Simon Pagenaud’s 22-race victory drought came to a spectacular end as the Team Penske Chevy driver stalked and passed the day’s most dominant driver, Scott Dixon, claiming the Indianapolis Grand Prix lead with just over one lap left to run.
Relieved, after months of questions as to whether he still had to goods to remain in Roger Penske’s good graces, the Frenchman left no doubt about his capabilities as an elite IndyCar driver.
“It was amazing. The whole race,” he said of adding to the Indy GP wins he earned in 2014 and 2016. “Chevy did a fantastic job; third time in Victory Lane at the Grand Prix. I can’t believe it. What a race. This is the sweetest win I’ve ever had. I answered all the questions today. The stars just didn’t align before.”
For Dixon, a third consecutive second-place result on the Indy road course rang a bit hollow after leading 39 of the 85-lap event. Sweeping past his Chip Ganassi Racing teammate and polesitter Felix Rosenqvist at the start, Dixon was in command in the dry, held a comfortable lead in the wet once the field switch to Firestone’s rain tires, and appeared to be on the way to his first win of the season. But a chassis imbalance that consumed his front tires at an advanced rate would eventually make him easy prey for Pagenaud.
“It was tough. I knew from the get-go I’d be struggling with the front end,” he said. “We needed about six turns of front wing and we blitzed the tires off the front end. It sucks to lead that many laps and lose. But, congrats to Simon. He drove a helluva race and it’s nice to see him back in victory lane.”
Despite the unexpected loss, Dixon had one positive outcome as his 33-point deficit to championship leader Josef Newgarden, who had a nightmarish race, was drawn down to six ahead of the double-points Indianapolis 500.
In the race for happiness and excitement among race results, Meyer Shank Racing’s Jack Harvey challenged Pagenaud as his career-best third-place start was matched with a career-best third-place finish. Like Dixon, Harvey was forced to concede his position in the final moments of the race, but the long run in second and eventual visit to the podium in third was a momentous occasion for the part-time driver and team.
“I’ve believed in this team from 2017 and knew this weekend would happen eventually,” he said. “We put on a great show for everybody. [A win] is where we’re going.”
Behind the top three, a wild array of positive outcomes — led by A.J. Foyt Racing’s Matheus Leist who improved from 21st to fourth — were countered by those whose hopes were dashed almost from the outset.
Felix Rosenqvist turned his first pole position into a decent lead to start the Indianapolis Grand Prix. Next to him, Dixon faced immediate pressure for his front-row starting position as third-place Harvey swept past and settled into pursuit mode during the opening fuel stint.
While the start was error free, the same could not be said as the field prepared to take the green. The highs experienced by Pato O’Ward with news of his signing as a Red Bull junior driver earlier in the week was met by a weekend full of lows. Electrical issues prior to qualifying, a poor qualifying session, and a return of electrical problems in the warm up paled in comparison to ramming Alexander Rossi from behind on the run to the starter’s stand. Damaging the Andretti Autosport driver’s left-rear suspension with the nose of his No. 31 Carlin Racing Chevy, O’Ward ruined Rossi’s race and served a drive-through penalty for avoidable contact. Rossi, who crawled his way around the circuit and made it to pit lane, would be credited with 22nd at the finish through no fault of his own.
The first yellow flag flew on Lap 11 when Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ Marcus Ericsson executed a solo spin in Turn 14 leading onto the front straight and clouted the wall.
The ensuing caution period presented an opportunity for many of the faster drivers who struggled in qualifying to go off strategy and visit pit lane. Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden, Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay, Ericsson’s teammate James Hinchcliffe, and a handful of other drivers made an early stop to try and improve their fortunes.
The Lap 16 restart brought the mess that was missing heading into Turn 1 at the beginning of the race. Dixon got a jump on Harvey and motored past to claim second well before the braking zone and took a stab at taking first from Rosenqvist. Having locked up his front brakes, Rosenqvist skidded deep into the corner, which gave the lead to Dixon, and behind them, Harvey turned in and made contact with fourth-place Colton Herta, who spun and stalled at the exit of Turn 1.
Herta’s misery wasn’t over. Similar to Rosenqvist, Hinchcliffe also locked his brakes, and slid into the rear of Hunter-Reay in Turn 1, and while RHR was fortunate to avoid spinning, it was only made possible by hitting Herta’s stationary car. The Andretti driver suffered mild damage to his left-front wing, but Herta wasn’t as fortunate as the wing clouted his right-rear suspension. The impressive Harding Steinbrenner Racing rookie eventually climbed from the car and joined Ericsson in retirement.
The Lap 20 restart saw Dixon get an almighty leap on the field to retain the lead, and behind him, former teammate Ed Jones rocketed by Harvey and Rosenqvist — the driver who replaced him — in the No. 20 Ed Carpenter Racing Chevy. With sprinkles starting to fall, Dixon started to stretch his lead, easing out to 1.8 seconds over Jones, who had Harvey in tow behind. The two pitted at the end of the lap, taking Firestone’s alternate red tires, and with a slight delay on Harvey’s No. 60 Honda, Jones emerged with a solid gap in hand.
Dixon followed for new tires on Lap 27, as did Rosenqvist, leaving those who pitted early to prop up the top spots while Dixon, Jones, Harvey, and Rosenqvist circulated behind them. In his element, Dixon marched out to a four-second lead on Jones as Harvey and Rosenqvist were covered by less than a second as the fight over second, third, and fourth — once the drivers on the alternate strategy pitted — continued to rage on.
The CGR driver’s lead over Jones expanded to five seconds by Lap 38 as Harvey applied intense pressure to the ECR Chevy. Rosenqvist was receiving the same from Jones’ teammate Spencer Pigot, who rose to fifth and then threw down a bold pass to take fourth from the Ganassi driver. Slowed by the pass, Pagenaud also got by, relegating the polesitter to sixth as Dixon shot out to a margin of 7.4 seconds over Jones by Lap 41.
Harvey would make the most of Jones’ reduced pace and took second; Rosenqvist’s struggles intensified as Graham Rahal demoted him to seventh. Jones and Rosenqvist would pit by Lap 44 for new tires, and for the rookie driver, spilled fuel during the stop was set alight as he streaked away from the pit box with the right-rear corner of the car ablaze.
It would burn itself out soon after, and up front, Dixon’s comfortable lead over Jones turned into extreme heat from Jack Harvey, who drove around the ECR pilot and trimmed the gap to Dixon to less than a half second. With Pagenaud in tow in third, the trio pitted together on Lap 47 and emerged with Harvey dropping from second to third.
Rain started to become a serious concern on Lap 55 — 30 laps to go — as Foyt’s Tony Kanaan pitted from the bottom of the field to take rain tires. Newgarden led O’Ward and Hinchcliffe—all on the alternate pit stop plan—as Newgarden’s teammate Castroneves stopped for rains and spun leaving the pits, beaching his No. 3 Chevy while trying to navigate through the gravel trap.
Dixon, Harvey, Pigot, and others on the standard strategy were able to pit for rain tires before the full-course caution flew and the pits closed. Newgarden wasn’t as fortunate, and during his stop, the Penske crew lost track of his left-front tire as it came off the car. Rolling onto the pit lane road, which caused a stream of drivers to avoid the estranged wheel, the meandering tire triggered a penalty that drooped him from 12th to last among those on the lead lap.
The Lap 69 restart featured perfect timing from Dixon, who cleared Harvey by 2.8 seconds in a single tour of the road course. Chasing Harvey, an inspired Matheus Leist held third until Pagenaud, who was in a class of his own on rain tires, out-braked the Brazilian entering Turn 1 on Lap 75. With Harvey in his sights, Pagenaud made another daring move to claim second under braking into Turn 1 once and started tearing into Dixon’s six-second lead.
Flying at nearly two seconds per lap faster than the leader at certain points, Pagenaud was just 0.5 seconds arrears by the start of Lap 83. Facing three laps of hardcore effort from the Penske driver, Dixon held one advantage — 20 seconds of push-to-pass over Pagenaud — who depleted his extra turbo boost to demote Harvey.
Running wide at the end of the back straight on Lap 84, Pagenaud got alongside a delayed Dixon and made the pass stick to take the lead in dramatic style.
Without the rain, there was plenty of passing and drama. Once the field bolted on rain tires, the action only increased, making for the most memorable Indy GP in the event’s brief history.