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.
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 rumored 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.
“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 and Power fifth.
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.”
Rossi’s drive was once again brilliant — he drove from the back to finish fourth last year and he won on fuel mileage in the 100th running of the race.
He’d been patient through the first half of the race and set himself up to take control after the halfway point. But a troublesome fuel hose on a pit stop caused a lengthy delay and Rossi was angrily pounding on his steering wheel imploring the Andretti crew to get him back on track.
He dropped to sixth with the error and really lost his cool when he couldn’t get past the lapped car of Oriol Servia. As Rossi finally raced past Servia, he angrily raised his fist at the Spaniard. A late accident caused an 18-minute stoppage with Rossi set to restart the final sprint as the leader and he stated his mood over his team radio.
“A bunch of hungry, angry cars behind me,” Rossi said. “Little do they know I’m angrier.”
Pagenaud got him on the restart and the two went back and forth four more times before Pagenaud locked down the win.
Former winner Takuma Sato finished third, giving Honda two spots on the podium. Santino Ferrucci in seventh was the highest finishing rookie.
Attention had been heavy on rookie Colton Herta, but the 19-year-old was the first driver out of the race when his gearbox broke after just a few laps.