Montoya, Sato battle adds to drama in closing laps at Long Beach

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It was one of the best battles seen thus far this season in the Verizon IndyCar Series.

In a classic matchup in the closing laps of Sunday’s Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, Juan Pablo Montoya was fighting tooth-and-nail, protecting every inch of ground on the street course in an attempt to keep Takuma Sato from passing him.

While they weren’t going for the win, their duel for fourth place was as compelling a match as Scott Dixon trying to run down Simon Pagenaud for the win.

“The last few laps, obviously, all the way we tried to save fuel and use the push to pass,” Sato said. “We never gave up.”

Sato earned his first top-five and second top-10 of the season. It was his best showing since finishing runner-up in the second Belle Isle race last season.

Takuma Sato

“It was nearly side-by-side crossing the finish line and we needed a little bit more. I thought we had a good time for this one. (Montoya) was also strong. What an amazing job for this A.J. Foyt team, to come back strongly under difficult circumstances. I think we had a difficult practice session but we kept cool, saved fuel and it was a good battle all the way through.”

By finishing fourth, Montoya earned his second top-five and third overall top-10 of the season in the first three races of 2016.

“We had a very fast Verizon Chevy, but we just had a hard time getting to the front,” he said. “Track position is pretty important here and we lost some early when I made a mistake and we fell behind Will (Power).

“They just had more top end speed. We did a good job and battled back but it wasn’t enough. Congratulations to Simon and the No. 22 team. That’s a great win for him and Team Penske.”

Pagenaud opened his lead in the standings over Scott Dixon to 14 points, while Montoya is ranked third in the Verizon IndyCar Series, 28 points behind his teammate.

“I want to beat him,” Montoya said of Pagenaud. “He did a great job. He’s got two seconds and a win; it’s really good. The hard thing is we all keep finishing there.

“… It was kind of a short race. It was funny because most street courses are three stops, this one you can barely make it in two. So you’ve got to be stretching your fuel all day, but that was okay.”

Going back to Sato, his fifth-place finish in Sunday’s race boosts him to sixth place in the standings, 61 points behind Pagenaud.

Sato received a somewhat painful remembrance of his joust with Montoya, but it was a pain he didn’t mind.

“My hand is still shaking and has a big blister on it,” Sato told NBCSN. “With the steering wheel shaking, it’s difficult and it was high downforce and reliable, which is nice and we like to be fast.

“I’m not complaining about it, I like it,” he added about the blister. “… Obviously, fifth is not the best or what we wanted, but with the way we were today, it was a great finish from the team.”

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Houston Supercross by the numbers: Five riders begin to gap the field

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Chase Sexton stumbled in San Diego and Eli Tomac had a hard fall in Anaheim 2, but the Monster Energy Supercross numbers for Houston suggest they will continue to be the ones to beat in Houston. To do so, they will have to turn back challenges from another pair of riders who have swept the top five in the first three rounds and another with a worst finish of sixth.

Houston Supercross numbers
Cooper Webb’s ability to close races makes him a Houston favorite. – Feld Motor Sports

Despite an accident in his heat in San Diego that sent him to the Last Chance Qualifier (LCQ), Sexton recovered to score a top-five that weekend. His podium finish in Anaheim 1 and overall win last week in Anaheim 2 makes him one of the three riders with a perfect top-five record. He is joined by Cooper Webb, who finished second in the first two rounds and fourth last week, and Ken Roczen, whose consistency in the first three races contributed to him grabbing the top spot in this week’s NBC Supercross Power Rankings.

There are reasons to believe Webb and Roczen can keep those streaks alive.

Webb is the only multiple winner at Supercross’ current Houston stadium. His pair of wins came in 2019 and 2021, the same year he won his two 450 championships.

Clinton Fowler points out this week, that Webb has carried that strength into 2023. Webb had a late surge in Anaheim 1, advancing from fifth to second in the final six laps. In San Diego, he set his ninth fastest lap with two to go and his eighth fastest on the final lap. He posted his fastest lap of Anaheim 2 on Lap 12 while the rest of the field did so on Lap 6 on average.

By comparison, Tomac set his 14th fastest lap on the final circuit in route to winning the Main at San Diego while he was trying to keep Webb at bay.

With a sixth at San Diego, Dylan Ferrandis barely missed sweeping the top five in his first three races as did Tomac with a sixth last week at Anaheim 2.

This will be the 46th year Supercross has visited Houston and with 55 races the city is tied for the second-most with Detroit.

Jim Pomeroy won the first race in the Astrodome during the inaugural season of 1974 on a 250, which was the premiere class at the time. Houston was one of three races held that year along with events at Daytona International Speedway and the Los Angeles Coliseum. All three venues return in 2023 with the first SuperMotocross championship finale returning to the famed LA Coliseum in September.

Webb won most recently in 2021 in the final race of three held there that year as the series executed a strategy of racing in residencies to limit travel during height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Tomac and Justin Barcia also won in Houston in 2021.

Two privateers have started the season on a high note.

Joshua Cartwright and Joshua Varize have each made the last two Mains. Cartwright finished 18th in San Diego and 21st last week in Anaheim 2 – all while working fulltime as a Business Intelligence Analyst at the University of Texas, Dallas. Varize earned a top-15 (12th) in San Diego and was 21st in Anaheim 2 in his third season on a 450.

Michael Mosiman scored his first 250 win last year in San Diego. – Feld Motor Sports

The numbers show none of the active 250 Supercross East riders have won in Houston, so no matter who steps on top of the box, there is going to be a fresh face. That is not surprising since most of the top competitors have not raced at this venue yet.

Michael Mosiman has a pair of top-fives there, however. His best finish was a second in the second 2021 race. Garrett Marchbanks scored a top-10 in his rookie season of 2019 in Houston.

In the 250 East division, Hunter Lawrence is one of the favorites to win the title now that Christian Craig has moved to 450s. Last year he had four wins and nine podiums, but failed to set a fast lap in a race.

The other 250 riders with 2022 wins this week are Mosiman, who earned his first Supercross win last year in San Diego, and Nate Thrasher, who became the fifth new class winner at Daytona.

Jeremy Martin will attempt to extend a record this week in Houston. His division leading SuperMotocross podiums number 65. He has 26 wins in the combined sessions, which ranks fourth all time.

Last Five Houston Winners

450s
2022, no race
2021, Race 3: Cooper Webb
2021, Race 2: Eli Tomac
2021, Race 1: Justin Barcia
2020, no race
2019, Cooper Webb
2018, Jason Anderson

250s
2022, no race
2021, Race 3: Colt Nichols
2021, Race 2: Jett Lawrence
2021, Race 1: Christian Craig
2020, no race
2019, Dylan Ferrandis
2018, Aaron Plessinger

By the Numbers

Anaheim 2
San Diego

More SuperMotocross coverage

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Power Rankings after week 3
Malcom Stewart out for “extended duration” after knee surgery
Haiden Deegan makes Supercross debut in Houston, Justin Cooper to 450s
Talon Hawkins set to relieve injured Jalek Swoll in Houston
Jalek Swoll out for an indefinite period with broken arm
Ken Roczen urgently needed a change
Chris Blose joins Pro Circuit Kawasaki in 250 East opener
Seth Hammaker to miss Houston with wrist injury
Jo Shimoda joins Seth Hammaker, Austin Forkner on injured list
Injury sidelines Austin Forkner for remainder of 2023 SX
Chase Sexton wins Anaheim 2 in 450s; Levi Kitchen takes 250s
Results and points from Anaheim 2