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)

Verstappen hoping for unofficial ‘home GP’ boost at Spa

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Max Verstappen’s 2017 Formula 1 season has been blighted by unreliability and inconsistency, but the 19-year-old Dutchman will be hoping the closest thing to a home race for him – this weekend’s Belgian Grand Prix at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps – can provide a boost to kickstart his season.

While he’s often been quicker than Red Bull Racing teammate Daniel Ricciardo in qualifying this year, races have often gone begging for Verstappen as he only has a single podium finish, third in China in April.

Verstappen’s Belgian record isn’t ideal with an eighth place in 2015 at Toro Rosso and a ragged 11th last year in his first Spa drive with Red Bull. But as the unofficial “home favorite” this weekend, the track not far from his home country of the Netherlands, Verstappen is optimistic for a big race.

“I can’t wait to get to Spa this year. I just love the track and it’ll be nice seeing so many orange fans in the grandstands,” he said ahead of the weekend in the team’s pre-race advance.

“Spa is my favorite track of the year. You have to get everything right but when you get a good lap it’s very rewarding. There is a good flow with the fast corners and of course the best moment is Eau Rouge where you go up the hill, even though it’s easy full throttle in modern F1 cars it’s still very nice when the underneath of the car touches the tarmac and then gets very light at the top of the hill. This year it’s going to be a bit faster everywhere with the new cars which will be more challenging and more fun for sure.

“It definitely feels like a home Grand Prix for me because it’s so close to the border and as there isn’t a Dutch race at the moment a lot of Dutch fans are coming over. Already last year there were a lot of orange T-shirts and flags around the track which was very cool to see and makes it even more special.”

Teammate Ricciardo won his third Grand Prix here in 2014 and rallied to second place last year.

Times for this weekend’s Belgian Grand Prix across the NBC Sports Group networks are linked here.

IndyCar: Pocono Recap

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LONG POND, Pa. – Sunday’s ABC Supply 500, the 14th of 17 races this season, marked the fifth Verizon IndyCar Series event at the “Tricky Triangle” that is Pocono Raceway since the series made its return in 2013 after a 24-year hiatus.

Since returning to the schedule, it became evident very quickly that this would be a strong venue for IndyCar, and one that would produce great racing.

Sunday’s race was yet more evidence of that. Below is a recap of what was a wild Sunday in the Pocono mountains.

THE BEST RACE OF THE YEAR?

Different people will offer different opinions about what constitutes a great race. Some will say it’s about several drivers battling it out for the lead in a constant slip-streaming duel. Some will say you only need two drivers pushing each other to the very limit of performance for them and their cars to have an exciting show. Some will also say strategy needs to play role, as it involves everyone on the team playing a role and could result in a surprise winner.

Sunday’s race had all of those elements and more.

The racing was manic from the get-go, with the 22-car field going 7-wide on the initial start behind pole sitter Takuma Sato.

Helio Castroneves went from 20th to 10th on the opening lap. Josef Newgarden, too, was a big mover on the opening lap, jumping up to seventh after starting 14th. Ryan Hunter-Reay gained six spots in the first seven laps, up to 15th from 21st. By contrast, pole sitter Sato and eighth-starting Gabby Chaves dropped down the order to 13th and 22nd, respectively, by Lap 10.

Tony Kanaan and Graham Rahal had maybe the best battle for the lead we’ve seen all year, as they swapped the lead multiple times before finishing fifth and ninth.

Even Esteban Gutierrez, in his first start on a 2.5-mile oval, was in the mix before dropping out after brushing the wall. As shown below, Gutierrez made a slick four-wide pass on the front straightaway in the early laps.

That trend of drivers moving up continued through the day, with Hunter-Reay going from 21st on the grid to eventually lead laps before finishing eighth. And eventual winner Will Power and runner-up Josef Newgarden each fell back in the field in the middle of the race, Power due to front wing and rear bumper pod damage and Newgarden due to a caution coming out before he pitted, only to work their way back forward.

That’s where the strategy gets in the mix. Power fell off the lead lap after a Lap 67 pit stop to change the front wing, dropping to 21st and last of the cars running at the time, but got back on the lead lap following a Lap 116 caution when Sebastien Saavedra hit the wall exiting Turn 1 and stopped on course. Power stayed out while the leaders pitted, taking a wave around to get his lap back.

While that incident helped Power, it hurt teammate Newgarden, as it occurred during a cycle of green flag stops and Newgarden was one of a handful of drivers who hadn’t pitted. He briefly fell back to 11th.

As a result, both drivers were at the back of the lead lap, but a Lap 125 caution for a crash involving James Hinchcliffe and JR Hildebrand opened the door for pit strategy to work in their favor. Both drivers topped up their fuel (on Lap 126) and then Power topped up twice more under the yellow (at Laps 129 and 131), using the caution to also change out the rear wing/bumper pod assembly, which was damaged in the aftermath of the Hinchcliffe/Hildebrand crash. The Penske duo then went significantly longer on their stints than anyone else, with Power especially churning out fast laps above 217 mph to eventually lead by over four seconds when the cycle of pit stops concluded.

Newgarden, too, used that strategy to move back toward the front, emerging from the second-to-last round of pit stops back in the top five. Newgarden then emerged in second after the final stops and ran down Power in a last-ditch effort for the win.

And while Power ultimately kept him and third-placed Alexander Rossi at bay, his aggressive, pre-emptive moves to defend the inside line entering Turn 3 were plenty hair-raising in their own right.

In short, the ABC Supply 500 was an absolute thrill ride, and the numbers back it up. The lead changed hands 42 times, an IndyCar record at Pocono, and 590 on-track passes, 524 for position, were recorded during the 500 miles.

The Indianapolis 500 and Rainguard Water Sealers 600 from Texas Motor Speedway were both hair-raising as well, but sometimes for the wrong seasons as both were blighted by several frightening crashes. Sunday’s affair at Pocono, however, was hair-raising for all the right reasons.

PENSKE DOMINANCE OVERCOMES HONDA POWER

The battle between Chevrolet and Honda has been an intriguing one this year, with each manufacturer demonstrating strengths at certain tracks.

The prevailing thought among many entering the weekend was that Honda would have the upper hand, due to its speedway package and supposed advantage in the horsepower game.

And they were certainly strong, with Honda drivers Alexander Rossi, Tony Kanaan, Scott Dixon, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Graham Rahal, Marco Andretti, and James Hinchcliffe leading 160 of 200 laps.

Yet, it was Team Penske and Chevrolet going 1-2 at the end, with Power’s victory serving as Penske’s fourth win in a row in 2017, the first time they’ve done so since 2012.

Will Power crosses the start/finish line to win the ABC Supply 500 in what was a 1-2 for Team Penske and Chevrolet. Photo: IndyCar

While some may have been surprised that Chevrolet managed victory over Honda this weekend, Power was not one of them. Power even tipped his hand about an engine upgrade that the “bow tie brigade” brought this weekend, which may have paid dividends in the closing stanza of the race.

“You could tell like when we came up here, Chevys were definitely in the game,” Power said in the post-race press conference. “I had a new engine in, so we had a bit of an upgrade. I think the engine was better.”

Power also added that the aerodynamic package this weekend had an impact. “As you saw at Texas, same deal on the superspeedway, it’s a different configuration than Indy. We all have to run the Dallara rear wing, so that seems to even everything out there aerodynamically. But yeah, I think our cars were really good compared to the Honda.”

Power’s win gives Chevrolet eight wins on the year, all from Team Penske, compared to Honda’s six. And the next event, the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 at Gateway Motorsports Park, appears to favor Chevrolet. However, as Pocono indicated, anything can happen, so Honda could certainly steal a win in the right circumstances.

MISC.

  • Ryan Hunter-Reay may have had the drive of the day in getting up front, leading laps, and finishing eighth while nursing injuries from his qualifying crash. Though he did not suffer any serious injuries, Hunter-Reay was certainly in pain on Sunday and put in an ironman-like effort to run as well as he did.
  • Pole sitter Takuma Sato was mysteriously never a factor, and never actually led a lap as Tony Kanaan passed him to lead Lap 1. Sato then quickly dropped down the order and finished a lowly 13th.
  • Carlos Munoz finished tenth at Pocono, his fourth top ten of the year, which gives a nice jolt to an A.J. Foyt Enterprises team that has struggled to get both cars at the sharp end of the field on a regular basis.
  • Gabby Chaves and Harding Racing finished a quiet 15th on Sunday, their worst finish in three races this season. However, for a team that’s still very new to the racing business, simply finishing the race and running all the laps is a noteworthy accomplishment in and of itself. Though things are far from finalized, Chaves and Harding are hopeful to be full-time entrants next year.
  • In a bit of late-breaking news from earlier this morning, Jack Harvey will contest the final two races of 2017 in the No. 7 Honda for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. Sebastian Saavedra filled in at Pocono, finishing 21st after early contact with the Turn 1 wall, and will also race at Gateway next weekend.

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F1 launches official eSports competition

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Formula 1 is going virtual in a way it hasn’t previously, with an official F1 eSports competition launched today for competitors using Codemasters’ F1 2017 game (launches on Friday, August 25).

The eSports series will run from September to November, with the first F1 virtual world champion to be crowned the Monday after the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

Per the official f1esports.com site, which launched today, qualifying will take place Sept. 4 at the Monza and Suzuka circuits before the semifinal occurs on Sept. 10, and will see 40 drivers race from the Gfinity esports arena in London to cut the field to 20. The two-day final occurs in Abu Dhabi in November.

Users of the Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PC (steam) platforms are eligible to enter.

This new series represents “an amazing opportunity for our business: strategically and in the way we engage fans,” said Sean Bratches, Managing Director, Commercial Operations of F1, via Reuters.

The esports arena has recently emerged in racing with competitions such as McLaren’s The World’s Fastest Gamer sim racing program, CJ Wilson Racing’s 570 Challenge (with McLaren; team also held a Cayman Cup challenge in 2016) and Formula E’s eraces, which are often part of an ePrix weekend. Formula E held a standalone erace in Las Vegas earlier this year.

Still, this marks a big step for F1 to formally sign off with it in this partnership with Codemasters and Gfinity.

Hinchcliffe’s epic save goes for naught after crash with Hildebrand (VIDEO)

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James Hinchcliffe had hoped for Pocono Raceway to be a place to turn around sagging fortunes in his Verizon IndyCar Series season, and for most of the first half of the race it looked that way.

From 12th on the grid, his Schmidt Peterson Motorsports crew delivered him an early excellent stop that vaulted him five positions – 10th to fifth – on Lap 26. With a risky but good low downforce setup, Hinchcliffe continued to advance forward and was into the lead by Lap 86.

But shortly thereafter Hinchcliffe locked up his tires on another stop, having overshot his box, and dropped back.

What followed in the next few laps shifted from heroic to gut-wrenching in the span of one caution.

Hinchcliffe somehow, miraculously, saved his No. 5 Arrow Electronics Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda through Turn 1 when in traffic past the halfway point. While outside of Carlos Munoz on Lap 102, Hinchcliffe washed up and somehow saved his car at more than 200 mph.

“I was at Grandview Speedway watching a dirt race the other night so I guess I learned some tips,” Hinchcliffe joked to NBCSN’s Robin Miller when describing how on earth he hung on.

Alas, it all came unglued for him a bit later after teammate Sebastian Saavedra wasn’t so lucky in Turn 1, having pancaked the wall with his No. 7 Lucas Oil SPM Honda on Lap 116.

Following the restart, Hinchcliffe washed up into JR Hildebrand on Lap 125, which took his longtime friend and competitor in the No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet, with the two cars both having heavy contact.

Hinchcliffe took the blame after the incident, but even Hildebrand felt apologetic as well.

“It was a racing deal. There were a bunch of guys two wide (ahead); I was on inside of JR,” Hinchcliffe told Miller. “There was a bunch of understeer, and it pitched him sideways.

“Ultimately it’s my fault because we shouldn’t have been back there. Guys had a killer first stop. Had a really good race going, but I screwed up on the stop.”

The incident for Hildebrand capped off a tough weekend where he was slowest qualifier, but started 19th ahead of three drivers – teammate and team owner Ed Carpenter, Helio Castroneves and Ryan Hunter-Reay – who were unable to complete or make qualifying attempts.

“We ran two-wide, and the guys in front of us went two-wide. I had a bunch of push. It wasn’t leaving enough room,” Hildebrand said.

“We fought the car all day. We made good fuel economy. It’s frustrating to have it end that way. And it’s a bummer to have it take out Hinch that way. We tried to find it; tried to tune the car. But it wasn’t quite there. Maybe it would have been towards the end. A really unfortunate way to end a tough weekend. We’ll get through it.”

If there’s a saving grace for Hildebrand ahead of next week’s race at Gateway Motorsports Park, it’s that the Ed Carpenter Racing team’s best performances of 2017 have come on short ovals, and Hildebrand has scored two podium finishes at Phoenix (third place) and Iowa (second).

For Hinchcliffe, Gateway represents the final oval for the SPM team to get some kind of result – his 10th place at Iowa is the team’s only top-10 result in the five oval races this season.