Simon Pagenaud
Simon Pagenaud. Photo by Pablo Matamoros

Simon Pagenaud/No.1 Menard’s TeamPenske Chevrolet won his first-ever oval race Saturday night at Phoenix International Raceway for the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix. He led twice for the most laps – 116, and turned the fastest leader lap of 184.707 mph on Lap 155.

PIR was the tenth career victory for the 2016 IndyCar Champion, and his first at the 1.022-mile oval. Pagenaud averaged 144.058 mph, a record speed for the track which has never before seen a driver average more than 140 mph in a race.

It was the 189th IndyCar victory for Team Penske, which has won more IndyCar races than any other team; and the 450th race victory in all of motorsports for Penske Racing. Penske drivers led all 250 laps, the first time for them since the first of the Belle Isle races last year.

Simon and Checkered Flag

Simon Pagenaud & Bryan Sperber

Simon Sprayed

PHOTOS: Simon Pagenaud; Simon Pagenaud & Bryan Sperber, President of Phoenix International Raceway; and Simon Sprayed. Photos by Pablo Matamoros.

Pagenaud was one happy camper after the race. “I’m so excited. I don’t know if you can see it, but I’m so excited. This win for me has been a long time coming. I had to relearn everything. Oval for me was completely unknown. So, when you are 25-years-old and you have to relearn everything it’s not that easy, but I think now it’s coming.

“I’ve got to tell you, this is just incredible. For me, this is my best win because it’s so strategic to win on an oval. You have to really study what the others are doing, how your car is responding, adjust it during the race to be good at the end; and today was just exactly a perfect day. I couldn’t be any happier. Those were the longest 50 laps of my life. I have a button on the steering wheel to check the lap count, every lap I was pressing the button. It was the most stressful end of the race I’ve ever lived, but the car was just phenomenal.”

Will Power
Will Power. Photo by Pablo Matamoros

Teammate Will Power/No.12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet was runner-up, and turned the fastest race lap of 186.340 mph on Lap 208. His finish boosted his standings from 14th to seventh. “Yeah, absolutely, it was a fun race and it gave us some points. Yes, we are not out of the game. I mean, come on. It’s so early, yeah; we’ve got plenty of time.” Power led once, for 59 laps.

This was Power’s 56th career podium finish. He was asked about Chevrolet’s resurgence after a seemingly Honda-domination earlier in the season. “Yeah, I think so. I mean, in the oval races this year, Chevy’s had a shot. Obviously some tracks suited the Honda a little bit better. But, you know, I feel like we’re going to be good. I mean, we were good at Barber. I think we’ll be good at Indy road course. Chevy’s been working really hard to have a great engine for the 500, which I’m very confident in those guys because they do such a good job. Between Chevy and Ilmor, I think they could come up with something pretty good.”

JR Hildebrand
JR Hildebrand. Photo by Pablo Matamoros

Third was JR Hildebrand/No.21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet, where he started – breaking up the Penske drivers. This was JR’s first race with his new engineer, JR Taylor, and Taylor’s first oval race. “Boom. Podium.”

To elaborate, Hildebrand continued. “Team has been working on the development and that goes a long way. We’re all learning a bit as we go along. It starts with just the development work that the team has done as a whole. We come into these places feeling really confident that if we don’t touch anything and roll the thing out in qualifying or race trim, that we’ll be kind of in the window. That goes a long way.

“But Justin’s been awesome, man. To come into this whole thing and not know the car, we’re at a whole bunch of tracks that he’s not seen. Certainly the oval aspect of it, it’s a lot to get used to.

“It’s obviously my first time back in the car full-time with aero kits and all this kind of stuff. We’re all sort of learning a little bit still as we go along.”

This was Hildebrand’s first race back since his accident at Long Beach in which he shattered his left hand. “It really wasn’t that bad. I think I’ll be dealing with some swelling. Going out for that final stint on sticker tires the first couple laps, it was like, Holy (expletive), the steering was super heavy.

“In terms of my hand actually bugging me, it was no stress. I think we’ll be good to go at Gateway on Tuesday and hopefully be ready to rock and roll for the whole month of May.”

IndyCar has an open test Tuesday at Gateway Motorsports Park.

Will Power, Simon Pagenaud & JR Hildebrand
Will Power, Simon Pagenaud & JR Hildebrand. Photo by Pablo Matamoros

Hildebrand’s team owner and teammate, Ed Carpenter started 21st and finished seventh. He said “It was great for JR to break up the Penske sandwich.” Carpenter was all smiles, perhaps for the first time this weekend, after two days of adversity. “It’s nice for JR’s first podium with us. I’ll take it as a small victory.” Saturday’s podium was the second for JR, after his first when he was runner-up in his Rookie Indianapolis 500, which he almost won before he crashed in sight of the checkered flag.

Fourth and fifth were Helio Castroneves/No.3 REV Group Team Penske Chevrolet and Scott Dixon/No.9 NTT Data Chip Ganassi Racing Honda, the top Honda. Dixon is now second in the standings, 18 points behind Pagenaud.

Five drivers had their race ended on Turn Two during the first lap. There was an immediate full course caution, which lasted 21 laps. The spinning car of Mikhail Aleshin/No.7 SMP Racing Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda collected two other cars, and two others were unavoidably caught out. All drivers were seen in the Infield Care Center, released, cleared to drive. Aleshin said “Not my day today, I feel sorry for the #7 crew and drivers that couldn’t avoid me at that incident. Unfortunately when we got to Turn 1, I felt the rear of the car went, and I just couldn’t do anything. I was full lock, and I just understood that that was it. I feel sorry for the guys that hit as well, but that’s racing. Very sorry to my Schmidt Peterson Motorsports team and everyone that works on the No. 7 because I think the guys did a fantastic job. Sometimes situations like this happen, but we’ll keep moving forward.”

The two cars Aleshin took out were then-points leader, Sebastien Bourdais/No.18 Sonny’s BBQ Dale Coyne Racing Honda, and Max Chilton/No.8 Gallagher Chip Ganassi Racing Honda. Caught up with no place to go were Marco Andretti/No.27 Oberti Beef Jerkey Andretti Autosport Honda, and Graham Rahal/No.15 United Rentals Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda. Bourdais fell to fourth in the standings, behind Josef Newgarden/No.2 Verizon Team Penske, who led for two laps and ran in the top five for most of the race, until an brief contact with Ryan Hunter-Reay/No.28 DHL Andretti Autosport Honda. RHR retired with 30 laps to go. Newgarden made a quick pit stop for body work and rejoined, further down in the pack. He finished ninth, two laps down. RHR was credited with thirteenth.

There were four race leaders: Pole sitter Castroneves for the first 74 laps; Newgarden for two laps; Pagenaud for a lap; Power for 12 laps; and then Pagenaud for the last 113 laps. The first three lead changes were cycling through pit stops, and Pagenaud who stayed out when a caution came out, and then pitted under that caution and kept his lead.

The only other accident was Takuma Sato/No.26 Andretti Autosport Honda, who hit the Turn Four wall and caused an 11-lap caution. He too was seen in the Infield Care Center and released, cleared to drive.

The weather started out warm with bright late afternoon sun glare, with temperatures dropping to low seventies with 10 mph winds.

Next up after the Gateway test is the Grand Prix of Indianapolis at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Saturday 13 May 2017.

Simon Pagenaud's race car
Simon Pagenaud’s race car. Photo by Pablo Matamoros

1. (5) Simon Pagenaud, Chevrolet, 250, Running
2. (2) Will Power, Chevrolet, 250, Running
3. (3) JR Hildebrand, Chevrolet, 250, Running
4. (1) Helio Castroneves, Chevrolet, 250, Running
5. (8) Scott Dixon, Honda, 249, Running
6. (6) Tony Kanaan, Honda, 249, Running
7. (21) Ed Carpenter, Chevrolet, 248, Running
8. (14) Charlie Kimball, Honda, 248, Running
9. (4) Josef Newgarden, Chevrolet, 248, Running
10. (19) Carlos Munoz, Chevrolet, 247, Running
11. (16) Ed Jones, Honda, 247, Running
12. (11) James Hinchcliffe, Honda, 246, Running
13. (12) Ryan Hunter-Reay, Honda, 220, Mechanical
14. (20) Conor Daly, Chevrolet, 180, Running
15. (15) Alexander Rossi, Honda, 141, Contact
16. (18) Takuma Sato, Honda, 135, Contact
17. (7) Mikhail Aleshin, Honda, 0, Contact
18. (9) Marco Andretti, Honda, 0, Contact
19. (10) Sebastien Bourdais, Honda, 0, Contact
20. (13) Max Chilton, Honda, 0, Contact
21. (17) Graham Rahal, Honda, 0, Contact

1-Pagenaud 159
2-Dixon 141
3-Newgarden 133
4-Bourdais 128
5-Hinchcliffe 120
6-Castroneves 118
7-Power 91
8-Kanaan 87
9-Hunter-Reay 82
10-Jones 81

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