Photos courtesy NHRA

2016 NHRA season in review: Those that fell short

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MotorSportsTalk continues its season-ending reviews of the top drivers of the 2016 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season.

From Dec. 12 through Jan. 2, we’ll feature one daily in-depth review of a driver that finished in the top-five in each of the four professional classes (Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle), as well as a compendium of select other drivers that did not finish in the top-five.

Select drivers that fell short in 2016 in Top Fuel include:

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Brittany Force: 30 years old, John Force Racing, Monster Energy Top Fuel Dragster, crew chief Brian Husen (with special consultant Alan Johnson).

2016 season finish: Sixth in Top Fuel.

2016 season statistics: 24 races, 3 wins, 2 runner-up, 2 semifinals, 12 quarterfinals. No. 1 qualifier 2 times. Round-by-round record: 33 wins, 21 losses.

What happened in 2016: Brittany earned the first three wins of her Top Fuel career, but her undoing was in the six-race Countdown to the Championship, with one first-round loss and four quarterfinal exits.

What to expect in 2017: Force has to become stronger in first-round matches (she lost 12 times in 2016’s 24 races). At the same time, the confidence this past season she gained should pay even greater dividends next season. It would not be a surprise if she challenges for the championship.

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2016_Leah_Pritchett headshot

Leah Pritchett: 28 years old, Don Schumacher Racing (DSR), Papa John’s Dragster, crew chief Mike Guger.

2016 season finish: Seventh in Top Fuel.

2016 season statistics: 23 races, 1 win, 0 runner-up, 4 semifinals, 7 quarterfinals. No. 1 qualifier 1 time. Round-by-round record: 19 wins, 22 losses.

What happened in 2016: Pritchett had both success (win at Phoenix) and adversity (lost her ride when team folded in April). Still, she showed resilience both on and off the racetrack and finished higher than some may have picked her to do.

What to expect in 2017: Pritchett, who is quickly becoming a fan favorite, has found a home at DSR. She has the resources and talent to have a breakthrough season in 2017.

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Tony Schumacher: 47 years old, Don Schumacher Racing (DSR), U.S. Army Dragster, crew chief Mike Green.

2016 season finish: Eighth in Top Fuel.

2016 season statistics: 24 races, 2 wins, 3 runner-up, 3 semifinals, 11 quarterfinals. No. 1 qualifier 1 time. Round-by-round record: 34 wins, 22 losses.

What happened in 2016: It was not a typical year for the winningest driver in Top Fuel history (8 championships, 82 wins). Schumacher struggled far too much, including 11 quarterfinal exits. Two first-round losses in the Countdown all but sealed his championship hopes.

What to expect in 2017: Schumacher has watched teammate Antron Brown win the last two and three of the last five Top Fuel titles. An argument can be made that Brown has overtaken Schumacher as the most dominant driver in Top Fuel today. Schumacher has everything he needs to win more races and championships, but he has to improve his consistency and go more rounds in 2017 than he did in 2016.

Select drivers that fell short in 2016 in Funny Car include:

2016_Courtney_ForceCourtney Force: 28 years old, John Force Racing, Traxxas Camaro SS, co-crew chiefs Dan Hood, Ronnie Thompson.

2016 season finish: Sixth in Funny Car.

2016 season statistics: 24 races, 1 win, 3 runner-up, 6 semifinals, 10 quarterfinals. No. 1 qualifier 1 time. Round-by-round record: 35 wins, 23 losses.

What happened in 2016: Courtney had an excellent first two-thirds of the season, including leading the Funny Car points for several weeks. Unfortunately, Force’s season fell apart in the six-race Countdown to the Championship playoff, suffering two first round and two second round losses in the first four races. She bounced back to lose to her father at Las Vegas, but it was too little, too late.

What to expect in 2017: Force has to gain better consistency – she had 14 early exits in either the first round (4) or quarterfinals (10) in 2016 – more than half the 24-race season. She missed the Countdown entirely in 2015 and second-half season struggles in 2016 were an issue. A new sponsor (Advance Auto Parts) may help with better resources.

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2016_Del_Worsham headshotDel Worsham: 46 years old, Kalitta Motorsports, DHL Toyota Funny Car, co-crew chief Jon Oberhofer and Nicky Boninfante.

2016 season finish: Seventh in Funny Car.

2016 season statistics: 24 races, 1 win, 4 runner-up, 6 semifinals, 8 quarterfinals. No. 1 qualifier 3 times. Round-by-round record: 36 wins, 23 losses.

What happened in 2016: Try as he may, Worsham could not repeat his Funny Car championship from 2015. Two stretches stand out: In the six races from Gainesville through Topeka, he suffered one first-round loss and four second-round defeats. Also, during the six-race Countdown to the Championship playoff, two first-round and two other second-round losses did him in, dropping him from second after Charlotte 2 to seventh after the season finale at Pomona.

What to expect in 2017: Worsham surprised the sport when he announced a few weeks ago that he was leaving Kalitta Motorsports and returning to his family’s Funny Car team for 2017, with father Chuck Worsham serving as crew chief. Del will be replaced in the DHL Toyota Funny Car in 2017 by J.R. Todd.

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2016_robert_hightRobert Hight: 47 years old, (president of) John Force Racing, Auto Club Chevy Camaro SS, crew chief Mike Neff.

2016 season finish: Eighth in Funny Car.

2016 season statistics: 24 races, 1 win, 0 runner-up, 6 semifinals, 11 quarterfinals. No. 1 qualifier 2 times. Round-by-round record: 27 wins, 23 losses.

What happened in 2016: Much like teammates John and Courtney Force, Hight struggled in early rounds. Of the 24 races in the season, Hight exited 17 times in early rounds: six times in the first round and 11 times in the second round/quarterfinals. While he qualified for the six-race Countdown to the Championship, he failed to get past the second round in five of those races.

What to expect in 2017: Since capturing his first and only NHRA Funny Car championship in 2009, one of Hight’s biggest goals has been to win a second title. There will be several personnel changes within John Force Racing for 2017 and some of that change is bound to trickle down to Hight’s team. Change could be good and may be the thing Hight needs to return to championship contention.

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2016_alexis_dejoriaAlexis DeJoria: 39 years old, Kalitta Motorsports, Tequila Patron Toyota Camry Funny Car, crew chief Tommy DeLago.

2016 season finish: 10th in Funny Car.

2016 season statistics: 21 races, 1 win, 0 runner-up, 1 semifinal, 7 quarterfinals. No. 1 qualifier 1 time. Round-by-round record: 13 wins, 20 losses.

What happened in 2016: DeJoria got off to a strong start with a win in the fourth race (Las Vegas 1). But from that point on, she struggled far too much, including 12 first round losses in 21 starts. She missed two races (Seattle and Brainerd) after sustaining a broken pelvis in a violent wreck at Sonoma, the worst wreck of her career. She also sat out the season-ending race with a concussion.

What to expect in 2017: Coming into the 2016 season, DeJoria was very optimistic that she could contend for the championship – until fate intervened. But DeJoria is one of the toughest competitors in Funny Car – and she’ll likely use 2016’s disappointments as incentive and motivation to mount a championship bid in 2017. She’ll have nearly three months to get healthy and could very well be a walking, talking example of the old saying, “What doesn’t hurt me only makes me stronger.”

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2016_cruz_pedregonCruz Pedregon: 53 years old, Cruz Pedregon Racing, Snap-on Tools Toyota Camry Funny Car, crew chief Cruz Pedregon.

2016 season finish: 12th in Funny Car.

2016 season statistics: 23 (plus one DNQ) races, 0 win, 1 runner-up, 0 semifinals, 4 quarterfinals. No. 1 qualifier 0 times. Round-by-round record: 6 wins, 23 losses.

What happened in 2016: The former two-time NHRA Funny Car champion (1992, 2008) went through the most trying and difficult season of his lengthy career. Of the 23 races he qualified for in the 24-race national event schedule, he got past the first round just five times. He failed to make the six-race Countdown to the Championship playoff for the first time ever. His most difficult time was failing to qualify for the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis, the biggest race of the season and one Pedregon has won three times in his career.

What to expect in 2017: Things can’t get much worse than they did in 2016, so it’s hoped that the only way for Pedregon to go in 2017 is up. What fans saw in 2016 was definitely an aberration. Pedregon hasn’t won a race since 2014; he’s long overdue to visit the winner’s circle. Don’t be surprised if the extensive off-season work he’s been doing on his car pays quick dividends in the first few races of the season. More than anything, he needs to show his fans and fellow competitors that he still has a lot of success left in him. He has to go for the jugular right from the start and not let go until the season is over.

Some of the more notable drivers that fell short in 2016 in Pro Stock include:

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Allen Johnson: 57 years old, Allen Johnson Racing, Marathon Petroleum Dodge Dart, crew chief Adam Hornberger.

2016 season finish: Eighth in Pro Stock.

2016 season statistics: 24 races, 1 win, 2 runner-up, 4 semifinals, 10 quarterfinals. No. 1 qualifier 0 times. Round-by-round record: 28 wins, 23 losses.

What happened in 2016: Johnson has long been a Mopar driver, including being earning a Pro Stock championship in 2012 and finished third in 2015. But with NHRA mandating a switch in Pro Stock in 2016 to Electronic Fuel Injection (EFI) and doing away with monster hood scoops, Mopar/Dodge cars struggled. Johnson was the highest finishing (eighth) of the three full-time Mopar/Dodge-powered drivers this past season, finishing just ahead of two-time champion Erica Enders (ninth) and five-time Pro Stock champ Jeg Coughlin (10th). The biggest problem for Johnson came in the six-race Countdown to the Championship playoff, when he suffered five first round defeats and a quarter final round loss. Other than his fourth career win and 10th overall final round appearance at Denver in the Mopar-sponsored race, and runner-up finishes at Epping and Indianapolis, it was difficult for him to gain on some of the higher-performing, Chevrolet-powered Pro Stock rivals.

What to expect in 2017: With Enders and Coughlin returning to Chevrolet motors, Johnson is expected to be the only full-time Pro Stock driver to carry Mopar/Dodge power in 2017. While it may be difficult not having any other Mopar/Dodge drivers to share information with, there’s also the possibility that Johnson may have learned so much in 2016 that he could be a big surprise in 2017 – if he can find the horsepower that was lacking last season. And given how much of a veteran Pro Stock racer Johnson is (he’s made 480 career starts), if anyone can find that elusive power, he can.

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Erica Enders: 33 years old, Elite Motorsports, Elite Motorsports Dodge Dart (Chevrolet in 2017), co-crew chiefs Rick Jones, Rickie Jones.

2016 season finish: Ninth in Pro Stock.

2016 season statistics: 24 races (including one DNQ), 0 wins, 0 runner-up, 3 semifinals, 6 quarterfinals. No. 1 qualifier 0 times. Round-by-round record: 12 wins, 23 losses.

What happened in 2016: After winning back-to-back championships in 2014 and 2015 – and a total of 15 wins in those two seasons – Enders suffered her worst season ever in Pro Stock in 2016, not even making it to one final round and just three semifinal showings. She suffered 14 first-round losses in the 24-race season, including 10 in the first 15 races. Her worst showing was failing to qualify in the opening race of the Countdown to the Championship playoff (at Charlotte).

What to expect in 2017: Enders and teammate Jeg Coughlin will return to Chevrolet motors after just one season with Mopar/Dodge. If her luck is anything like 2014 and 2015, she should be right back in the thick of the championship battle. One other thing to note: co-crew chief Rickie Jones has left the team, but father Rick Jones will assume all crew chief duties.

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Jeg Coughlin: 46 years old, Elite Motorsports, Magneti Marelli Dodge Dart (Chevrolet in 2017), co-crew chiefs Rick Jones, Rickie Jones, Mark Ingersoll, Brian Self.

2016 season finish: 10th in Pro Stock.

2016 season statistics: 24 races, 0 wins, 0 runner-up, 1 semifinals, 8 quarterfinals. No. 1 qualifier 0 times. Round-by-round record: 10 wins, 24 losses.

What happened in 2016: Returned to full-time competition in Pro Stock for the first time since 2014, only to suffer one of the worst seasons of his career, failing to even reach one final round all season. Coughlin’s biggest problem was 15 first-round losses, including five in the six-race Countdown to the Championship events.

What to expect in 2017: Look for a big rebound by the five-time Pro Stock champ as his team returns to Chevrolet power. As dominating as Pro Stock champ Jason Line and teammate Greg Anderson were in 2016, Coughlin and teammate Erica Enders could be equally as dominant in 2017. This could be one of the best season-long battles between two teams that Pro Stock has seen in years. And don’t forget to watch out for some of the young up-and-comers like Bo Butner, Drew Skillman, Chris McGaha and Vincent Nobile.

Select riders that fell short in 2016 in Pro Stock Motorcycle include:

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Matt Smith: 44 years old, Smith Racing, Victory Motorcycles, crew chief Matt Smith.

2016 season finish: Sixth in Pro Stock Motorcycle.

2016 season statistics: 16 races (2 DNQ), 1 win, 0 runner-up, 2 semifinals, 7 quarterfinals. No. 1 qualifier 1 time. Round-by-round record: 15 wins, 13 losses.

What happened in 2016: The two-time Pro Stock Motorcycle champ (2007, 2013) earned his first win since 2013 and (18th of his career) in the season-ending race at Pomona, California. It was Smith’s only final round appearance of the season (he also had two semifinal finishes). … Smith failed to get past the quarterfinal round seven times, and had four first-round exits, as well. … He also failed to qualify for two races: the season-opener at Gainesville and also at Englishtown.

What to expect in 2017: Winning the final race of 2016 should give Smith some momentum heading into 2017. But equally important, he has to perform better early in the season, as opposed to the two DNQs he racked up in the first four races of 2016. … Smith has good power with his Victory motorcycle, but he’ll continue to be challenged by the Suzuki of defending champ Jerry Savoie and the Harley Davidson’s of five-time champ Andrew Hines and three-time champ Eddie Krawiec.

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LE Tonglet IV: 27 years old, Tonglet Racing, NitroFish Suzuki GSX-R, co-crew chiefs Gary Tonglet, GT Tonglet.

2016 season finish: Seventh in Pro Stock Motorcycle.

2016 season statistics: 16 races, 1 win, 0 runner-up, 5 semifinals, 4 quarterfinals. No. 1 qualifier 0 times. Round-by-round record: 18 wins, 15 losses.

What happened in 2016: The 2010 Pro Stock Motorcycle champion earned his first victory since he won four races in 2011. … Qualified for the six-race Countdown to the Championship and earned two semifinal, two quarterfinal and two first-round appearances.

What to expect in 2017: Tonglet needs to improve his overall consistency and performance if he wants to make a concerted effort for a second PSM championship. He’ll get a big boost toward that goal as he will spend the season as teammates with 2016 PSM champion and fellow Louisiana native Jerry Savoie.

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Hector Arana Jr.: 27 years old, Arana Racing, Lucas Oil Buell, crew chief Hector Arana Sr.

2016 season finish: Eighth in Pro Stock Motorcycle.

2016 season statistics: 16 races, 0 wins, 1 runner-up, 3 semifinals, 8 quarterfinals. No. 1 qualifier 0 times. Round-by-round record: 12 wins, 15 losses.

What happened in 2016: It was a season-long struggle for Arana. He failed to win even one race for the first time since 2012, and managed to reach a final round just once (U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis). While he qualified for the six-race Countdown to the Championship, he failed to get past the second round three times and made first-round exits in two other events (he reached the semifinals in the season-ending race at Pomona, California).

What to expect in 2017: Arana has the talent, genes (father and fellow PSM rider Hector Sr.) and experience to be a champion. From his rookie season in 2011 through 2015, he’s finished second, fourth, fourth, third and fifth. Obviously, 2016 was an off-year, as he recorded his worst season finish of his PSM career. One thing that has marked Arana Jr. during his career is when he suffers adversity or defeat, he finds a way to bounce back. Don’t be surprised if he does just that in 2017 and gives riders like Jerry Savoie, Andrew Hines and Eddie Krawiec a strong challenge for the title.

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Sato sixth different winner to start 2017, a first in 17 years

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INDIANAPOLIS – Takuma Sato’s win in Sunday’s 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil was a surprise but popular victory. It was also a statistically significant one.

With the win, Sato is the sixth different winner in as many races to kick off the Verizon IndyCar Series season, which is something that hasn’t happened in North American top-level open-wheel racing since the year 2000.

He joins Sebastien Bourdais, James Hinchcliffe, Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud and Will Power as the first six race winners of the year.

In 2000, both the CART FedEx Championship Series and Indy Racing League went the first seven races into that season with as many winners, before a repeat winner happened.

And in both cases, the driver who won their second race of the year went onto win the championship.

Here’s the recaps:

  • 2000, CART: Max Papis (Miami), Paul Tracy (Long Beach), Adrian Fernandez (Rio, Brazil), Michael Andretti (Motegi, Japan), Gil de Ferran (Nazareth), Juan Pablo Montoya (Milwaukee), Helio Castroneves (Detroit) made it seven-for-seven, with Papis and Castroneves winning their first career races (Castroneves’ win happened June 18, 2000). De Ferran won Round 8 at Portland on June 25 to become the first repeat winner. Roberto Moreno, Cristiano da Matta, Jimmy Vasser and Christian Fittipaldi also won that year to make 11 race winners. Nearly 10 drivers were in title contention down to the final two races of the year, before de Ferran edged Fernandez, Moreno and Brack for his first title.
  • 2000, IRL: Robbie Buhl (Walt Disney World), Buddy Lazier (Phoenix), Al Unser Jr. (Las Vegas), Montoya (Indianapolis 500), Scott Sharp (Texas), Eddie Cheever Jr. (Pikes Peak), Greg Ray (Atlanta) made that seven-for-seven (Ray’s Atlanta win occurred July 15, 2000). Lazier won Round 8 at Kentucky on August 27 to become the first repeat winner. As Scott Goodyear won the season finale, it made it eight winners in nine races for the year.

In the 16 intervening years since, at least one driver has won two races within the first five or six races.

In recent years, only three times have there been five winners in five races, with the streak of first-race winners coming to an end in Round 6.

Had Dixon not beat Montoya on a tiebreak to the 2015 title, that streak of the driver being the first to win his second race also winning the title would have held true here.

  • 2015: 5 (Montoya, James Hinchcliffe, Dixon, Josef Newgarden, Will Power), with Montoya the first repeat winner at Round 6, the Indy 500.
  • 2008: 5 (Dixon, Graham Rahal, Danica Patrick, Power, Dan Wheldon), with Dixon the first repeat winner at Round 6, the Indy 500.
  • 2003: 5 (Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Scott Sharp, de Ferran, Unser Jr.), with Dixon the first repeat winner at Round 6, Pikes Peak.

With 11 races to go, and with only five more winners needed to match, IndyCar can start to think about tying or eclipsing its all-time mark of 11 different winners in a season (which happened back-to-back in those 2000 and 2001 CART seasons).

Rounds 7 and 8 occur at Detroit this weekend for the 2017 IndyCar season. If one of the five drivers who will be entered (assuming Dixon will be good to go; Bourdais is out) can win his second race this season, look for that to make a big impact on the championship as the year goes on.

DiZinno: Sato wins an Indy 500 for Japan, tenacity, and the ‘nice guy’

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INDIANAPOLIS – Between winning with a team that’s quickly becoming one of the all-time greats at Indianapolis, fulfilling the hopes and dreams of a nation and writing his own personal redemption story, Takuma Sato entered into history on Sunday as one of the Indianapolis 500’s nicest, most tenacious and popular victors.

Sato tactfully, carefully flew under-the-radar all month as the perceived “fourth” of four Andretti Autosport full-season entries in the No. 26 Ruoff Home Mortgage Honda, even lower once you added in the star power of the McLaren, Honda and Andretti entry for two-time Formula 1 World Champion Fernando Alonso in the same team.

And he flew under-the-radar within Honda’s 18-car entry into the race, yet as a driver who’s been supported by them his entire career in both Formula 1 and IndyCar since 2002.

ON-TRACK SUCCESS THIS MONTH

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MAY 28:  Fernando Alonso of Spain, driver of the #29 McLaren-Honda-Andretti Honda, waves during driver introductions alongside Takuma Sato of Japan, driver of the #26 Andretti Autosport Honda, ahead of the 101st running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Moto Speedway on May 28, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images).

After a month where Sato was a top-five or top-10 regular, the 40-year-old raised some eyebrows and some volume in the media center when he almost crashed twice on his Sunday qualifying run with a short track, dirt track-esque “slide job” off Turn 2. It was a sign of greater things to come.

Then in the race, the patient, calmer Sato that’s been present more often in 2017 through the first five races bided his time until it was “go time” in the final stint of the race, and the “no attack, no chance” style that has defined Sato’s career on the whole came back in the best way possible, as he beat Helio Castroneves in a straight fight for the victory.

“The entire month with my teammates saw us working extremely seamlessly well through the practice day, fantastic qualifying, and to a very strong start,” Sato said Sunday, praising his teammates. “At one stage I lost momentum, and it goes down to like P10. But I just get down in my job, believe in the car, and push in the pit stops.

“When the opportunity comes, I have to give 100 percent commitment. I knew I could do it. But just, you know, waiting for that moment. The last few laps, they were the moment.”

In tandem with engineer Garrett Mothershead, who he’d worked with previously at KV, Sato was determined to start higher so he wouldn’t need to fight through the field too much on race day. Sato has traditionally started 10th or worse at Indianapolis and until Sunday, hadn’t finished higher than 13th, which he did on two occasions.

Mothershead’s voice was struggling to be much above a whisper on Monday and for good reason – he’d almost lost it Sunday screaming after finally securing his own first ‘500 win after coming up short with Carlos Munoz last year.

“My voice is shot, which is the result of an urge to uncontrollably go, ‘woo!’ he laughed on Monday morning.

“Takuma knows so much more now. Back then (at KV) he was a rookie and he didn’t know the tracks or the style of racing.

“For us, winning three of four as a team is incredible and a testament to our organization and preparation. But breaking through here as a winner is special!”

From fourth on the grid, Sato delivered what was frequently a calmer drive, until he needed to unleash his inner beast.

Sato dropped to seventh from fourth on Lap 1 but stayed in the top 10 from there, entering the lead for the first time on Lap 65 passing Rossi before a caution flew for Conor Daly’s accident in Turn 3.

It took until Lap 84, a restart after the third caution of the race, for Sato to drop from the top-10 for the first time. Sato fell as low as 17th in this stint but was back to 10th by Lap 105.

On the pivotal caution that occurred when Charlie Kimball’s engine failed, Sato joined most of the field in making their final stops. He came out in fifth place overall, third among those that pitted, which set the stage for his amazing final 30 laps.

A two-in-one outside pass of Castroneves and Ed Jones into Turn 1 on Lap 179, a lap before Alonso’s engine blew, was the typical “DID YOU SEE THAT?!?” moment of brilliance we’ve come to expect from Sato over the years. The caution that followed almost meant Sato was in the catbird’s seat, sitting ahead of Castroneves and only with Max Chilton – untested in that situation – to get around.

“When he went into Turn 1, I just sort of close my eyes half the time,” his strategist, Paul “Ziggy” Harcus, joked. “I’m afraid. I keep thinking, ‘Are we going to make it?’ But it’s great driving. I think he did a great job today of keeping his head about him and racing up the front.”

Sato’s new team boss, Michael Andretti, also was left in awe as Sato completed the pass.

“There was one move where he passed two cars on the outside in one, which was a very important move, because that gave him the track position of the top two guys in front of him,” Andretti said. “That was one of the moves of the race, in my opinion. When I saw that, I’m like, ‘Whoa, I think we’re going to win this thing.’ He didn’t let us down. He drove very, very well.”

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MAY 28: Takuma Sato of Japan, driver of the #26 Andretti Autosport Honda, races ahead of Helio Castroneves of Brazil, driver of the #3 Shell Fuel Rewards Team Penske Chevrolet, on his way toward winning the 101st running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 28, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Sato was briefly eclipsed by Castroneves for position, but wasn’t going to let this opportunity slip away. He got back by on the outside of Turn 1 on Lap 195 in the ultimate winning move of the race. And with enough of a power advantage from there, Castroneves wasn’t able to come back to him.

“I know Helio is always come on charge. But he’s just such a gentleman with such a fair player. I believe him. We go side-by-side turn one… It was job done,” Sato said.

A POPULAR WIN FOR THE PADDOCK

The win stirred the soul for many in the IndyCar paddock, happy for one of the series’ most genuine and nicest guys, if one whose undoubted speed and promise in eight years and more than 100 starts has been consistently blighted by inconsistency. His only other win came with A.J. Foyt Racing at Long Beach in 2013, that in itself snapping an 11-year drought for Foyt since its last win in 2002.

Members from Sato’s old team visited him in victory lane – Foyt included – to wish him congratulations on the win.

His teammates were happy that he brought Michael Andretti his fifth win in the race, which now moves him ahead of Chip Ganassi (four) for second among active owners, trailing only Roger Penske’s seemingly unassailable 16. It didn’t fully alleviate the pain of Alonso and Ryan Hunter-Reay’s engine failures, nor Alexander Rossi’s fueling issue, but it helped.

“That’s why we had six bullets in the gun, right? Luckily one came through,” Andretti said.

Honda was particularly pleased. A driver that has been in their camp nearly two decades delivered the win for both cultures, the Honda of Japan and Honda of America (via Honda Performance Development), and atoned for a day when reliability woes were set to define its story.

“The one thing is one goal for the winning. It’s the Honda DNA, and that comes from, of course, Mr. Soichiro Honda, and that’s the way Honda Japan, American Honda, it really doesn’t matter,” Sato explained.

“Honda wanted to push absolute on the limit. I can see both ways very, very similar, not only for the Honda globally, but very specifically like HPD here, it is the same philosophy. As Honda, it is just one aim: it is winning, so I can see both ways.”

In talking to senior HPD officials Monday morning, it was strongly hinted that Honda determined to run its engines at max capacity, reducing rumors they’d plan to “turn the engines down” in order to save the reliability.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MAY 27: Dario Franchitti (L) of Scotland, driver of the #50 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Honda, races against Takuma Sato of Japan, driver of the #15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda, races during the IZOD IndyCar Series 96th running of the Indianpolis 500 mile race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 27, 2012 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)

The win, of course, provided the redemption tale for Sato’s famous – or infamous – 2012 near-miss. That final lap lunge attempting to pass Dario Franchitti – Franchitti having delivered a bit of gamesmanship to leave just enough of a lane to coax Sato into going for it and making a mistake – stood in mind heading into this year’s race, as this year was always going to mark Sato’s best chance to win since. He reflected on that in a piece for Motorsport.com earlier this month, and then said it’s ancient history on Sunday afternoon.

“I do feel after 2012 I really needed to correct something I left over. Today I was so happy that I made it and won in a good move. I have to thank to Michael for that,” he said.

WHAT THIS MEANT FOR JAPAN

What was the happiest of takeaways for this happy driver – who didn’t look tired despite less than three hours of sleep and more than 30 interviews in the wake of winning Sunday afternoon through to his Monday morning media availability after two hours of photo taking – was what this win meant to his country, and his countrymen.

There’s a small but dedicated contingent of Japanese reporters and photographers who cover the full IndyCar series and make frequent commutes back and forth to Japan along the way. They’re the voices and people that tell Sato’s story to that nation, one which was rocked by the 2011 tsunami and earthquake and one where Sato, via the “With You Japan” campaign, has been an active philanthropist.

Seeing their excitement as well as listening to the excitement of the Japanese TV feed was a sign of pure joy, and one Sato expanded upon in both his Sunday and Monday press conferences.

“There was a Japan program really started in 2011, immediately after the earthquake happened, and all the intention was helping the children from the devastated area,” Sato explained. “It’s a difficult life for them, lost friends and family, and lost home. As I repeat, 250,000 people still living in temporary houses today, so it’s suffering a lot. It is on the recovery, but it’s a long way.

“So I couldn’t put a big donation, but I can bring some energy through the motor racing, so always I invite 100, 150 kids from the devastated area, and we do a go-karting event in the last few years, and that’s spreading all over Japan now, and there is a few places to help, and we did some tournament system, and then end of the year last year in Suzuka, we had a great race, so it’s combined all Japan as well as devastated areas.

“It’s been — it’s great. I think it’s great support, everyone, and as long as I could do, I wanted to keep supporting the children until they become adults, and hopefully one of them becomes a professional race driver.”

Sato might be 40 years old now, but he doesn’t look the part, and now revitalized, the next step from here is taking the success he’s achieved at Indianapolis and translating in for the rest of the season. He now sits tied for second in points with the last two series champions, Simon Pagenaud and Scott Dixon, 11 back of Castroneves (245-234).

“Age is something for the athlete. Age 40 is something you have to consider how you going to perform well. I think we proved Helio still up there, me up there, T.K. (Tony Kanaan) up there. We train really hard to maintain it,” Sato said.

“There’s always just heart and the mental, the mental strength. You can keep on going. Someday I will have to retire, but now, I have a more competitive race I want to do.

“Yeah, it’s such a privilege to win here. So whether it was the first attempt or eighth attempt or you had a drama in the past, it doesn’t really matter. You winning today. It’s just superb. Just coming onto the top, nothing else.

“I’m so looking forward, particularly now, in championship standings, my standing is very high now, and certainly it is the real challenge for the championship. That’s the most exciting thing for my life right now. Let’s try and give it everything.”

And he’ll do so while smiling.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MAY 28: Takuma Sato of Japan, driver of the #26 Andretti Autosport Honda, celebrates after winning the 101st Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 28, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Harding Racing shines among new teams at Indy 500

Photo: IndyCar
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A trio of new teams (Harding Racing, Juncos Racing, and Michael Shank Racing, in a joint effort with Andretti Autosport) debuted at the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil. Expectations for such outfits are usually humble and rarely do outsiders, or even insiders, predict such efforts to run up front.

And yet, at the checkered flag, one of those teams emerged in ninth place, a top-10 finish in its IndyCar debut.

Harding Racing’s No. 88 Chevrolet, in the hands of Gabby Chaves, had never run a race before, let alone an IndyCar race, and let alone an Indianapolis 500. However, they survived the carnage and chaos that defined the day to finish in the top-10, dramatically exceeding expectations.

Chaves was competing in his third “500,” two years after winning rookie-of-the-year honors with a 16th place for Bryan Herta Autosport. He labeled this race as mission: accomplished.

“I think we did our job. We took the race one lap at a time. We let the track and the conditions come to us and we dialed in the No. 88 Harding Racing Chevrolet car every stop,” Chaves said. “We had a heck of a stint there. I think we were one of the only cars being able to make moves out there and got into a solid top ten for our first go as a team.”

Fellow debutante Juncos Racing, too, excelled in their own right. While their runs to 15th (Sebastian Saavedra) and 18th (Spencer Pigot) were unspectacular, the reality is that both cars made it to the finish, with Saavedra finishing on the lead lap, a noteworthy performance for a team making its first IndyCar start.

Sebastian Saavedra brought home a lead lap finish for Indy 500 debutantes Juncos Racing. Photo: IndyCar

Saavedra, like Chaves, said the team accomplished everything it wanted to. “We accomplished the mission we started less than two months ago,” he asserted. “To finish this first Indy 500 with both cars intact is a victory of its own. I’m very proud of the whole organization for putting in such a professional effort. It was rough out there. We were not as competitive as we wanted, but hey, that’s something that is expected your first time out.”

Teammate Spencer Pigot endured a more difficult race in his No. 11 Chevrolet, which the team scrambled to repair ahead of qualifying after a practice crash. As Pigot described, something was still off with the car (he was nearly lapped at the end of the opening stint) and he and the team were fighting it the entire day.

“I think there’s still something I’m missing or something’s gone away with the car since the (practice) crash. It never really felt right and it was just very difficult to drive, but we fought through a tough day. We didn’t give up. The guys kept working hard and I can’t thank them enough for the recovery and for putting this all together,” Pigot detailed.

Michael Shank Racing, the third team making its Verizon IndyCar Series debut, endured the most challenging race of the three new teams. For them, it was a race that concluded a difficult month riddled with problems, which began with a foreboding and bizarre steering failure that resulted in wall contact during opening day practice for driver Jack Harvey.

Harvey and Michael Shank’s No. 50 Honda team were enjoying a solid race until Conor Daly’s lap 65 crash in Turn 3. Harvey hit debris from the accident and spun into the inside wall between Turns 3 and 4. It ended a difficult month for a driver and team who truly made a herculean effort to field an entry.

Jack Harvey and Michael Shank Racing endured a month filled with challenges. Photo: IndyCar

“It’s a super disappointing day because we worked so hard to get here so to have the day end like this is heartbreaking,” Harvey lamented afterward. “Everyone is trying to slow down so quickly and trying to then dodge the debris. I was slowing down and trying to avoid everything so I don’t know what else I could have done at that point.”

Still, Harvey was enthusiastic to simply have a chance to compete. “This was still the best experience I’ve ever had,” he asserted. “The Indianapolis 500 represents so much in the state of Indiana and to the racing world, but it just didn’t go the right way for us today.”

Of those three, Harding Racing is the only one scheduled to run more IndyCar races this year. They will return for the Rainguard Water Sealers 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on June 10 and the ABC Supply 500 from Pocono Raceway on August 20.

Juncos Racing will continue with its efforts in the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires, where it has drivers currently atop the championships in both Indy Lights (Kyle Kaiser) and Pro Mazda (Victor Franzoni).

Michael Shank Racing will continue its Acura NSX GT3 program in the GTD class of WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, resuming next weekend at Detroit.

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Karam: ‘Tough luck stops a great month for DRR, Mecum Chevy’

Photo: Dreyer & Reinbold Racing
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Editor’s note: Sage Karam, 3GT Racing Lexus driver in IMSA, a past Indy Lights and USF2000 champion and Verizon IndyCar Series podium finisher, will file a series of blogs for NBCSports.com this month for a second straight year (2016 archive here).

Here’s his fifth and final entry, as he recaps Sunday’s 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, where an alternator problem forced him into an early retirement.

You can read his firstsecondthird and fourth blogs of 2017 here. He’ll run the No. 24 Mecum Auctions Chevrolet for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, in partnership with Kingdom Racing. 

Hi again, it’s Sage Karam after the running of the 101st Indianapolis 500.

Well, the race didn’t go as we wanted Sunday at the greatest race track in the world.

I was hoping to get to the finish but our No. 24 Mecum Auctions DRR Chevy had an alternator let go and the engine just stopped on lap 125. Not much I or the Dreyer & Reinbold Racing team can do much about that. Just some tough luck.

This was my fourth Indy 500 and I was still the youngest driver in the field at age 22. But I felt so much calmer and not as anxious as in previous years. Don’t get me wrong, it’s the biggest race in the world and every driver is anxious for the start.

Karam with Jake Gyllenhaal (to his right). Photo: Dreyer & Reinbold Racing

But I felt we would be more calculated with our strategy and my decision-making early in the race. And that is what happened for me. I wasn’t going to put myself in a bad spot in the early portions of the race. I was more conservative than I had ever been in the 500.

Unfortunately, things started off a little rough for us when we had a radio problem. I could hear the pit box and the spotters in the corners but they couldn’t hear me. So, we had to work on a code to communicate with each other on the fly. Just keying up the radio for yes or no and turning fuel mixture switch for more wing, less wing, rear wing and front wing. It was kind of sketchy out there but we were doing okay. We were running inside the top 15 and the top 10 shortly but something was killing the battery in the car and killed the radio.

So, an electrical gremlin put us out of this one. The car was really good all month. It’s a shame – the DRR boys, Mecum Auto Auctions put together a great car this month. It’s tough to see it go down like that. But that’s racing. The beauty of this place is it makes you want to come back more and more because you go through all these hard times. You just want to win. So, after I get back to the DRR garage, I was cheering on Fernando Alonso because I’m a big fan of his. But he had trouble too.

With the alternator letting go, there is nothing we can do. It’s unfortunate, but that’s what happens here. These times are tough, but it’ll make the triumph much better in the future. I thought we ran a smart race.

A lot of people were doing risky things out there. I backed out of about four or five situations that could have caused a big crash. My plan was to get into the top-10 by lap 150 or so. We were moving up the field and the race car was good.

To be honest, we didn’t have the straightaway speed. I used hand signals during the yellow flag period to try to explain to the crew what I needed. I pointed to the back of the car to adjust the rear wing for my straight-line speed. I thought the race car was pretty good overall though. I could pass in several areas. But some of the guys were doing some wild moves.

I played it conservative around many of them. I’m not going to point out some of the them by name, but it was downright scary in certain places. I thought there were going to a bunch of big wrecks if that stuff continued.

Speaking of wrecks, I was so thrilled to see my friend Scott Dixon jump out his race car after that wild crash. Scott is one of the best drivers in IndyCar history and truly one of the nicest guys too. That was a scary wild for Dixey. I will be so glad to talk with him at the Indy 500 Awards banquet. And was so happy that Sebastian Bourdais was back at the track for the race too. His crash was so nasty and it could have been a lot worse.

As a racing driver, you know you have risks. And then you see those crashes and how the safety equipment on the cars and at the tracks save people. I’m proud of the safety developments which have been made in our sport. And you see crashes like Scott and Seb’s and know those safety developments have made a big difference.

Well, I enjoyed this year’s Indy 500 experience and just wish it could have finished up better. But that’s racing. I’ll plan to be back again in 2018. Now, it’s off to the streets of Belle Isle for the IMSA WeatherTech Sports Car Championship race, I’ll be racing in the Lexus sports car for 3GT Racing.

Thanks for reading my thoughts this month and we’ll plan to do it again next May.