In Charlotte ahead of Indy 500, drivers talk NASCAR fascination, autograph war, more

Indy 500 qualifier and Team Penske member Simon Pagenaud (left) does a radio show on May 22 at Bernardin's Restaurant in Charlotte.
Indy 500 qualifier and Team Penske member Simon Pagenaud (left) does a radio show on May 22 at Bernardin's Restaurant in Charlotte.

To IndyCar drivers Simon Pagenaud and Josef Newgarden, NASCAR is fascinating.

Pagenaud and Newgarden both race for the Mooresville-based Team Penske, one of the few operations in the country to compete in both NASCAR and IndyCar. But under the Penske roof, there’s zero conflict between the two groups.

“What I kind of learned when I first got into IndyCar was that you had to have a side: 'Well, what do you like? Do you like IndyCar or do you like NASCAR?’” Newgarden said. “You have to choose — I think it's so stupid. I like it all.”

The drivers use their counterparts for information on shared tracks, such as those in Phoenix and Texas. Newgarden said he texts regularly with Penske NASCAR drivers Ryan Blaney and Joey Logano.

“I watch everything,” Newgarden said. “We all do, and I think all of us (in IndyCar) would like to try (NASCAR). And if you look at the NASCAR guys, I think there are a lot of them intrigued by what we do.”

Team Penske’s chemistry was one of many topics the two drivers touched on ahead of Sunday's Indianapolis 500 at 12:15 p.m., where Pagenaud will start second and Newgarden fourth. Here are three other things learned at a Tuesday afternoon lunch at Bernardin’s Restaurant, as a part an Indy 500 media tour:

Danica Patrick’s legacy

After seven years away from IndyCar racing, Patrick will start seventh on Sunday for the final race of her career.

When asked about Patrick’s contributions to racing, and an ESPN story that made an argument for Patrick someday joining the NASCAR Hall of Fame, Pagenaud, the 2016 IndyCar Series Champion, did not hold back on praise.

“I think she's the best female there ever was,” he said. “You've got to give her credit for what she's done … and I think she's transformed her career into a real business. We wish that we could do the same, quite frankly. I think she's done something tremendous.”

Autograph war comes to an end

Pagenaud and Newgarden were involved in an autograph war, but one of them recently accepted defeat.

The back-and-forth joke started when Pagenaud signed Newgarden’s helmet — which he forgot to retrieve from his teammate after a photoshoot — with a Sharpie and tweeted the video. Newgarden fired back with a signature on something of Pagenaud’s, and it quickly turned into the #IndyCarAutographBattle.

In late March, Pagenaud was eating dinner in his living room in Cornelius, when he saw that Newgarden, the 2017 IndyCar Series champion, had tagged him in a video.

“I'm looking at my Twitter, and I get this video — he's outside, signing my house, which is freshly painted white,” Pagenaud said.” And I couldn't be mad, because it was such a good move.”

Newgarden pulled this off so quietly that even Pagenaud’s dog, a Jack Russell Terrier named Norman, didn’t hear him sneaking up. The autograph is still on Pagenaud’s house to this day.

In response, Pagenaud arranged a comeback that involved a favor from the Indianapolis Police Department. As Newgarden was driving in the city, two blacked-out cop cars pulled him over and gave him a ticket for an illegal U-turn.

When Newgarden looked down at the ticket, he saw Pagenaud’s signature. The entire interaction had been filmed on a GoPro camera hidden in Newgarden’s car, too.

“Simon has put in effort like nobody's business,” said Newgarden, who confirmed that he’s accepted defeat. “He's recruited people and talent and teams and law enforcement. I don't have the time or energy to top what he did.”

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Josef Newgarden waits for the start of a practice session for the Indy 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 11. Newgarden will start Sunday's race fourth. Darron Cummings AP Photo

Wine connoisseur

Early in Pagenaud’s career, one of his sponsors gave him a tour of the wine cave under the sponsor's house. From that point forward, Pagenaud was hooked.

He estimates that his house in France, where he grew up, has about 500 bottles in its cellar. Some of his prized possessions are a 1972 white wine, his oldest bottle, and a 30-year-old bottle his best friend gave him for his 30th birthday. He and the 1984 wine are the same age.

“That one,” he said, “I'll never drink.”

Chapel Fowler: 704-358-5612; @chapelfowler