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Polesitter Pagenaud Flying High for Penske

He arrived in Indianapolis four years ago with an amusing impersonation of Jean Girard, Ricky Bobby’s cinematic racing rival in “Talladega Nights,” then shared his love of French cuisine by cooking crepes in Gasoline Alley.

Simon Pagenaud has always known how to have a good time.

Two years after his first race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, his fun-loving life in the fast lane would accelerate. He didn’t know it at the time, but winning the inaugural Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis in 2014 would help open a door to enjoy so much more.

“It was definitely a turning point,” the 31-year-old Frenchman said Friday morning before winning the pole for the third Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis in the afternoon. “It had so much meaning to a lot of people. It probably got me an opportunity to talk to Roger (Penske) for the future. That was a key point.”

If anything impresses Roger Penske it’s winning at Indianapolis, where the legendary car owner has celebrated a record 16 Indy 500 triumphs. Four wins in 2013-14 with Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsports propelled Pagenaud to join the Team Penske powerhouse of three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves, two-time Indy 500 winner Juan Pablo Montoya and 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series champion Will Power.

Power won this Angie’s List Grand Prix last year from the pole. Pagenaud will look to do the same in Saturday’s 82-lap race on the IMS 14-turn, 2.439-mile road course and continue his Verizon IndyCar Series dominance. His No. 22 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet is coming off back-to-back wins at Long Beach (California) and Barber Motorsports Park (Alabama) after beginning the season with a pair of runner-up finishes. His points lead on the field stands at 48 over defending series champion Scott Dixon of Target Chip Ganassi Racing.

“I just want to keep going in that direction,” Pagenaud said. “Everything is going right.”

It was the exact opposite last year, when he failed to win in his maiden voyage with Penske. There were strong runs, but too many frustrating results.

“I haven’t changed since last year,” Pagenaud insisted. “That’s one big question everybody asks. ‘What are you doing different?’ I’m not doing that much different. I worked hard in the winter. I know my team a lot better. I’m also just more used to my environment.”

He says he’s still the same guy, even after “a dream start” and entering “the zone,” a level of confidence he can’t explain. 

“As a racer, you want to get to a certain level and you’ve got to believe in your abilities to do so,” he said. “I think where I’m at today is where I always believed I could be. Roger thought the same or he wouldn’t have hired me. Now that I have the best car, things are a lot easier on the race track.”

His teammates aren’t far behind in the points chase. Montoya stands third, Castroneves fourth and Power seventh. But none of them qualified well for Saturday — Montoya will start eighth, Power 12th and Castroneves 15th.

“Look at my teammate, Simon,” Castroneves said before qualifying. “It just proves that all of a sudden, when you have good momentum, it’s difficult to stop.”

Pagenaud started fourth when he won the inaugural Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis.

“This race track has got so much history,” Pagenaud said. “To be a part of it as a winner is special. It’s different than the Indy 500, but it’s still a big event and it’s becoming a bigger event.

“Let’s cross fingers to make it happen more often. It’s a great time right now, good positive dynamic, good spiral, we just need to keep going. Stay humble and just do our job.”

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