Indy 500 win still sinking in for Pagenaud

The Associated PressSimon Pagenaud, of France, winner of the 2019 Indianapolis 500 auto race, poses during the traditional winners photo session at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, Monday.

INDIANAPOLIS — For the first time in the month of May, Simon Pagenaud was ready to slow down Sunday.

He took the traditional victory lap around Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and then decided to make a detour. Or maybe it was decided for him.

The Frenchman was crying as he circled the Brickyard after holding off 2016 winner Alexander Rossi for his first Indianapolis 500 victory. It was a dream achieved, and the emotions just poured out.

So Pagenaud didn’t recognize the entrance to the pits quickly enough, and he missed his turn toward Victory Lane.

No problem. Instead, he drove his Chevy to the yard of bricks.

He stopped, exited the cockpit and put both hands on his helmet in a combination of celebration and disbelief. Then he stood on top of his car and tried to share the moment with every one of the estimated 300,000 fans in attendance.

“It’s incredible,” Pagenaud said more than an hour later when his championship parade made its way to the media center. “It’s incredible to be part of this sport as a driver, and it wouldn’t be the same if we didn’t have 300,000 people in the grandstands. It was my way of saying thank you for your support and please come back, we’ll give you more of this, and that’s what I did.”

There’s certainly more to come from the 35-year-old driver who began the month with rumors swirling about his job security.

Pagenaud hadn’t been a consistent winner since his IndyCar championship season in 2016, and there were whispers Team Penske might be thinking about a change.

Roger Penske shot down the “scuttlebutt” during his time with the media following the race, and there’s no doubt Pagenaud’s Indianapolis Motor Speedway sweep has removed any lingering doubts about his future.

He became just the second driver ever to win both the Indy Grand Prix and the 500 in the same year, and he started the latter on the pole to boot.

So Penske nearly laughed when he fielded a question Sunday night about whether Pagenaud was guaranteed to return to his team next season.

“What do you think?” Penske said. “Do you want to answer that question for me? Absolutely.”

For now, Pagenaud’s life is speeding up again.

He did seven hours of media following the race, then joined his team downtown for a victory celebration.

He was back up early Monday morning for the traditional champion’s photo shoot at the track, and he was preparing for the champions dinner later in the evening.

After that, there’s a planned trip to New York for more media obligations. And, of course, a pair of races next weekend in Detroit as the IndyCar season rolls on.

Pagenaud took over the points lead with his Indy sweep, and he’s made no secret his goal is to win another series title.

But he’s going to savor the Indy 500 victory first.

There was a time about 10 years ago when American open-wheel racing didn’t seem to have a place for him. The Champ Car series had folded, and Pagenaud didn’t have the connections to find a foothold in IndyCar.

So he considered going home to France and starting over.

Fellow Frenchman Gil de Ferran -- the 2003 Indy 500 champion while also driving Penske -- provided a life line that led to a sports car ride with Honda. The relationship with the manufacturer eventually paved a road back to IndyCar, where Pagenaud caught the eye of Penske.

Now his face will be engraved on the Borg-Warner Trophy.

And Pagenaud plans to return to France with the prize in hand.

“This place is mythical,” Pagenaud said. “When you win, you’re part of the history. I just feel super honored. It doesn’t feel real because I don’t hold myself up high like that. I don’t believe in myself as somebody special. Doesn’t feel right to say it even. Pretty cool. Pretty cool there.”