resources they have.
"The people working in the team are very dedicated and very smart," Pagenaud said. "I think the group on the 77 car is very strong. We're extracting 100 percent of what we have. We obviously don't have the high resources of Ganassi and Andretti and Penske, but we're a very good group of people that have really open communication. I think it helps a lot in racing."
Competitors are taking notice.
"Simon has been on the radar already for quite some time," Helio Castroneves said. "(In 2013) he finished close on the championship. Now he's winning again. Certainly Simon has been showing an amazing potential here."
And he seems to have found a home in IndyCar.
"I used to stress a lot about my racing career," Pagenaud said. "It's difficult to make it as a race driver. I've been stressing up until last year about my job, security. I'm turning 30, so I've got another 12 years hopefully in IndyCar, 10 or 12 years. I think I've shown speed. I've shown consistency. Now I have decided this year to relax and just let my driving do the rest."