LONG BEACH, Calif. -- It took just three races run under the Verizon IndyCar Series' new three-steward system for officiating to again become a hot topic.
Simon Pagenaud took a hard-fought victory over defending IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon to earn his first win driving for Team Penske. But the buzz after the race was INDYCAR's decision to issue Pagenaud a simple warning rather than a more severe penalty after the Frenchman blatantly crossed the pit exit blend line following the final round of pit stops.
Pagenaud's corner-cutting pit exit allowed him to hold off Dixon for the lead of the race as the two Chevrolets raced side by side through Turn 1. And once the Penske car was ahead, Dixon's Chip Ganassi Racing machine was unable to get back past.
Up to that point on Lap 54 of 80, it looked like Dixon was on his way to his 40th career Indy car race win, which would have broken a tie with Al Unser for fourth place on the all-time list. Instead, Pagenaud managed to claim his fifth career win.
Dixon ran one lap longer than the others in the first stint and moved from third to second, gaining the position over Pagenaud on the pit stop exchange.
He then initiated the second round of pit stops on Lap 51. Pole winner and early leader Helio Castroneves pitted one lap later, but Dixon's out lap was two seconds faster than the Brazilian's and he was the man who emerged with the position.
Pagenaud in turn stopped on the 54th lap and he completed his stop fast enough to vault in front of Dixon. INDYCAR officials announced that they were studying whether Pagenaud made an illegal exit from the pits by crossing a double yellow line, but after about 10 minutes of discussion, the series issued an "official warning" that was pretty much a slap on the wrist.
ESPN.com requested comment from INDYCAR president of competition and race operations Jay Frye and chief steward Dan Davis, but the series released a statement instead.
"Simon Pagenaud's actions during the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach were deemed an infraction per Rule 220.127.116.11," read the statement. "The penalty for this infraction ranges from a warning (minimum), putting the driver to the back of the field (mid) and drive-through or stop and go/hold (maximum). INDYCAR race stewards determined his actions were not severe enough to warrant a harsher penalty than the warning that was issued."
There was widespread belief up and down the pit lane that Pagenaud should have received a harsher penalty because he placed all four wheels of his car over the double yellow line in question. Subsequent review of replays showed that Castroneves also violated the blend line rule on his final exit from the pits, though no warning was issued.
Castroneves played it coy after the race when asked about how the blend line rule was discussed in the two driver's meetings during the Long Beach weekend.
"I don't want to get into that," said Castroneves, who finished third behind Pagenaud and Dixon. "I actually don't remember what they said."
Dixon and the Ganassi camp certainly remembered, and they were just short of livid -- though a livid Scott Dixon is still remarkably calm and level-headed.
"The team was like, 'Don't push too hard, he's going to get some kind of penalty, at least,'" Dixon told ESPN.com. "They thought he would at least have to give the spot back.
"We've had these altered rules and elimination of warnings and all this jazz and I probably shouldn't say anything else," Dixon said. "Simon did it, but it's not his fault. He's not the one officiating. You can't be angry with him, but personally, I thought we should have won the race."
The IndyCar Series streamlined its rulebook over the offseason, and for the first time publicly issued a series of guidelines for on-track offenses and potential penalties.
In addition, the series rolled out a new three-steward officiating system, including former drivers Arie Luyendyk and Max Papis along with Davis.
The blend line rule indeed stipulates a warning as the minimum penalty, but given how Pagenaud crossed the line with all four wheels in what was clearly an attempt to gain the lead of the race, most observers felt a harsher penalty was merited.
"When you have a rule, you stay with the rule," remarked Stefan Johansson, the former Formula One and Indy car driver who now serves as Dixon's manager. "How can you get a warning if you break the rule? It's been a penalty in every category I've raced in, and all of a sudden it's a warning.
"Let's assume he gained two-tenths [of a second] by making that move," Johansson added. "It was enough for him to get that corner."
And it wasn't just Dixon and his team who were unhappy about the ruling. Several neutral observers were disturbed by the action (or lack thereof) by the stewards.
"It says they can give a warning, but in that situation, it was pretty clear," observed rival team owner Ed Carpenter.
"There's rules, and if you break a rule, you should get penalized," added Andretti Autosport owner Michael Andretti. "He broke a rule, and it was pretty blatant, so it seems. What does a warning do? The rules are that way for a reason, not to be warned."
It's unfortunate that the officiating came to the fore again, because otherwise it was a pretty decent Long Beach Grand Prix. For one thing, the race ran without any full-course cautions, and Dixon and Pagenaud staged an intense two-man battle over the last 25 laps, pulling away from third-place finisher Castroneves by some 10 seconds.
The Frenchman prevailed over a charging Dixon by 0.303 second, scoring his first race win since he triumphed at the defunct Houston Grand Prix in June 2014 while driving for Sam Schmidt Motorsports.
With Pagenaud's contract available, Roger Penske started a fourth Indy car team in 2015, but it took more than a year for the No. 22 team led by Kyle Moyer to find the way to Victory Circle.
"I knew it was coming because we've been so competitive since the beginning of the year," said Pagenaud, who leads the IndyCar championship by 14 points over Dixon. "I knew I could win races. It's not my first win. I've been around. It was just a matter of when, when we were going to put ourselves in that position.
"Another inch to the right exiting the pits would not have changed the outcome of the race."
Chevrolet dominated again, sweeping the top five spots between the Penske and Ganassi teams. But almost everyone left Long Beach feeling that this race result probably should have been Ganassi-Penske rather than Penske-Ganassi.
"INDYCAR clearly didn't say what the penalty was going to be for crossing the blend line, but it certainly shouldn't be that you're still allowed to lead the race," Ganassi managing director Mike Hull said.
"The long and the short of it is that we race at Barber [Motorsports Park] next week," he added. "I treat this as a tear-off; I'm looking forward, not in the rearview mirror. They made the decision they made, we raced accordingly. We finished second today, and in the big picture, that's fantastic."