Simon Pagenaud went into last season convinced he was a contender for the IndyCar championship. Then a mechanical problem in the St. Pete season-opener put him deep in the standings and forced the Frenchman to claw his way out all year.
His win at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis last week has Pagenaud in a far better position for a title this year.
Pagenaud rallied from 24th in the standings last year to a career-best third. As he prepares for the May 25 Indianapolis 500, he's third in the standings and hasn't finished outside the top five in the first four races this season.
''He was definitely after it last year, and we started with a mechanical DNF at St. Pete,'' said team owner Sam Schmidt. ''I think we came to Indy (10th) in points, and he made it all the way to third from there. So I think this bodes well for the rest of the season.''
Pagenaud opened the year with consecutive fifth-place finishes, and was fourth at Barber before heading into Indianapolis for May's two races. He felt he could have won at least Long Beach, but didn't get his victory until he stretched his fuel to the finish to win the inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis.
Pagenaud now trails IndyCar points leader Will Power by just six points as they head into the Indy 500. There's a ton of points on the table over the next week as IndyCar will award points for qualifying and double points on race day.
''I think we are a championship contender,'' Pagenaud said. ''It's fair to say that we are where we want to be, fighting for wins. Being consistent in the championship is what gives you championship wins.''
Pagenaud also praised his Schmidt Peterson Motorsports team for putting him in position to race with Andretti Autosport, Chip Ganassi Racing and Team Penske. He was a single-car team in 2012, his first full season in the series, and has a rookie as a teammate for the second consecutive year. Joining Pagenaud in the lineup this season is Mikhail Aleshin, the first Russian driver in series history.
''What the team does really well is, the people working on the team are very dedicated and very smart,'' Pagenaud said. ''We obviously don't have the high resources of Ganassi and Andretti and Penske, but we're a very good group of people that have really open communication.''
SWAPPING SEATS: Turner Scott Motorsports has confirmed that Kyle Larson will not run the full Nationwide Series schedule this season, and will only run companion events with the Sprint Cup Series.
To fill the No. 42 Chevrolet at stand-alone Nationwide races, Turner will use Dylan Kwasniewski, beginning Sunday at Iowa Speedway.
Kwasniewski is a Nationwide rookie for Turner in the No. 31 Chevrolet. He will stay in that car for companion races, but will replace Larson when he's not competing. The team said Chase Pistone will replace Kwasniewski in the stand-alones.
Iowa will be Pistone's second career Nationwide start. His first was in 2006 at Martinsville.
''Turner Scott Motorsports is dedicated to bringing new talent into the series,'' said team co-owner Harry Scott Jr. ''Dylan Kwasniewski is a great example of this, and we're excited to have him in the No. 42 car while Kyle Larson fulfills his Sprint Cup Series obligations. Chase Pistone is yet another young driver that we're proud to have represent our organization.''
Pistone has two career Truck Series starts, one in 2005 and a 13th-place finish at Martinsville earlier this year.
AUTOGRAPH SESSION: Fans at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Friday night can meet the 15 drivers already locked into the $1 million Sprint All-Star Race during an autograph session in the Charlotte Motor Speedway Fan Zone.
The drivers participating are: Greg Biffle, Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Denny Hamlin, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne, Matt Kenseth, Joey Logano, Jamie McMurray, Ryan Newman, David Ragan, Tony Stewart, Martin Truex Jr. and Brian Vickers.
To take part in the autograph session, fans must acquire a wristband by participating in an activity at The Sprint Experience between noon and 3 p.m. on Friday. Wristbands will be limited to 100 per driver pairing. One wristband will be distributed per fan, and the 1-hour autograph session begins at 4 p.m.
HE SAID IT: ''I've been working my bladder out. Trying to increase the size,'' said Kyle Larson of preparing for the Coca-Cola 600, the longest race of NASCAR's season. Larson claims unlike many drivers, he's never had to relieve himself in a firesuit and doesn't plan to break that streak in the 600-mile race on May 25. ''I've been working on holding it and not going to the bathroom for several hours. I'm trying to build up my stamina.''