Pagenaud: I feel very good about my chances

The king’s reign is scheduled to end Sunday when the green flag waves for the start of the 104th Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge, but don’t tell that to Simon Pagenaud, who has enjoyed the longest tenure as the race’s defending champion since World War II shut down the facility for five years.

Pagenaud thinks he can win Sunday’s race, “I feel very good about my chances. I feel very confident in my race car (the No. 22 Menards Chevrolet). We were one of the only cars to pass in practice.”

As a Team Penske driver with a car strong in traffic, Pagenaud doesn’t necessarily face long odds to repeat as “500” champion, but the event can be cruel. Men and women have been driving in circles around Indianapolis Motor Speedway for more than a century, and yet only five have reached Victory Lane two years running. Helio Castroneves was the most recent, in 2002. Before that it was Al Unser in 1971 and before that Bill Vukovich in 1954. At the event’s outset, it took 26 years before a driver won consecutive races.

Pagenaud led 116 of last year’s 200 laps, starting the race from the pole. Sunday, he will be in for at least an early struggle starting from the 25th position. It’s been 46 years since a winner started as far back as Pagenaud.

“Days go by, but they don’t look the same, and that’s OK,” he said. “It’s the game. Last year we dominated, and this year we’re going to have to do it a different way. I kind of expected it to be that way because last year was a golden experience, quite frankly.

“I think I’m going to have to be more aggressive than I have been. I’m going to have to really shoot from the hip on the get-go and look forward. I can’t just be sitting on my heels.”

Pagenaud accepts that challenge because he knows the “500” owes no one a thing. The past year – 15 months, actually – have rewarded him in unimaginable ways, from sweeping the Month of May with victories in the GMR Grand Prix, “500” qualifying and the 500-Mile Race itself to winning three NTT Indycar Series race and finishing second in the point standings to touring Europe as the winner of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” to getting married.

“Phenomenal,” he said. “It was an amazing year from achieving a life dream, winning Indianapolis. As a Frenchman it was the first in a century, which was huge. I think it allowed Indycar to get more known in Europe and myself to be more known in Europe, as well. That was amazing, an amazing tour I got to do with BorgWarner and Indycar after the win.

“Then getting married was a big moment in my life as a human being.”

As he paused, his wide smile faded, and his serious side returned, “An amazing year, but I’m not finished. There’s a lot more to come. It’s always about what’s next.”

That “next” begins at 2:30 p.m. Sunday. The focus will be on others – pole sitter Marco Andretti, five-time NTT Indycar Series champion Scott Dixon, top-starting rookie Rinus VeeKay – but don’t be surprised if after three hours it’s Pagenaud drinking the milk again and being fitted for another winner’s ring.

“I wear my ring every day,” he said, displaying it. “It’s a testament to what happened in my life, but it’s also a realization for myself that I’ve done it. I’m so happy every time I see it.

“Being happy is important for anyone, but this is a constant reminder. (Indy) is the prize that keeps on giving. It’s been amazing, an amazing year, and I just want to repeat it.”