By Jenna Fryer
AP Auto Racing Writer
LONG BEACH, Calif. — Simon Pagenaud jumped at the chance to drive for Team Penske, where the best ride of his IndyCar career could lead to wins and racing for championships.
But his first season was a bust, with Pagenaud failing to win and finishing a career-worst 11th in the IndyCar standings. The Frenchman had not finished lower than fifth in his three seasons driving for Sam Schmidt, and two of those years included multiple victories for the small team.
So it was a surprise to many to see Pagenaud slump driving for Roger Penske as his teammates, Juan Pablo Montoya, Will Power and Helio Castroneves won races and battled for the title. Montoya also won the Indianapolis 500.
Determined to produce the results he expected to get at Penske, Pagenaud has opened his second season much stronger and currently sits atop the standings behind second-place finishes in the first two races.
He said not having a win doesn’t bother him right now.
“I don’t worry about it so much, it will come when it comes,” Pagenaud said Friday at the Grand Prix of Long Beach.
“At this point, I am just focused on being in contention and doing my job.”
He understands too well that winning races doesn’t guarantee a title, which generally comes through consistency. Scott Dixon, winner of last year’s race at Long Beach, had an average finishing position of 7.7 last season, while Power averaged 6.4 during his 2014 title run.
“You can win many races, that’s cool, but the most important is to be in contention for the championship because then you are in the middle of a championship race. Except the Indianapolis 500, that’s the one you want to win, that’s a championship in itself. But this is a perfect position to be in.”
Pagenaud finished on the podium in his first IndyCar race at Long Beach, considered one of the most prestigious events on the series schedule. He was second in that 2012 debut — one of four podium finishes that year — and he went on to finish fifth in the standings as an IndyCar rookie.
The next year produced two victories and a third-place finish in the standings, and two more wins in 2013, a contract year with Schmidt. With Pagenaud on the free agent market, Penske expanded to four cars just so he could add the talented driver to his stable.
Now he’s waiting for a breakout similar to the one Montoya had last year, in his second season with Penske. Montoya won Indy and St. Petersburg and led the points standings from the season opener until the season finale, where he lost the championship to Dixon on a tie-breaker.
Pagenaud was fourth-fastest in Friday’s final practice, which was paced by teammate Power. Montoya was fastest in the morning session, just a tick quicker than Power.
“It’s been a good start,” said Power. “This morning I learned some stuff with Juan, and we’re progressing really well. This is a track where I’ve struggled the last couple of years in qualifying … so I want to start up front and give ourselves a better chance to win the race.”
Pagenaud will learn from his teammates, as well, and attempt to finally make it to victory lane in a Penske car on Sunday.
“We’ve only done two races, so I am confident (a win) will come at some point,” he said. “We are showing everything needed to win a race, and it’s a question of putting everything together for a whole weekend. Things in St. Pete that I didn’t do, I missed a restart, and that takes away wins.
“But essentially, it’s perfect start and we’ll get there when we get there.”