Simon Pagenaud wins Indy 500 on Penske's golden anniversary
Driver was under pressure to deliver win in contract year
Simon Pagenaud gave Roger Penske a golden victory at the Indianapolis 500. He may have saved his job doing it.
Pagenaud outdueled Alexander Rossi in a breathtaking, 13-lap sprint to the finish Sunday that delivered an 18th victory in "The Greatest Spectacle in Racing" to the venerable team owner.
The two swapped the lead five times over the final stretch before Pagenaud stormed to the front for good seconds before he took the checkered flag and claimed his first Indy 500. Rossi fell 0.2086 seconds short of his second Indy 500 win in the seventh-closest finish in the 103 years of the race.
Instead, it was a milk-fueled celebration for Team Penske on the 50th anniversary of the owner's first entry in the crown jewel race.
WATCH | Pagenaud takes checkered flag at Indy 500:
Penske now has two consecutive Indy 500 victories — Will Power won last year — for the first time since 2002-03, and his third in the past five years.
This one came from Pagenaud, who is in a contract year and arrived at Indy with his job on the line. His rumoured replacement is Rossi, but Pagenaud won on the road course two weeks ago, won the pole to start the Indy 500 and now has given his boss a victory in the only race Penske truly cares about.
18 <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/Indy500?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#Indy500</a> victories, and <a href="https://twitter.com/Team_Penske?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@Team_Penske</a> still celebrates today’s win like it’s their first.<br><br>Congrats <a href="https://twitter.com/simonpagenaud?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@simonpagenaud</a> and <a href="https://twitter.com/TeamChevy?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@TeamChevy</a>!<a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/ThisIsMay?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#ThisIsMay</a> | <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/Indy500?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#Indy500</a> <a href="https://t.co/RqQbKtbqeH">pic.twitter.com/RqQbKtbqeH</a>—@IMS
"What a guy, can you believe it?" Penske said. "He won that thing, I just can't believe it."
Neither could Rossi, who lost his cool several times in the race but twice charged to the front and had better fuel mileage than Pagenaud and the Penske cars.
"Horsepower, that's unfortunate the way it is," said Rossi, who was in a Honda for Andretti Autosport. "I think we had the superior car, we just didn't have enough there at the end."
Pagenaud was in a Chevrolet and the bowtie brand was the dominant engine maker all May. Chevy swept the top four spots in qualifying, won the race and took four of the top six spots. It was a banner day for Penske, who saw Josef Newgarden finish fourth while Power was fifth.
Motivated by the milk
Pagenaud, who led a race-high 116 of the 200 laps, climbed from his car, let out a primal scream of relief and then dumped the entire winning jug of milk over his head.
"We've come through a life of trying to achieve this and I am just speechless," Pagenaud said. "I never expected to be in this position and I certainly am grateful."
Asked if he was on a mission to save his job, Pagenaud dismissed the pressure of free agency.
"The milk motivated me," Pagenaud said. "Just focus on the job, man."
Pagenaud is the first Frenchman to win the Indy 500 since Rene Thomas in 1914. Indianapolis records count five French winners, but Gil de Ferran in 2003 and Gaston Chevrolet in 1920, while born in France, list other nationalities.
Pagenaud was the 21st driver to win from the pole and first since Helio Castroneves a decade ago.
As he began the traditional celebratory lap around the speedway in the back of a convertible, Rossi was one of the many drivers to walk onto the track to congratulate the winner. The American leaned in for a genuine embrace despite his disappointment.
"Nothing else matters but winning," Rossi said. "This one will be hard to get over."