The Best of Better Days

Simon Pagenaud salutes the fans after winning the 103rd Indianapolis 500. Photo/Stephen Knell/Platinum Multimedia

The Indianapolis 500 has a way of choosing its winner. Some years, a handful of winners are in the mix for the win based on the timing of a yellow flag, or the quality of strategy and pit work. This year, there were only two. But one had a special motivation.

Ask Simon Pagenaud if having a job with Team Penske for next season depended on winning the race his boss cared about most and he might tell you that he reads the rumors too. That a year-plus long funk since winning the IndyCar championship in 2016 was frustrating. That Indy could be a place for redemption. Indeed, a big cloud of ambiguity circled around his head as we rolled into May.

But after a mythical comeback performance in the IndyCar GP to start the month of May, something changed. Whether it was his mindset or his approach or even just a little bit of luck, the champion awoke inside him.

His duel with Alexander Rossi over the last 10 laps of the 103th Indianapolis 500 were the highlight of a race that never really seemed to find its rhythm. A duel that may not have been possible if he hadn’t remembered how to duel in a ferocious chase to pass Scott Dixon in the rain to win a few weeks before.

Indeed, Dixon was nowhere in the 500. Neither was Helio Castroneves, likely in his last race at the Speedway. Nor Marco Andretti, who had a nightmarish race on the 50th anniversary of his grandfather’s maiden win. Indeed the story of the race, beyond Pagenaud, was just how few expected contenders were in the mix at the end.

Instead, the race was filled with stories like Conor Daly’s 10th, in a one-off that hopefully opens the racing world’s eyes once more to his talent. James Hinchcliffe’s charge from 32nd to 11th. Pippa Mann’s Indy 500-best 16th place finish, topping Dixon, Castroneves and Andretti. And a top 10 for Tony Kanaan too, who the fans still raise the biggest prerace cheers for. And, of course, Ed Carpenter who salvaged a 6th place, without ever really being a threat for the win. The track didn’t choose any of them this year, however.

Nice guys can finish first. But sometimes it just takes a little unemployment fueled motivation to inspire the drive. And, yes, Penske will have him back next year, meaning Penske will go for win number 19 with Pagenaud in the number 22. Or, if this momentum continues, the number 1.

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