INDIANAPOLIS – Now that the first domino of the IndyCar Silly Season has fallen, one big storyline that seems to have been rushed over was that it appears that Simon Pagenaud’s brilliant Month of May saved his job with Team Penske.
Multiple sources are saying as well as multiple news outlets reporting that Alexander Rossi and his people were talking to Penske this past spring about them being a possible destination for Rossi in 2020. While it was one of many option for Rossi, it was still being discussed.
But, after Pagenaud won not only the INDYCAR Grand Prix on May 11 but the 103rd Running of the Indianapolis 500 on May 26, it appears that both wins were enough for Roger Penske to want to keep the Frenchman around much longer. Instead of Rossi replacing Pagenaud, Penske offered to expand to a four car outfit again to make room for both Pagenaud AND Rossi.
Rossi, didn’t want to be a part of their four car team as word is he thought it would spread themselves thin. He knew what he had with his current four car team and opted to remain there instead.
“I don’t think that I said anything to the media about Simon (Pagenaud),” Penske said back in May 26 following their Indy 500 triumph. “He’s on our team. He’s one of our drivers. You’ve seen that. That was scuttlebutt. I think that’s a good word for it. But what he did this month, certainly he achieved records in his own personal life and certainly what he had expected to, and the run today, it’s a history book run for me when we think about some of the races — an opportunity to be in the winner’s circle, so he did a great job.”
When asked if he can say with certainty that Pagenaud would be back with them in 2019, Penske offered this –
“What do you think? Do you want to answer that question for me? Absolutely.”
That’s exactly what Will Power did in 2018. His contract was up past last season but he became the first driver to sweep the Month of May in the same year. That earned him an extension to remain in the No. 12 Chevrolet.
12 months later, Pagenaud was on the brink of not being retained and he did the same thing Power did and earned himself a contract extension. By virtue of that, it kept Rossi from joining Penske for the foreseeable future.
Penske said back in May that he’s loyal to his drivers. If you win for him, especially the Indy 500, then you’ll always have a seat.
The only reason Pagenaud was even on the hot seat was because he wasn’t contending anymore. In his championship winning season of 2016, he had five wins, 10 top five finishes and 12 top 10’s. He also scored seven poles and led 406 laps.
In 2017, he had two wins, 13 top five finishes and 15 top 10’s to his credit.
Combined, over the course of the two seasons, that was seven wins, 23 top five finishes, 27 top 10’s and eight poles. But, with a new car for 2018, Pagenaud struggled to adapt. He did have 14 top 10 finishes in 17 tries, his most of his career, but only four of those were in the top five. He also led just 31 laps all season, the worst of his career.
The most top 10’s in a single season but the fewest laps led and tied for the fewest top five finishes as well. All the while, Josef Newgarden and Power combined to win six times and finish 3-5 in the final standings.
This season, Pagenaud started off slow again. Heading into the Month of May, he sat 11th in the points standings with three top 10 finishes but none of which being in the top five. That’s why the noise was getting louder.
He knew it too. That’s likely why he said what he did and was so emotional following his great qualifying performance back in April in Long Beach.
“Yeah, I wasn’t gone – I’m still here,” Pagenaud said back on April 13. “It’s all good. We worked pretty hard.”
When asked why the emotion, Pagenaud said, “It’s just my ego coming out. I’m a pretentious person, so I just said these things. Why not say it, right? I don’t have a chip (on his shoulder), no. It’s all good. I’m pretty focused, 100 percent. Yeah, might have shown some aggressiveness, fire, yeah, that’s not a bad thing.”
He backed that up with a month that kept him in the No. 22 Chevrolet for 2020 and beyond.
The first moment that he saved his job was by chasing down Scott Dixon over the final laps of the INDYCAR Grand Prix and leading the final five circuits in the rain en route to his first victory since the 2017 season finale.
Then, a week later, he won the pole for the Indy 500. A week after that, he led 116 of 200 laps and beat Rossi for the ‘500 triumph. We speculated then but know now – that saved his job and kept Rossi from joining Penske.