If there were any questions that Simon Pagenaud was feeling the pressure of the Verizon IndyCar Series title battle, the Team Penske driver answered them emphatically with an aggressive victory in the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio.
Pagenaud, driving the #22 PPG Automotive Refinish Chevrolet, banged his way past team-mate and primary championship contender Will Power for the deciding pass of the race and drove on to a 4.1620secs victory. Coupled with winning the Verizon P1 Award in qualifying Saturday, Pagenaud extended his championship advantage to 58 points over Power with 12 of 16 races completed.
"The car was really good today, so when it was time to push, it was easy to lay down some fast laps," the Frenchman, who picked up his series-leading fourth win this season and eighth of his career, said, "The red Firestone tyres were amazing today on the car. I just pushed as hard as we could and here we are. It's awesome, four wins this year."
Starting from pole, Pagenaud led only 17 laps through the first two-thirds of the 90-lap race - the 32nd Indy car event on the permanent road course since 1980 - due to teams' differing fuel strategies. Power, in the #12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet, even passed his team-mate during a mid-race pit-stop sequence by staying on track two laps longer.
The decisive moment of the race, however, came on a lap 66 restart with Power running second and Pagenaud third. The championship leader took repeated - and bold – looks at passing his team-mate throughout the lap, with the two Penske cars making side-to-side contact several times until Pagenaud finally forced his way past exiting the 13th and final turn on the 2.258-mile circuit.
Pagenaud then pulled away from Power and waited out race leader Conor Daly, who had to stop for a splash of Sunoco E85R ethanol six laps shy of the finish.
"It was an awesome battle with Will there," Pagenaud noted, "I knew that was my chance on that restart, it was time to go. It was a pretty interesting lap, fun driving like that. That's racing. It was fair, it was clean, it was hard racing."
Power, who collected his fifth straight top-two finish of the season, was mad at himself for not getting a good jump on the critical restart.
"I was sleeping on that restart and I regret that," the Australian admitted, "I should have been on it, but I got marbles on the tyres. It was a good, clean battle. It was tough but it sucked finishing second, all the effort you put into that race. But Simon did a bloody good job and it's turning into a pretty good battle."
Carlos Munoz used a fuel-saving strategy to finish third in the #26 Andretti Autosport Honda, the Colombian's best showing since he placed second at the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 in May. Defending race winner Graham Rahal finished fourth in the #15 Steak 'n Shake Honda.
Pagenaud has totaled 484 points in the twelve completed races to 426 for Power, and the Team Penske duo has achieved some separation from several other contenders who had issues in the race.
Five-time Mid-Ohio winner and 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon and two-time Mid-Ohio winner Helio Castroneves made contact on lap 15, snapping Dixon's left front suspension and damaging Castroneves' left rear wheel guard. The Brazilian ended up in 15th place, with Dixon 22nd and last.
"I got alongside him and he kept edging me over until I just had nowhere to go," Dixon said, "I braked when I was alongside him and then he just turned in."
Josef Newgarden was forced to pit on lap 22 to replace his entire rear wing assembly after contact with Power, finishing the race in tenth. Castroneves, Newgarden and Dixon now rank third through fifth in the point standings, but each has fallen more than 100 points in arrears of Pagenaud.
"It was tough day," Newgarden confirmed, "I feel bad for my guys because I think we had a good car. Pagenaud and Power would have been tough today, but I think we were a podium car, for sure."
Daly, in the #18 Jonathan Byrd's Hospitality Honda, wound up in sixth place after the late splash-and-go, while Mikhail Aleshin led a race-high 33 laps in the #7 SMP Racing Schmidt Peterson Honda, but made contact with Newgarden exiting his pit on lap 62. Aleshin was penalised for making an improper pit exit and hitting Team Penske crewman Vance Welker (who was uninjured) and finished 17th.
"I was the fastest car on the track so obviously the car was pretty good," said Aleshin, who had led only four career laps prior to today. "I think the incident [with Newgarden] was unfortunate.... Sometimes these things happen in the race. We're ready to win, but we just got a little bit unlucky today."
The Verizon IndyCar Series returns to action for the ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway on 21 August.