INDIANAPOLIS — Here are your nominees for 2019 comeback sports story of the year:
Virginia Men’s Basketball wins the NCAA Tournament a year after becoming the first 1 seed to lose to a 16 seed.
Tiger Woods earns his first green jacket since 2005 after many said his career was over.
Simon Pagenaud erases a six-second gap in the final 10 laps to win the IndyCar Grand Prix.
What Pagenaud did Saturday to secure his third Grand Prix victory seemed all but impossible. He started in the eighth position, and 85 laps later, he found himself in the top spot on Victory Podium after passing Jack Harvey and Scott Dixon in the final five laps.
While Pagenaud’s win may end up as a candidate for comeback of the year, not many people can say they were there to see it in person.
If you looked around the stands at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS) on that cloudy, rain-filled afternoon, you saw a lot of empty seats. The ones that were occupied consisted of fans in hooded sweatshirts and ponchos.
“The people that came out saw the conditions that we can race in and how fun it can be to watch if you stick through it,” said Dixon, a five-time IndyCar Series champion.
The only problem has been getting fans out to the race. IMS’s slogan is “This is May,” but for the last 103 years, May has been all about the Indy 500. The Grand Prix, previously known as the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and the Angie's List Grand Prix, has acted as a preview for The Greatest Spectacle in Racing the last six years.
Prior to the inaugural running of the IndyCar Grand Prix in 2014, IMS hosted the United States Grand Prix from 2000-07.
“The big one [Indy 500] is obviously always going to be special,” Pagenaud said. “There’s never going to be anything like it. People come to it, it’s our Super Bowl and it’s just phenomenal to be a part of it.”
Despite the popularity of the Indy 500, some fans prefer the Grand Prix. Chris Blackwell, 55, has been to the last 15 Indy 500s as well as all six Grands Prix. He said he recommends the Grand Prix because of its family-friendly atmosphere and the mild crowd.
“I really enjoy the Grand Prix,” Blackwell said. “There’s much more access to everything: drivers, pits, the Grid Walk is fantastic. I think it’s a really great experience.
“Even just going to the bathroom takes no time at all. At the 500, going to get something to eat is almost impossible. The Grand Prix is a really great event for people to get involved in IndyCar racing and come to this historic track but without all the mayhem of the Indy 500.”
From 2015-18, the driver who qualified in pole position for the Grand Prix won the race. Rookie Felix Rosenqvist looked like he would continue that trend as he led the first 15 laps. Then rain started spitting, and after Rosenqvist’s first pit stop, he didn’t come close to sniffing the lead the rest of the afternoon.
Dixon said this race was a perfect example of how unpredictable the IndyCar Series can be.
“With an IndyCar race, you really never know who’s going to win. That’s fun for the fans, it’s fun for the drivers,” Dixon said. “Obviously, you would like a season where you could dominate and run away with it, but that’s just not possible.”
Pagenaud walked into his press conference following the sixth annual IndyCar Grand Prix with trophy in hand and an unwavering ear-to-ear smile. Before taking a seat, he let out a “Woo!” and a “Yes!” as he kissed his prize, showing that it doesn’t matter how big or small the race is. Winning always feels good. Now having won it three times in its six years of existence, Pagenaud is glad the Grand Prix comes around every May.
“I think the Grand Prix has really taken its position within the month,” Pagenaud said. “… it showcases what IndyCar is all about.”
Contact Zach Piatt with any comments at email@example.com or on Twitter @zachpiatt13.