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Next generation of IndyCar drivers beginning to leave mark

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INDIANAPOLIS — As preparations begin for the Indianapolis 500, eyes naturally turn to the veterans.

That’s no surprise – six former winners are slated to compete in the May 25 race – including prodigals Juan Pablo Montoya and Jacques Villeneuve. There’s a three-time winner in Helio Castroneves, the former series champ in Scott Dixon, and the popular defending winner in Tony Kanaan. Not to mention one-off perennial 500 starter Buddy Lazier, the 1996 Indy winner.

Castroneves, Dixon and Kanaan have carried the banner for the IndyCar Series for much of the last decade, piling up wins and championships. So has the recently-retired Dario Franchitti, who won three Indianapolis 500s and four IndyCar Series titles. They’ve blessed open-wheel racing through a transitional period into what is now IndyCar, with a stable driver lineup and a recognizable core of popular drivers.

But, their generation will be moving along – the youngest driver of that group, Castroneves, turned 39 on Saturday. Franchitti hung up his gloves for good after a harrowing accident at Houston last fall.

The next generation is beginning to make its presence felt. To do so, look no further than Victory Lane at Indianapolis to start the month.

Simon Pagenaud, a French native who will turn 30 later this week, has quietly made himself a contender in IndyCar racing, and a winner at Indianapolis. He stretched fuel and warded off the field – including a hard-charging Castroneves – to win the inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s road course on Saturday.

Pagenaud was 11 years old when Villeneuve won the 1995 race – a moment that helped inspire his own racing career – and followed Formula One as Villeneuve and 2000 Indy winner Montoya were top competitors. Now, they race against each other – signaling the blend of the veteran stars and a new wave.

“It feels like a dream come true for me,” Pagenaud said. “It’s amazing to be racing guys like Montoya.  I used to look up and never thought I could be as fast as him because I never thought I could be a racecar driver. Jacques Villeneuve, for me he’s the 1997 world champion. I met him (Friday).

“There’s one side of me that it’s a special moment.  You get to meet the people that you look up to when you’re a kid.  That’s very special.  That’s kind of a fragile feeling.  Then you get to race against them and then you see blood.”

Pagenaud might not be a household name yet, but he soon will be. In 39 races since his 2011 debut, he has 24 top-10 finishes. Saturday marked his third series victory. As a rookie, he placed fifth in the IndyCar standings. Last season, he finished third behind Dixon and Castroneves. He enters this weekend’s Indianapolis 500 qualifying third in the standings, just six points behind leader Will Power, and five back of second-place Ryan Hunter-Reay – who was the runner-up in Saturday’s Grand Prix.

He’s done so driving for Schmidt Petersen Motorsports – a team that has dominated Indy Lights and often fielded Indianapolis 500 entries, but has recently returned to running full-time in the IndyCar Series. He has mixed it up with the well-funded “Big Three” teams owned by Roger Penske, Chip Ganassi and Michael Andretti and contended for titles.

“I think we are a championship contender,” Pagenaud said. “We were third last year. We were in the championship hunt until the last race. It’s fair to say that we are where we want to be, fighting for wins.

“We obviously don’t have the high resources of Ganassi and Andretti and Penske, but we’re a very good group of people that have really open communication.  I think it helps a lot in racing. “

It’s not just Pagenaud. Sebastian Saavedra started on the pole – although he was caught in a spectacular crash off the standing start when his car stalled at the green flag. He got collected by two other up-and-comers – 2013 Indy 500 front-row starter Carlos Munoz and Russian rookie Mikhail Aleshin.

“Simon has been on the radar already for quite some time,” Castroneves said. “Last year or the year before he finished close on the championship.  Now he’s winning again.  Certainly Simon has been showing an amazing potential here.  He already won races. 

“But I think, to be honest, not only Simon, but a bunch of drivers.  It’s been so competitive. It’s amazing how close it is out there. You guys don’t realize to finish here on the podium, it’s so difficult. That’s why it’s great to be here.”

IndyCar racing is beginning to hit the same spot it was in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when veterans Rick Mears, A.J. Foyt, Al Unser, Gordon Johncock, Emerson Fittipaldi and Johnny Rutherford were finishing their legendary runs, while Michael Andretti, Bobby Rahal and Al Unser Jr. took the spotlight. It took a few years for the new breed of young drivers – among them Villeneuve, Paul Tracy, Alex Zanardi and later, Montoya, Kanaan, Dixon,  Castroneves, Franchitti, Sam Hornish Jr. and the late Dan Wheldon – to emerge as the standard-bearers for a generation. There’s also an Andretti (Marco) and a Rahal (Graham), as well as still-young former champs and consistent contenders in Ryan Hunter-Reay and Will Power.

But as that generation moves along, there’s room for a new wave – signaled by the always-smiling James Hinchcliffe immediately becoming a hit with fans after replacing Danica Patrick at Andretti Autosport.

They might not be household names yet.

But it’s only a matter of time.

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