INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Roger Penske celebrated his 50th anniversary in the Indianapolis 500 with his 18th victory.
Along for the ride was sponsor John Menard, like Penske celebrating nearly a lifetime of annual trips to the fabled race. Unlike his old friend, he has had little success in the one event everyone wants to win.
Menard finally reached victory lane Sunday with Penske and Simon Pagenaud, their car sponsored by his Midwest-based home improvement chain. Pagenaud held off Alexander Rossi in a frantic shootout that included five swaps of the lead in the final 13 laps.
Menard was breathless watching the action and overwhelmed when it was over.
“You ever watch that movie called ‘The Candidate,’ when that guy works and works and works and finally gets elected?” Menard asked. “After the election, he won, and he gazed into the mirror and says, ‘What the hell do I do now?’ That’s the way I feel. We’ll go try to win another one.”
Menard was serious. He hopped on a plane and headed to Charlotte Motor Speedway to watch his son, Paul, race in NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600. He sponsors his son’s car, and that actually got the elder Menard his first Indianapolis Motor Speedway victory when Paul won the Brickyard 400 in 2011.
As much as Penske loves Indianapolis, Menard also adores the place. His first trip was in 1979. He had a sign to hang over a garage — but no idea where the garage was at the sprawling speedway.
“I didn’t know enough to go there on 16th (Street) and drive under, so this guy at the gate in a yellow shirt was standing there, and he goes, ‘Where are you going with that sign?’ And I said, ‘I want to get in the garage area.’ So he said, ‘I’ll open the gate for you.’ So he unlocked the gate and let me in. I didn’t have a credential. I didn’t know where I was going.
“I said, ‘Which way is the garage area?’ I think he thought I was crazy, but we had a good time. That was the first time I was here, 40 years ago. Been trying ever since. I see a stubborn, stupid guy.”
Pagenaud made it all worth the wait.
He arrived at the speedway this month with his job on the line and rumors swirling that Alexander Rossi could soon replace him at Team Penske. But the Frenchman is leaving with a pair of wins, his face soon to be engraved on the Borg-Warner trophy as the Indy 500 champion and with an assurance from Penske himself that he isn’t going anywhere.
“Do I even have to answer that?” Penske asked. “Absolutely.”
In a head-to-head duel for the ages, Pagenaud defeated none other than Rossi with a dramatic pass on the penultimate lap and held on. Even sweeter, the win came the 50th anniversary of Penske’s arrival at the Brickyard.
Pagenaud and Rossi swapped the lead five times over the final 13 laps, and the margin of victory was a mere 0.2086 seconds — the seventh-closest finish in the 103 years of the race.
Pagenaud was dominant all day, leading 116 of the 200 laps, and the win was cathartic. He stopped his car at the start-finish line and hopped out to share his first Indy 500 win with his fans. And once he finally made his way to victory lane, Pagenaud climbed from his car and let out a primal scream, then dumped the entire bottle of celebratory milk over his head.
“I never expected to be in this position,” Pagenaud said, “and I certainly am grateful.”
President Donald Trump phoned Penske in victory lane from Japan, where he was meeting with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe over trade. Penske passed the phone to Pagenaud, and Trump later tweeted an invite to the White House for the winning team.
Penske, who was there earlier with Joey Logano last month to celebrate last year’s NASCAR Cup Series championship, said Trump told him: “I must have been your good-luck charm.”
Penske now has two consecutive Indy 500 victories — Will Power won last year — for the first time since 2002-03. It was his third win in the crown jewel race in the past five years and fifth in the past 14.
It was a banner day, too, with Josef Newgarden finishing fourth and Power in fifth.
Rossi lost his cool several times in the race, but the Californian had better fuel mileage than Pagenaud and the Penske cars. The 2016 race winner twice charged to the front in the closing laps.
“Horsepower. That’s unfortunately 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 all May. It swept the top four spots in qualifying, won the race and took four of the top six spots. Pagenaud is the first Frenchman to win the Indy 500 since Rene Thomas in 1914. He was the 21st winner form the pole and first since Helio Castroneves a decade ago.
As he began the traditional victory lap in the back of a convertible, Rossi was one of many drivers to walk onto the track to congratulate him. The American leaned in for a genuine embrace.
“Nothing else matters but winning,” Rossi said. “This one will be hard to get over.”