That moment came in stark relief with only a dozen laps left Sunday, when Pagenaud waged a thrilling back-and-forth battle with Alexander Rossi, a Californian trying to win his second Indy 500.
The two repeatedly swapped the lead at more than 200 mph at Indianapolis Motor Speedway until Pagenaud grabbed the lead for good with a pass in Turn 3 with just over a lap to go.
“It’s a dream come true, a lifetime of trying to achieve this,” Pagenaud said in Victory Lane. “It’s hard to believe right now. It was such an intense race.”
Pagenaud nipped Rossi by about two car lengths. Takuma Sato, who won the race in 2017, finished right behind them in third, and two of Pagenaud’s teammates, Josef Newgarden and Will Power, were fourth and fifth, respectively.
The victory capped a comeback of sorts for Pagenaud, a 35-year-old Frenchman who drives for team owner Roger Penske.
Although he won the NTT IndyCar Series championship in 2016, Pagenaud went into this season after not having won a race in 2018 and there was speculation his job with Penske might be in jeopardy.
Instead, Pagenaud won this month in an IndyCar race on the curvy road course at the Brickyard, won the pole position for Sunday’s race and then delivered Penske an 18th Indy 500 victory, by far the most of any team owner, on the 50th anniversary of Penske first entering a car at Indy.
Pagenaud also was the first driver to win the Indy 500 from the pole since Helio Castroneves in 2009, and became the ninth different winner of the race in the last nine years.
“What a job Simon’s done this month,” Penske said. “He won that thing. I just cannot believe it.”
Penske won last year with Power and it was his third Indy 500 victory in the last five years.
After Pagenaud drove his postrace cool-down lap, he took the unusual step of stopping his car on the Yard of Bricks, a leftover of the speedway’s old surface, to acknowledge cheers from the crowd that topped 250,000 on an overcast day.
Pagenaud, who led for 116 of the race’s 200 laps after actors Matt Damon and Christian Bale waved the green flag to start the race, then poured the winner’s traditional bottle of milk over his head.
“It’s really hard to process it right now, but I’m just filled with joy,” Pagenaud said. “Rossi, I knew, was going to be the biggest threat. I was never going to give up. The car was just fantastic.”
Said Penske when asked whether Pagenaud would return with his team next year: “What do you think? Absolutely.”
Rossi, 27, was emotionally spent. The Indy 500 winner as a rookie in 2016 said he starts thinking about the next Indy 500 the day after the last one.
“There's not much to say,” Rossi said. “I think you all saw it. We just didn't have the straight-line speed. [Pagenaud] was a deserving winner for sure.”
Rossi, who drives for Andretti Autosport, also had to overcome a poor pit stop to challenge Pagenaud.
As Rossi pitted on Lap 137 while holding the lead, the fuel hose malfunctioned. As his crewman frantically tried to get the fuel flowing, the normally cool and collected Rossi pounded his fists on the steering wheel. The result: A costly 23-second stop.
But Rossi caught a break. At the same moment, rookie Marcus Ericsson spun on pit road, bringing out the caution flag and effectively freezing the field. That dropped Rossi to only fifth in the 33-car field; he likely would have dropped further under green-flag conditions.
“You can understand why I was upset,” Rossi said. “It can't happen. I mean, it wasn't a human error, it was a mechanical problem, but still, it's not something that we can have here.”
The race’s torrid finish was part of a 14-lap shootout set up by a crash involving multiple cars. The accident was triggered when Graham Rahal and Sebastien Bourdais touched wheels, which sent both cars spinning in Turn 3.
Their crash collected the cars of Felix Rosenqvist, Zach Veach and Charlie Kimball. That forced an 18-minute, red-flag period in which the remaining cars were stopped while the debris was cleared.