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Sato posts best weekend yet for Indy 500 winner at Detroit double

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The Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix Presented by Lear weekend has traditionally not been kind to the Indianapolis 500 champion since the next weekend after Indianapolis in each Verizon IndyCar Series season moved to a doubleheader format in 2013.

Between Tony Kanaan, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Juan Pablo Montoya and Alexander Rossi, none of them had finished better than 10th in eight combined starts.

This serves as background to say that what Takuma Sato pulled off this weekend in Detroit was not only statistically the best set of results since that format was introduced, but it was a statement weekend of his intent to fight for the championship the rest of the way. He ended eighth and fourth in the two races.

Setting aside the crazy week of media that Sato embarked on since winning the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil last Sunday in the No. 26 Ruoff Home Mortgage Honda, Sato had reason to be optimistic anyway heading to Detroit.

The Andretti Autosport street course package has been improved this year under the direction of new technical director Eric Bretzman and despite not posting a result better than fifth, Sato was determined to focus on a big result.

“The team had a good race last year and we’ve been so strong on the streets this year, at St. Petersburg and Long Beach,” Sato told NBC Sports heading into the weekend. “Yeah we had a mechanical issue at Long Beach, but performance wise we’ve been quite high.

“Physically this is one of the most demanding tracks, with two races to begin with and all the bumps. You have to fight the car all 14 corners. It’s intense.”

Not that it seemed to phase Sato, who had a huge weekend to follow-up his Indianapolis win with two key results.

Race one saw him start a season-best third and finish eighth. It got better in race two, as Sato snatched the pole near the end of the qualifying session and then finished the race in fourth. He was unlucky to have not scored a podium in the second race, jumped by Will Power at the final pit stop for third.

“I don’t know how close I was, but I kind of went out and did everything I could to stay ahead of him. Obviously gave me that position,” Power said of the move.

“But, yeah, that first pit stall is great under yellow, not so good for out-laps because the other guy is already at 50 when they let off that button, so they get a good exit. That’s the difference.

“But, yeah, it was good enough to get Sato.”

Sato lamented the lost podium, but was otherwise thrilled with his weekend.

“It was a solid result. I think the team did a great job,” he said.

“We did everything we could and made no mistakes, but we just didn’t quite have the speed today. I’m proud of getting on the front row in qualifying and we will work hard the rest of the season.

“I think we kept ourselves in championship contention by finishing P4 and getting points. We need to find out why we lost the speed for the race but we will look at all the data. It was a good day.”

It’s been a good month for Sato, who won one for the nice guys at the ‘500. After the INDYCAR Grand Prix, he sat 10th in points with only 97 points accumulated this season.

But with fourth on the grid and the win in the Indianapolis 500, Sato promptly scored 40 more points just in one race event – 137 – than he had all season to that point. That vaulted him from 10th into a three-way tie for second on 234 points with Scott Dixon and Simon Pagenaud, 11 behind Helio Castroneves at 245.

After Detroit, Sato sits third in the standings with 292 points, still 11 behind the leader, which is now Dixon at 303 points.

Sato’s best championship finish in seven seasons is 13th in 2011 with KV Racing Technology, but barring a colossal collapse in the second half of the year, he’s poised to finish significantly better than that in 2017 in what’s quickly become the best season of his IndyCar career.

‘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.”