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.

Jack Miller wins the MotoGP Japanese Grand Prix as Fabio Quartararo stops his downward points’ slide

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Jack Miller ran away with the MotoGP Japanese Grand Prix at Motegi as Fabio Quartararo stopped his downward slide in the championship when a last-lap accident from his closest rival in the standings caused Francesco Bagnaia to score zero points.

Starting seventh, Miller quickly made his way forward. He was second at the end of two laps. One lap later, he grabbed the lead from Jorge Martin. Once in the lead, Miller posted three consecutive fastest laps and was never seriously challenged. It was Australian native Miller’s first race win of the season and his sixth podium finish.

The proximity to his home turf was not lost.

“I can ride a motorcycle sometimes,” Miller said in NBC Sports’ post-race coverage. “I felt amazing all weekend since I rolled out on the first practice. It feels so awesome to be racing on this side of the world.

“What an amazing day. It’s awesome; we have the home Grand Prix coming up shortly. Wedding coming up in a couple of weeks. I’m over the moon; can’t thank everyone enough.”

Miller beat Brad Binder to the line by 3.4 seconds with third-place Jorge Martin finishing about one second behind.

But the center of the storm was located just inside the top 10 as both Quartararo and Bagnaia started deep in the field.

Quartararo was on the outside of row three in ninth with Bagnaia one row behind in 12th. Neither rider moved up significantly, but the championship continued to be of primary importance as Bagnaia put in a patented late-race charge to settle onto Quartararo’s back tire, which would have allowed the championship leader to gain only a single point.

On the final lap, Bagnaia charged just a little too hard and crashed under heavy braking, throwing away the seven points he would have earned for a ninth-place finish.

The day was even more dramatic for the rider who entered the MotoGP Japanese Grand Prix third in the standings. On the sighting lap, Aleix Espargaro had an alarm sound, so he peeled off into the pits, dropped his primary bike and jumped aboard the backup. Starting from pit lane, he trailed the field and was never able to climb into the points. An undisclosed electronic problem was the culprit.

For Quartararo, gaining eight points on the competition was more than a moral victory. This was a track on which he expected to run moderately, and he did, but the problems for his rivals gives him renewed focus with four rounds remaining.

Next week, the series heads to Thailand and then Miller’s home track of Phillip Island in Australia. They will close out the Pacific Rim portion of the schedule before heading to Spain for the finale in early November.

It would appear team orders are not in play among the Ducati riders. Last week’s winner Enea Bastianini made an aggressive early move on Bagnaia for position before the championship contender wrestled the spot back.

In his second race back following arm surgery, Marc Marquez won the pole. His last pole was more than 1,000 days ago on this same track in 2019, the last time the series competed at Motegi. Marquez slipped to fifth in the middle stages of the race, before regaining a position to finish just off the podium.

In Moto2 competition, Ai Ogura beat Augusto Fernandez to close the gap in that championship to two points. Fernandez holds the scant lead. Alonso Lopez rounded out the podium.

Both American riders, Cameron Beaubier and Joe Roberts finished just outside the top 10 in 11th and 12th respectively.