Allan Brewer, IndyCar correspondent
Simon Pagenaud took a fill-in role last year for Ana Bia Beatriz to a full- time ride in the 2012 IndyCar Series season by being a good student, doing his homework and making the grade when it counted.
Pagenaud earned the impromptu start in 2011 at Barber Motorsports Park for the Sam Schmidt Motorsports team when Bia was injured, then drove in his first-ever IndyCar event to an impressive eighth place finish.
We go into Barber in high spirits. I'm really looking forward to racing over this course for the second time.
This year no introductions are needed, as Pagenaud and the Schmidt/Hamilton Motorsports team have tested extensively over the 2.4 mile, 17-turn true road course in Leeds, Alabama prior to the season's start, concentrating on balance and handling of the new Dallara DW12 race car.
"We worked very hard on our mechanical setup," Pagenaud said of the team's winter testing conducted here. "We go into Barber in high spirits. I'm really looking forward to racing over this course for the second time."
Pagenaud hopes to buck a strong Chevy-powered headwind from Team Penske and others at Barber. Team co-owners Sam Schmidt and Davey Hamilton put together a collaborative effort for this season's competition with Honda power at the rear of the car.
Schmidt/Hamilton hasn't missed a beat on the competitive score with the Japanese maker's engine while other Honda-powered teams have been struggling to maximize results from the new V-6 twin-turbo design.
"I knew my engineers were really strong and were asking all the right questions," Pagenaud said. "In St. Pete we had a really good race car. I'm very optimistic about our chances this weekend too."
So far the combination of team, car and driver seems to be answering all the questions right, as Pagenaud qualified for his first race of the season last week at St Petersburg in an impressive sixth-place position before being penalized for a practice-time engine change that put him on the starting grid in the middle of the pack.
"I was kind of surprised at that right out of the box," Pagenaud said of his performance. "We had a great car, a great race car that was our strength. I think we can keep going in that direction."
Pagenaud found out how competitive the IndyCar Series is from the first lap at St Pete on Sunday as the field dove into the tricky initial turn with the green flag waving and fireworks popping overhead. "That was scary," he said. "I went into the race thinking to go through Turn 1 fine, and then work my way up through the field."
In the end, the ten-place penalty was only a minor setback for Pagenaud.
"We did a fantastic pit stop strategy and the team really got me up there," of his forward progress on a track not known for great opportunities to overtake. "It was pretty amazing. We didn't make any mistakes. We got out of trouble, and with what we had in hand, I think we got the best results we could achieve."
Pagenaud was rewarded with a sixth place finish, the same as where he initially qualified, when his day was done.
When the season is played out and done Pagenaud hopes a parlay of this driving opportunity with the team's experience will allow him to make a run at the IndyCar Series championship.
"I think it's just very good timing for me, and if we keep doing what we are doing at the moment, then why not?" he said of competing for the big silver IndyCar Series champion's trophy. "I think we can definitely fight in the Top 6 this season, and if we are consistent then maybe that would be good enough for a chance at the championship."
Pagenaud currently sits in sixth position in the IndyCar Series championship chase with 28 points from his efforts in St. Pete. "It's going to be a matter of executing every race," he concluded. "We can make it happen."