Indianapolis Motor Speedway celebrated the 50th anniversary of Mario Andretti’s 1969 victory in the Indianapolis 500 this year, presenting his likeness on badges, dedicating parts of its trackside memorabilia stands strictly to the Italian American racer and holding galas to commemorate his single win on the historic 2.5-mile oval track.
At the same time, Team Penske had its own 50th anniversary as team owner Roger Penske entered the Indy 500 that same year for the first time. At the end of 200 laps on a hot, mostly sunny day – one that was supposed to be rain-affected but never was – it was a Penske-Andretti one-two punch that settled the 103rd running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.
Team Penske’s 2016 NTT IndyCar Series champion, Frenchman Simon Pagenaud emerged the victor after an intense late race battle with 2016 Indianapolis 500 winner Alexander Rossi, one that would see him claim the win by a scant 0.2086 seconds. Rahal Letterman Lanigan’s Takuma Sato, victorious at the Brickyard in 2017 would finish third just 0.3413 seconds behind Pagenaud, whose Team Penske squadmates Josef Newgarden and Will Power rounded out the top five.
Driver/owner Ed Carpenter, rookie Santino Ferrucci of Dale Coyne Racing, Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay, Tony Kanaan of A.J. Foyt Racing and Andretti’s Conor Daly completed the top 10. A total of 17 cars finished on the lead lap, with reigning series champ Scott Dixon the last driver to go the distance and three-time winner Hello Castroneves the first driver a lap down in 18th. There were 26 of 33 drivers still competing after 200 laps that were punctuated by four cautions and a late-race red flag that allowed clean-up for the final melee.
The month of May 2019 belonged to Pagenaud, who swept the pole and victory in both the INDYCAR Grand Prix May 10-11 and did the same for the Indy 500. His Menards-sponsored, Chevrolet-powered Dallara led the most laps in the 500, 116, and was the class of a very classy field of teams and drivers. With seven former winners of the Indy 500 in the field, fully four of them were among the 10 best finishers and all were competitive throughout the race.
Of the four cautions in this 500-mile race, the first was called to tow in rookie Colton Herta, who lost fifth gear on his Harding Steinbrenner Honda-powered race car and slowed on the fourth lap, bringing out caution on lap 6. The winner at Circuit of the Americas in March qualified fifth for his first oval Indy car race and looked primed for a good result. The second came out for Cinderella team Juncos Racing and Kyle Kaiser on the 73rd lap as the second-year competitor spun in the third turn; he had moved out of the groove, which took good air off his car.
By that time, rookie Ben Hanley had stopped in the pits with a busted driveshaft, ending his good month of May – on Wednesday Hanley and his DragonSpeed crew return to European sports car racing as they compete in the 24 Hours of Le Mans; DragonSpeed are primed to get added Indy car experience at Road America in a couple of months as the Elton Julian-led group prepares for a more robust NTT IndyCar Series campaign in 2020.
Making his first oval start, Arrow Schmidt Peterson Racing rookie Marcus Ericsson brought out the third caution when he made contact with a crew member in the pits on the 137th lap, bringing out the yellow flags a lap hence. Ericsson, who started 13th in the race, spun on entry to the pits on the 138th lap – there was a lot of that going on during this contest as Castroneves hit James Davison, incurring a drive-through penalty, as did Power, who allegedly hit a crewman – and the Swede received a penalty for getting service in a closed pit during the final caution. Ericsson actually finished the race, two laps down in 23rd.
That final caution on the 178th lap was caused by fierce competition between four-time champ Sebastien Bourdais and second-generation racer Graham Rahal. Their wheel-tangling argument also collected and retired Zach Veach and Felix Rosenqvist, the Chip Ganassi Racing rookie who was credited with leading six of the race’s 200 laps. Bourdais and Rahal made contact several times in or near the third turn, and also hit the turn’s SAFER barrier; the series made the wise move to red flag the race for 18 minutes in order to clean up this four-car mess.
The final green flag flew on the 187th lap and began the fierce battle between Pagenaud and Rossi, with the two trading the lead several times before Pagenaud retook the point on the penultimate lap. After earning the twin checkered flags, the elated winner stopped at the famous Yard of Bricks to salute the 250,000-plus fans in attendance before being brought to Victory Lane by his team.
In earning his first Indianapolis 500, Pagenaud became the first French citizen to be victorious at the Brickyard since Gaston Chevrolet in 1920. He’s also the second consecutive Team Penske driver to run the table in Indy, following teammate Power last year. After not winning a race since the season finale in 2017, when teammate Josef Newgarden secured his first NTT IndyCar Series title, Pagenaud snapped a losing streak that had many in the paddock wondering if Penske would re-hire him in this contractual year.
Penske settled that after the race, declaring the winner who gave him an 18th Indy 500 title would definitely be back on his North Carolina-based squad. “What do you think?” Penske responded when asked if Pagenaud would return. “Do you want to answer that question for me? Absolutely,” the Captain remarked.
His winning driver acknowledged this was “such an intense race. The car was just on rails; the yellows came out perfectly; the stars are aligned,” he said. “The biggest dream of my life came true. It’s hard to fathom, really. It’s really hard to process it right now but I’m just filled with a lot of joy. I drove really spirited today, but it’s just incredible. I think it showed I had the best car our there,” the elated winner said as he thanked the fans who joined him at the Yard of Bricks fence as he celebrated. “I want to thank the fans. It was awesome go share that with you guys on the Yard of Bricks – you’re the best, Indianapolis!”