Jul 7, 2014, 1:00 PM EDT
Just two years ago, a then oval rookie named Simon Pagenaud wowed the Verizon IndyCar Series veterans in his first few races on the left-hand only circuits for Schmidt Hamilton Motorsports.
Two years later, and Pagenaud’s rookie teammate Mikhail Aleshin is doing the same through his first three oval starts.
Aleshin, the Russian who’s been exciting to watch most of the season in the No. 7 SMP Racing Honda, continued his flare for the excitement on the ovals by mastering Pocono and finishing seventh in his first start on the “Tricky Triangle.”
It followed his good run that was spoiled at the Indianapolis 500, and then his first oval top-10 last month at Texas Motor Speedway, when he finished seventh.
Sunday in Pocono, Aleshin started 12th but already cracked the top 10 by Lap 7. He ran as high as fifth during pit stop sequences, and consistently ran between fifth and seventh the rest of the day.
“The car was fast, and we didn’t struggle anywhere mechanically,” Aleshin said. “We did have some radio issues we had to deal with, however. The car was strong, which allowed me to push out there and challenge other drivers.”
Aleshin moved up to 13th in the points on 263 points, second best in the four-driver rookie class of 2014. Down 77 points, it’s doubtful he’ll catch Carlos Munoz for top rookie honors (sixth), but he is now 36 and 39 points clear of Jack Hawksworth and Carlos Huertas in 16th and 17th, respectively. Additionally, Aleshin now sits only eight points out of the top 10 in points, with 10th-placed Sebastien Bourdais on 271.
Meanwhile Pagenaud fell back to earth a bit after leading the team’s 1-2 in Houston Race 2 last week. Pagenaud started 11th and finished sixth in what was a fairly nondescript race in the No. 77 Oculus Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsports Honda. The team started with a high downforce setting and spent the rest of the day trying to get the balance right; Pagenaud said it was difficult to pass.
But with Will Power finishing 10th after his latest penalty earned, the two-time winner gained 15 points on his rival in the championship and now sits third heading to Iowa next week behind the Team Penske teammates Power and Helio Castroneves.
“I’m very happy with how the team handled the challenges we were faced with today,” he said. “The beginning of my race may have looked a little boring to the fans, but I was just trying to understand what I would need at the end. Finishing sixth today is great considering we didn’t start up front with the strongest race package.”