As the debris cleared and Simon Pagenaud surveyed both the wreckage and the drivers still in contention in Sunday's IZOD IndyCar Series race at the Grand Prix of Baltimore, a simple thought came to the 29-year-old Frenchman.
"I knew I was on fresher tires than the guys around me, I knew I had a faster car, but we needed to get going," Pagenaud said.
Aware that many of the circuit's biggest names had either left the 2.04 mile track for good or were well back in the pack — from pole sitter Scott Dixon to defending champion Ryan Hunter-Reay to three-time Indianapolis 500 champ Dario Franchitti to points leader Helio Castroneves to 2011 race winner Will Power — Pagenaud said he "ended up pushing as hard as I could."
Passing reigning Indianapolis 500 champion Tony Kanaan after the next-to-last yellow flag was lifted, and doing the same to Marco Andretti after the final restart, Pagenaud's No. 77 Schmidt Hamilton HP Motorports Honda pushed to the front and held off young American Josef Newgarden and fellow Frenchman Sebastien Bourdais to win the crash-filled 75-lap race by a little more than four seconds.
The victory was the second this season for Pagenaud and helped him leap from fifth to third in the points standing behind Castroneves (who finished ninth) and Dixon (whose race ended when he was cut off by archrival Power on the 53nd lap and ran into the wall). Andretti, who held the lead from Lap 57 until the final restart on Lap 69, faded to 10th.
Summing up the race's many collisions and restarts after his best IndyCar Series finish, the 22-year-old Newgarden said, "It was like six races worth of incidents."
Bourdais, whose No. 7 Dragon Racing Chevrolet led from Laps 32 to 57 despite being spun out in one of several crashes on Turn 1, called it "the usual Baltimore chaos, and it was just one restart after another and it was just survival."
Pagenaud said the late yellow flags actually turned out to be a blessing, because they helped him "rest and recover from a long running of the green" and gave his worn-out brakes a chance to cool off as well.
After the final restart, Pagenaud said he thought, "OK, this is my second chance. You never get a second chance in racing, so you've got to grab this one."
But even the last few laps were not without incident, with Pagenaud knocking Bourdais from second after their cars touched twice on one turn.
Asked about whether he thought Pagenaud cut him off toward the end, Bourdais said, "I will let people judge it. I have my own opinion. We're friends, but there are no friends on the track. I learned that the hard way."
Said Pagenaud: "We touched as he was braking. I got sucked into him and the second touch put him out of line. It's not great. I don't want to say that it's racing, that's the way it is.
"It's not great, but in the meantime I'm not going to open the door. I'm going for a race win. I need this for the [overall] championship. I had a good car, and I knew if I could get going I could pull away."
The confrontation between the Frenchmen was only a small part of what Newgarden half-jokingly called "bumper cars."
Just like last week's pit road collision at the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma between Dixon's car and one of Power's crew members — which led to a change in the rules for Baltimore — Sunday's blowup between two of the circuit's top drivers seemed to overshadow Pagenaud's win.
Bourdais, who was leading at the time, said he saw Dixon's car go into the wall "on the one mirror I had left," but he didn't know what was going on behind him. Power, who admitted that his victory last week was "handed" to him after a drive-through penalty was assessed to Dixon, was given the same penalty for his role in Sunday's incident. He would finish 18th, one spot ahead of Dixon.
"I thought I had a really good run on Bourdais and I was going to the inside to get around him and I thought I hit a bump or just lost it on cold tires," Power said. "I really had no idea that Dixon was there. I actually didn't know until I got back to the pits and they told me. I feel terrible for him and his team. All I can do is tell them how sorry I am and move on to Houston [for the next race]."
Dixon said later that "he ran me straight into the wall."
All Bourdais and Newgarden were concerned with was how to catch Pagenaud. While Bourdais' chance might have ended when their cars bumped on Lap 69, Newgarden thought he had an opportunity before his own brakes "at the end went completely away."
The Tennessean finished second, as he did two years ago in the Indy Lights race here.
"I had to back up and slow my pace down by a couple of seconds to recover the brakes, and at that point it was just about keeping Sebastien behind me," Newgarden said. "I knew I couldn't do anything with Simon anymore and it was about salvaging second, which is a shame. I really wanted to race Simon. I don't know what would have happened, but it would have been fun to at least challenge him and go for the win."
Like a tennis player whose side of the draw in a tournament eases as his top rivals are upset, Pagenaud knew that his road to victory was going to be easier as he drove the final few laps. The big names were gone.
"You analyze who your opponent [is]," Pagenaud said. "If it's Marco, I'm going to behave differently than if it's Dario or Helio. You know their attitude and what they're going to do. It's important to analyze that. But today was my chance. I had to go for it. It was a big opportunity today to grab and muscle a little bit."