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Pagenaud Lurking As IndyCar Title Contender With Three Races To Go

In the battle for the 2013 IZOD IndyCar Series Championship, it’s as simple as 3-2-1.

There are three races to go, including two this weekend at the Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston that will determine which driver with finish first at the end of the season after the MAVTV 500 on Oct. 19 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif.

For the most part, it’s a five-driver battle for the championship. With double the points available this weekend, the battle for the title could take an unexpected turn.

Three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves of Team Penske has a 49-point lead over two-time IZOD IndyCar Series champion and 2008 Indy 500 winner Scott Dixon of Target Chip Ganassi Racing. Three wins during an eight-day streak in July vaulted Dixon into serious championship contention when he won at Pocono Raceway and then swept the double-header at Toronto. If Dixon can repeat that accomplishment, it could put tremendous pressure on Castroneves as he attempts to win his first series title.

But don’t overlook Simon Pagenaud.

The popular French driver is third in the standings, 70 points behind Castroneves, followed by a pair of drivers from Andretti Autosport – Marco Andretti, 71 out of the lead, and defending series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay, 74 points out.

Pagenaud isn’t going to let such a large points deficit deter his intention of challenging for a championship beginning with the double-header this weekend around the streets Houston.

“I think the championship is the goal,” Pagenaud said. “We go racing to win races. We're fortunate that we're in a really good position. The team has been tremendous. The HP car has been really fast on street circuits lately. We scored two wins. I don't think it's time to give up. We're going to try as hard as we can. It's going to be difficult. We're quite a ways down on Helio (Castroneves). But we're going to try. If you don't try, then there's no reason to go racing. I'm excited about it. I think it's going to be a great weekend.”

Castroneves has recorded 12 consecutive top-10 finishes and has completed every lap of every race in 2013. That is the major reason why he has led the points since June.

After having a month-long break, Castroneves is eager to get back up to speed.

“Wow, it seems like a long time since we last raced in Baltimore a few weeks ago,” Castroneves said. “It’s been tough waiting, but it will make it even better once we get on track Friday in Houston. I’m really looking forward to this weekend. It will be good to race in the Shell V-Power Pennzoil Ultra Chevrolet in the home of Shell and Pennzoil, especially since they are sponsoring the race, as well.

“We know we need to have a strong weekend with two races in front of us and a close battle for the championship. We are focused and ready, and I’m looking forward to getting to know the new Reliant Park street course and see what we can do.”

But there is an ominous statistic regarding Castroneves’ championship quest.

The driver who has led the championship with three races to go has failed to win the championship in three of the last four seasons. Only Dario Franchitti in 2011 won the title when he led with three to go. The driver who has led the championship with two races to go has failed to win the championship in five of the last seven seasons. Only Sam Hornish Jr. (2006) and Dixon (2008) won the title when they led the penultimate round.

But this is the largest 1-2 point differential since 2008. The average point deficit with three to go since 2006 is 24.8 points.

Pagenaud is one of the few drivers in the IndyCar Series field that has previously competed at Houston. He finished fifth in his only start at Reliant Park in 2007. Justin Wilson finished fifth and 10th in his two previous starts at Reliant Park. Will Power of Team Penske is a former pole winner at Houston.

“I don't know if it does (given him an advantage),” Pagenaud said. “It was quite a while ago. I remember the track being all concrete and quite bumpy, which should be similar to Baltimore. I'm hopeful that we're not going to have to change the HP car too much to be fast. So I'm quite excited about it. There isn't much testing on a doubleheader. You want to unload and be fast straightaway. I really hope that's going to be the case so we have a good chance to fight back in the championship.”

Pagenaud won the last race in the series, the Grand Prix of Baltimore in early September. It was his second victory this season after he won the second double-header race at Detroit in June.

So what have been the keys to Pagenaud’s breakout season?

“I think it's a little bit of everything,” he said. “As a driver, you get to understand the racing, the racecraft, how aggressive you need to be, when you need to be aggressive, when not, when you can shave some time. So whether it's in laps, out laps, the way you park the car in the pit box, those details are so important in INDYCAR nowadays. The competition is very, very intense right now.

“Every little detail and more experience are always going to help. I drive better. I also have a better car. My whole team is broken in, I should say. We've been the same group for two years now, and I think it's just paying off really well.”

It’s been an outstanding IndyCar Series season with a variety of winners, including first-time winners such as Takuma Sato, James Hinchcliffe, Charlie Kimball and Pagenaud. And while Pagenaud has experienced the highs and lows of racing, he has remained calm and steady.

“You go through ups and downs during the season,” Pagenaud said. “It's a long season. It's not just 10 races; it's almost 20. There are a lot of points available, a lot of points wasted also in bad races. The beginning of the season was tough, but it helped us as a team to just focus on what was essential. We bounced back. Lately we've been the strongest team, strongest combination with the most points scored in the last three. We just need to keep going. I think we're going to keep the ball rolling. I'm just very, very excited right now. So excited, anxious to drive, and I've got nothing to lose. It's very simple for me.”

This weekend will conclude the road-and street-course portion of the schedule, and the series will crown its champion on the big oval in California – a massive, high-banked 2-mile track with all left-hand turns.

Different circuits. But the focus remains the same.

“My approach is pretty simple -- I just need to keep on pushing as hard as possible,” Pagenaud said. “I think as long as we've got a fast car that we've had lately, I think we have a good chance, a good chance to contend for wins. I want to try to win at least one in Houston. If Houston is a good weekend, that will be our chance for the championship. My approach is simple. It's to attack, and I've got nothing to lose, unlike Helio, who has a lot more to lose than me. It's really simple on my side. I can put pressure on him; I can be aggressive. I kind of like the position of a hunter.

“Fontana is a great oval. I really love it. It's very banked. There are a lot of different lines you can use on the racetrack. It's perfect for passing, perfect for racing. It's going to be a long, long race in the night. So cars are going to change throughout the 500 miles. It's a track that I really like. So I'm positive about it. It's somewhere we were competitive last year. We were pretty good at the test. Same thing, just stay out of trouble at the beginning, but I'm going to have to move forward and stay at the front to have a chance in the end.”

In many ways the spotlight has been on Castroneves and Dixon ever since July, and Pagenaud has gone relatively unnoticed.

He wouldn’t want to have it any other way.

“I enjoy my position right now,” Pagenaud said. “I enjoy it because nobody saw us coming. That's pretty enjoyable. It's not like we've not been competitive, but the tendency is to look at the big teams, the big names. I'm proud to be part of the HP team and show that we've put our head down and we're here. We're within the mix between one Penske, one Ganassi, and two Andrettis. I'm very proud of the team.
“Whether we finish fifth in the championship or first, I'm very proud of them. I'm actually excited to be here seen as the underdog. But I really don't feel like one. I feel like I have all my chances. It's up to me to drive as hard as possible this weekend and score maximum points to catch up on any of them.

“I'm usually quite pragmatic. I'm usually the one that is going to calculate every scenario. I feel fortunate we're in such good position. I honestly think if I only worry about myself, this is going to be the best thing I can do. Go forward, think about my car, think about how much I can extract out of it, and try to go for the win. That's all I can do. I can't really think about being second or Helio being third or Helio crashing and me winning. I can only go try to win; otherwise there are too many factors in play.

“I would totally say that's exactly my approach.”

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