INDIANAPOLIS — Simon Pagenaud didn’t win the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series championship last September. Instead, his Team Penske teammate of Josef Newgarden did. But, for Pagenaud, 2019 wasn’t classified as a bad year despite coming home second in the final standings.
While everyone wants to be a champion at the end of any given season, Pagenaud did get another distinction that every driver strives for too – “Indy 500 champion.”
Some drivers strive for that more than a title in fact.
The Frenchman led a race-high 116 of 200 laps from the pole in last May’s 103rd Running of the Indianapolis 500 en route to a clean sweep of the Month of May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He also won the INDYCAR Grand Prix two weekends prior too.
That win on the IMS road course was what really started what Pagenaud would call the greatest year of his life though.
See, Pagenaud went through the entire 2018 season without a victory. He started 2019 off without a win in four tries. His last trip to victory lane in fact was the 2017 season finale in Sonoma, a span of 21 races.
While Pagenaud was a top 10 machine in 2018 and even at the start of 2019 (17 in 21 tries), the top fives (4) and race wins (0) were lacking. With Will Power sweeping the Month of May in 2018 and Newgarden yet again being a championship contender, Pagenaud came into 2019 on the hotseat.
Alexander Rossi was a free agent at years end and Roger Penske was rumored to want him to come over to his side. With Power and Newgarden under contract already for 2020, Pagenaud seemed to be the odd man out if things didn’t start to change soon.
Then, he went out and made the Fast Six in Long Beach. He turned that into a sixth place finish in the race. Over the next two races, he’d end up winning them both and each happened to be at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. You just don’t know how far a race win will get you and the confidence it builds.
Pagenaud’s Indy sweep netted him a contract extension to remain in place at Team Penske. That turned into a championship caliber season over the second half of the year which saw him win again in Toronto and close out the year with six top six finishes over the final seven races.
That, combined with an Indy 500 win and all that goes with it as well as getting married this offseason, has Pagenaud as confident as ever heading into 2020.
“It’s the happiest I’ve been in my life in general,” Pagenaud said on Tuesday from downtown Indianapolis during his Indy 500 ticket unveil ceremony. “It’s also the least amount of pressure I’ve felt personally, not from teams or whatever, but I’ve heard about pressure from the team and I always put pressure on myself to do the job. I like pressure because it pushes me, but I feel like the weight is off my shoulders and I could really focus on the job.
“I feel energized. I feel like anything is possible now. I’ve gained confidence in myself now to be better to know that I’m better and I think that is a big plus.”
That’s what’s going to make Pagenaud a tough driver to stop this season. I mean, just look at his results once he got going. It wasn’t like he was that far off during his winless drought, it was just he wasn’t winning. Now, he’s taking top 10’s and making them top fives. The top fives are turning into podiums and even wins. Confidence and happiness are tough to stop.
Pagenaud, has it all.