HOUSTON -- Some semblance of normalcy returned to the Verizon IndyCar Series on Sunday as Simon Pagenaud won his second race of the 2014 season.
But there were still plenty of surprises in store in the second race of the Shell-Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston weekend, as rookies Mikhail Aleshin and Jack Hawksworth completed the podium. Aleshin filled out the first 1-2 finish in the history of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports as many of the IndyCar Series' top drivers and teams once again struggled in steamy conditions on the slick NRG Park temporary circuit.
AP Photo/David J. PhillipSimon Pagenaud jumped for joy after winning Race 2 at the IndyCar Grand Prix of Houston on Sunday.
"Awesome race!" exclaimed Pagenaud after his fourth career IndyCar race win. "The car was just beautiful -- awesome braking, awesome traction, awesome grip. What else could you ask for as a driver. That's why I was so disappointed yesterday. We had such a fast car this weekend. We regrouped after Detroit and they came up with this package.
"I wish we could have had the race to the end, because it was going to be a great fight with Helio."
Team Penske's Will Power looked set to pull of an amazing feat after working his way from 18th place to third, only for his Dallara's rear suspension to break with just a handful of laps to go. Power finished 10th, but still managed to increase his championship lead over teammate Helio Castroneves because the Brazilian crashed just past half distance when he was dicing with Sebastien Bourdais and eventual winner Pagenaud.
Thanks to Castroneves' travails, Power actually left Houston with the same 39-point advantage he arrived with, despite what was arguably the worst weekend of his nine-year Indy car career. Ryan Hunter-Reay (sixth) is third in the standings, two points behind Castroneves, while Pagenaud's win moved him into the championship contention, 59 points off the lead.
"We were in position for a good day, considering where we qualified," Power said. "We were going to maximize our points and we had a parts malfunction with two laps to go -- the same part that malfunctioned on two other cars at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis. We fought really hard all day with nothing to show for it."
Even though the track was dry Sunday, the story of the second Houston race was again the rough-and-tumble racing. Most of the drivers were involved in some kind of contact during the day and there was plenty of blame being passed around.
Hawksworth's third place for Bryan Herta Autosport will be reviewed by INDYCAR officials after seventh-place finisher Juan Pablo Montoya accused the young Englishman of running him off the track three times. Castroneves said he was actually trying to pass Pagenaud when his accident occurred; he moved quickly from the inside to the outside of the track to take the racing line, but found Bourdais' car was already there. Bourdais finished fifth for KVSH Racing.
"Obviously when I'm attacking I can't have my eyes in the back," Castroneves said. "I am frustrated a bit, and upset, because we had a great car."
Saturday's surprise race winner Carlos Huertas finished at the opposite end of the standings Sunday, lasting just two laps before losing drive in his Dale Coyne Racing Honda. Others to struggle Sunday included defending IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon, who was relegated by brake problems to 18th place in his Target Ganassi Chevrolet, and Graham Rahal, who showed a lot of speed all weekend but was taken out by a gearbox problem.
It's doubtful that any of them could have beaten Pagenaud, who also claimed his first career IndyCar pole position this weekend for the Saturday race. Yet the Frenchman refuses to think ahead about the looming championship battle.
"I haven't had much time to look at the points yet," he said. "You know, it's important to capitalize on a day like today. We didn't do that yesterday [when Pagenaud finished 16th in Race 1]. We had a fast car, and I needed to do what Dixon did last year, win the two races. But unfortunately the conditions didn't work out for me in Race 1. Race 2 it did, so job done.
"I feel like I'm doing a good job," he added. "I feel like I'm very focused on the job here with my team. I feel like we're getting to the level I want to be at, and it's paying off today. Days like today is where I want to be at. This is what I want to do week in and week out. Getting wins is the best motivation factor.
"Now it's about repeating."
The IndyCar Series is back in action in just one week, with the Pocono 500 set for July 6. As with the other 500-mile races on the IndyCar schedule (Indianapolis and Fontana), Pocono will pay double points compared to a normal race like Houston.