IndyCar 2017 driver review: Takuma Sato

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MotorSportsTalk continues its annual review of the Verizon IndyCar Series drivers that raced in 2017. Takuma Sato won the year’s Indianapolis 500, and that stood out as the pinnacle moment of the season among a year of happiness for the perpetually happy Japanese driver.

Takuma Sato, No. 26 Andretti Autosport Honda

  • 2016: 17th Place, Best Finish 5th, Best Start 3rd, 2 Top-5, 5 Top-10, 0 Laps Led, 14.1 Avg. Start, 13.7 Avg. Finish
  • 2017: 8th Place, 1 Win, 2 Poles, 4 Top-5, 6 Top-10, 41 Laps Led, 8.6 Avg. Start, 12.4 Avg. Finish

One of the Verizon IndyCar Series’ more likable and genuinely fun to watch drivers, Takuma Sato, finally had his breakout season with Andretti Autosport after eight years and more than 100 starts elsewhere. Sadly for Sato, a year that saw him in semi-realistic title contention most of the summer post-his famous Indianapolis 500 victory faded as the year drew to its conclusion.

Reunited with engineer Garrett Mothershead, who he’d worked with at KV Racing Technology, Sato was immediately on pace in his new environment and with a Firestone Fast Six in qualifying and fourth place in the race at St. Petersburg, promising signs were there.

His Indianapolis 500 performance all month was simply outstanding. Similar to Alexander Rossi last year, Sato flew under the radar but was fast all month. When the opportunity to attack late in the race came, Sato lived up to his eternal “no attack, no chance” mantra to deliver the victory – and vault to a top-three position in points in the process. The win was fully deserved and was huge for Honda both in America and Japan, as well as the Andretti team with several of its other six cars having issues in the race. It was one of the year’s most popular wins.

Perhaps equally as impressive if not more so was his run the following weekend at Detroit, a track he’s thrived on in the past. Finishes of eighth and fourth, including a pole in race two, were the best results for an Indianapolis 500 champion in the Detroit doubleheader and seemed to indicate at long last, Sato had turned the corner to becoming a consistent finisher.

And then… Texas. Small contact there late in the race with Scott Dixon cost them both potential top-five finishes and for poor Sato, sent him into a tail-spin of results the rest of the way.

He had to battle through a neck injury at Road America, and ended 19th. A further onslaught of bad luck, be it waste gate or other mechanical issues, occasional spins and a generally lingering black cloud often through no fault of his own, limited Sato to finishes of 16th or worse in five of the final seven races, and dropped him to eighth in the points standings.

It was still his career-best by five spots, but could have been even better, as it was just slaughtered by the final eight races. He led the field in the two double points races with 157 points scored but ranked only 10th in the single-points races. Through Texas, the first nine races of the year, he scored 312 of his 441 points, and was third in the standings just 14 markers off the lead. With only 129 points scored in the final eight races, Sato fell 201 points behind eventual champion Josef Newgarden.

Even more disappointing about his end of the year was how well Sato had qualified. He showcased his bravery with his pole run at Pocono, coming just one car after Ryan Hunter-Reay’s heavy accident. And he qualified in the top six in six of the last seven races, enough to bring his average grid spot for the year to 8.6 – tied for fifth best in the field. The pace was there while the lack of consistency bit yet again; alas, with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing next year, Sato should have a good reunion. Even better, in the first few months since winning Indianapolis, Sato has already proven a more than worthy ‘500 champion and excellent ambassador for the race and the sport.

Justin Grant prevails over Kyle Larson in the Turkey Night Grand Prix

Grant Larson Turkey Night
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On the heels of his Hangtown 100 victory, Justin Grant worked his way from 13th in the Turkey Night Grand Prix to beat three-time event winner Kyle Larson by 1.367 seconds. The 81st annual event was run at Ventura (Calif.) Raceway for the sixth time.

“My dad used to take me to Irwindale Speedway, and we’d watch Turkey Night there every year,” Grant said in a series press release. “This is one of the races I fell in love with. I didn’t think I’d ever get a chance to run in it, never thought I’d make a show and certainly never thought I’d be able to win one.”

With its genesis in 1934 at Gilmore Stadium, a quarter-mile dirt track in Los Angeles, the race is steeped in history with winners that include AJ Foyt, Parnelli Jones, Gary Bettenhausen and Johnnie Parsons. Tony Stewart won it in 2000. Kyle Larson won his first of three Turkey Night Grands Prix in 2012. Christopher Bell earned his first of three in 2014, so Grant’s enthusiasm was well deserved.

So was the skepticism that he would win. He failed to crack the top five in three previous attempts, although he came close last year with a sixth-place result. When he lined up for the feature 13th in the crowded 28-car field, winning seemed like a longshot.

Grant watched as serious challengers fell by the wayside. Mitchel Moles flipped on Lap 10 of the feature. Michael “Buddy” Kofoid took a tumble on Lap 68 and World of Outlaws Sprint car driver Carson Macedo flipped on Lap 79. Grant saw the carnage ahead of him and held a steady wheel as he passed Tanner Thorson for the lead with 15 laps remaining and stayed out of trouble for the remainder of the event.

“It’s a dream come true to win the Turkey Night Grand Prix,” Grant said.


Kyle Larson follows Justin Grant to the front on Turkey Night

The 2012, 2016 and 2019 winner, Larson was not scheduled to run the event. His wife Katelyn is expecting their third child shortly, but after a couple of glasses of wine with Thanksgiving dinner and while watching some replays of the event, Larson texted car owner Chad Boat to see if he had a spare car lying around. He did.

“We weren’t great but just hung around and it seemed like anybody who got to the lead crashed and collected some people,” Larson said. “We made some passes throughout; in the mid-portion, we weren’t very good but then we got better at the end.

“I just ran really, really hard there, and knew I was running out of time, so I had to go. I made some pretty crazy and dumb moves, but I got to second and was hoping we could get a caution to get racing with Justin there. He was sliding himself at both ends and thought that maybe we could get a run and just out-angle him into [Turn] 1 and get clear off [Turn] 2 if we got a caution, but it just didn’t work out.”

Larson padded one of the most impressive stats in the history of this race, however. In 10 starts, he’s won three times, finished second four times, was third once and fourth twice.

Bryant Wiedeman took the final spot on the podium.

As Grant and Larson began to pick their way through the field, Kofoid took the lead early from the outside of the front row and led the first 44 laps of the race before handing it over to Cannon McIntosh, who bicycled on Lap 71 before landing on all fours. While Macedo and Thorson tussled for the lead with McIntosh, Grant closed in.

Thorson finished 19th with McIntosh 20th. Macedo recovered from his incident to finish ninth. Kofoid’s hard tumble relegated him to 23rd.

Jake Andreotti in fourth and Kevin Thomas, Jr. rounded out the top five.

1. Justin Grant (started 13)
2. Kyle Larson (22)
3. Bryant Wiedeman (4)
4. Jake Andreotti (9)
5. Kevin Thomas Jr. (1)
6. Logan Seavey (8)
7. Alex Bright (27)
8. Emerson Axsom (24)
9. Carson Macedo (7)
10. Jason McDougal (18)
11. Jake Swanson (16)
12. Chase Johnson (6)
13. Jacob Denney (26)
14. Ryan Timms (23)
15. Chance Crum (28)
16. Brenham Crouch (17)
17. Jonathan Beason (19)
18. Cade Lewis (14)
19. Tanner Thorson (11)
20. Cannon McIntosh (3)
21. Thomas Meseraull (15)
22. Tyler Courtney (21)
23. Buddy Kofoid (2)
24. Brody Fuson (5)
25. Mitchel Moles (20)
26. Daniel Whitley (10)
27. Kaylee Bryson (12)
28. Spencer Bayston (25)