Sato provides Foyt a home pole for Houston Indy race 1

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After a brutal stretch of races, A.J. Foyt Enterprises has a bit of home luck on what’s been a challenging weekend for the IZOD IndyCar Series.

Takuma Sato scored his third career pole (2 in 2011 with KV Racing Technology) and first for Foyt’s team since 1999 at an Indy Racing League event in Atlanta with driver Billy Boat, in qualifying for the first race of the Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston doubleheader (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

Sato had the advantage of going in the second group – the first was shortened due to an accident by rookie Tristan Vautier – and laid down a flier of 1:00.4535 to capture the spot.

“It’s a great achievement for the team. The team has made huge strides. A.J. had to miss Long Beach where we got the first win. It’s been difficult of late. Team did a tremendous job and I was able to push,” Sato said.

Team director Larry Foyt added, “I think we won ‘happiest team winning a pole award.'”

And from A.J. Foyt: “It’s great to be in your hometown and win the pole, so I’m real happy and real thrilled. Just as long as we finish up first.”

Will Power led the first group, shortened by the incident, and will start second for Race 1.

“We literally had one lap on blacks and one lap on reds,” Power said.

“You’re running to the very left. I think they need to do a bit more grinding honestly. But we can race,” he added, regarding the new surface on the front straight and how to handle the “jump.”

The qualifying for Race 1 shifted from the Firestone Fast Six format to one that mirrored qualifying for Race 2 at the Detroit and Toronto doubleheaders. The field of 24 cars were split into two groups of 12, each getting 12 minutes of track time to set laps.

The rest of the grid was set by group order, with those in Sato’s group to start on the inside and Power’s on the outside.

Scott Dixon will start third in his quest to close the championship gap to Helio Castroneves. Sebastien Bourdais qualified fourth in pursuit of his third straight Houston race win.

Fifth through 10th in qualifying order are Simon Pagenaud, Simona de Silvestro, James Hinchcliffe, Luca Filippi, E.J. Viso and Dario Franchitti. Castroneves starts 22nd after a troubled session.

In Group 1, Vautier walled it exiting the left-handed Turn 10, which cost him his two fastest laps for causing a red flag. His fastest of 1:01.7544 had been second before the incident.

Group 1 ended, as it turned out, with only 5 minutes of green flag time. Group 2 had a full session with no major incidents. Ed Carpenter lost a piece of bodywork but other than that, nothing affected the session.

Bourdais, Franchitti and Rahal have 10-spot grid penalties coming for unapproved engine changes.

Both races will feature a standing start. It has not yet been determined whether races will have single file restarts, but it is under consideration.

IZOD IndyCar Series – Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston Race 1
Unofficial Starting Lineup

Row 1
14-Takuma Sato
12-Will Power

Row 2
9-Scott Dixon
77-Simon Pagenaud

Row 3
78-Simona de Silvestro
27-James Hinchcliffe

Row 4
98-Luca Filippi
5-E.J. Viso

Row 5
16-James Jakes
25-Marco Andretti

Row 6
18-Mike Conway
19-Justin Wilson

Row 7
11-Tony Kanaan
7-Sebastien Bourdais*

Row 8
1-Ryan Hunter-Reay
83-Charlie Kimball

Row 9
67-Josef Newgarden
3-Helio Castroneves

Row 10
6-Sebastian Saavedra
10-Dario Franchitti*

Row 11
4-Oriol Servia
20-Ed Carpenter

Row 12
55-Tristan Vautier (R)
15-Graham Rahal*

*Denotes 10-spot grid penalty for unapproved engine change

‘Game-changing’ multi-year agreement will take INDYCAR, NBC Sports ‘to the next level’

Photo: Chris Estrada, NBC Sports
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NEW YORK – As the fourth Nor’easter in three weeks bore down on the Big Apple, it was tough to spot people that were clearly in a good mood.

But Jon Miller, president of programming for NBC Sports and NBCSN, was clearly in a good mood.

On Wednesday morning at 10 am ET, we all found out why: NBC will become the exclusive home of the IndyCar Series and the Indianapolis 500, starting in 2019.

The new three-year deal not only makes “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” part of the network’s “Championship Season” – its collection of high-profile championship events from May to July – but also reaffirms NBC’s status as the home of motorsports television in the United States.

That status is something Miller doesn’t take for granted.

“It’s important people know that storytelling is in our DNA, and motorsports lends itself very well to storytelling,” Miller said as he, INDYCAR CEO Mark Miles and driver James Hinchcliffe made a snowy trek to the New York Stock Exchange to promote the deal on CNBC’s “Squawk on the Street.”

“We’ve had great success with the second half of the entire NASCAR season, and then we’ve had half of the IndyCar package [since 2009] … But we never had the real meat of the series and that didn’t set anybody up for success.

“Having the entire package of IndyCar now – all 17 races, qualifying, practice, you name it – really sets IndyCar on a strong path and solidifies NBC’s position as the home of motorsports. I think it becomes a property much like the Premier League, the NHL, and even the Olympics and the Triple Crown. We have 100 percent of the media opportunity and we can put all those great assets behind it.”

With the storm no doubt keeping some traders home, the floor of the NYSE was relatively subdued. But that made it no less important to be at the heart of Wall Street. Miles and his team are pursuing a new title sponsor for the IndyCar Series to replace Verizon, which will fully focus its efforts in the series with the powerhouse Team Penske going forward in 2019.

The new deal – which includes 8 races per year on the NBC network (with the remaining races going to NBCSN), live streaming of all races, and a direct-to-consumer package with NBC Sports Gold – gave Miles plenty to push for any potential backers. As for Hinchcliffe, he held his own nicely in an interview that also explored IndyCar’s global ambitions, the impact of technology on the sport, and of course, his spin around the ballroom on “Dancing with the Stars.”

On the ride back to 30 Rock, Miles was confident that NBC can play a big role in attracting a sponsor that can help the series keep growing.

“With respect to our work in finding the best title sponsor, it’s really important – and this has not been talked about much – but we expect to work with hand in glove with NBC’s sales,” he explained. “We have the opportunity to create packages which are both broadcast sponsorship and series sponsorship, I think, in a way that doesn’t come along very often.

“Usually, the media deal and the sponsorship deal doesn’t align like this, so we’re really excited about the offering we’ll have and the approach to the market we can take.”

Should the partnership with NBC bear fruit on that front and others, it will only add to the upswing that the IndyCar Series has had in recent years.

Hinchcliffe has been a witness to that. He entered the series in 2011, when it was trying to find its footing after the sport’s reunification three years earlier. After 13 years of CART vs. the Indy Racing League, getting everything back under one roof was not a smooth process.

But fast-forward seven years, and things have changed for the better. TV ratings and digital viewers have gone up. Race scheduling has become more stable and enhanced with the return of traditional open-wheel markets. And this year’s debut of the universal aero kit aims to pump up the action on the track, while also giving the cars a cleaner, meaner look.

Now, with NBC all in, Hinchcliffe is bullish on his sport’s future.

“This is a game-changing thing for us,” he declared. “If you look at the last four or five years, we’ve seen a steady growth in pretty much every measureable metric that there is – in a time where, globally, motorsports is in a bit of a downturn.

“The fact that IndyCar was able to rally against a global dip in motorsports interest, attendance, sponsorship – it speaks volumes to what we have been doing and this is just gonna take us to that next level.”