Sato and team co-owner Bobby Rahal celebrate Sunday's win. Photo: IndyCar

In any language, Sato’s Portland win is big for him, his team — and likely his future

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Takuma Sato could have used any word – be it in American or Japanese – to help propel him through the final laps of Sunday’s Grand Prix of Portland.

But he chose a word from his native tongue that he kept repeating to himself as he drove through the closing laps around Portland International Raceway.

That word was “Ganbare,” which in Japanese means both “good luck” and “hang in there.”

Even with Ryan Hunter-Reay knocking on Sato’s back door, particularly on the final two laps, good luck was on Sato’s side as he indeed hung in there to earn his third career IndyCar win.

Sato wasn’t even on the radar to win Sunday’s race. He qualified 20th out of 25 entrants, but that didn’t deter him.

Sato felt he had as good a chance as anyone to get a top 10, maybe even a top 5.

And that’s exactly what happened for the only Japanese driver to ever win the Indianapolis 500 (2017).

“It’s a fantastic weekend for all of us,” Sato said after the race. “Who won, I don’t care. Obviously I wanted to win. I won a street course (2013 Long Beach), won a superspeedway (Indy 500), very close to (winning on a) short oval, but my first career win on a road course means a lot. Obviously it’s important.

“Number of wins, I always wanted to have more. I think three wins from Long Beach, Indy 500, such a history in Portland in this fashion, I’m really, really happy today.”

Sato was the star for RLL Sunday as teammate Graham Rahal was collected in a big first lap crash, came back on the track briefly before calling it a day and finishing 23rd out of 25 entrants.

Sato picked up the torch for Team RLL and ran with it – well, actually, drove with it – through the final 25 laps of the 105-lap event in IndyCar’s return to Portland after an 11-year absence.

Granted, Sato’s win Sunday was nowhere near as big as his triumph at Indy last year. But to be able to travel to Portland for the first time, to meet and see a number of Japanese race fans and then become front page news once again in his homeland meant the world to Sato.

“It means a lot,” Sato said. “Firstly, thank everyone for all the support for IndyCar, to come back to Portland. I was very excited.

“I knew nothing about Portland. Obviously, I knew the history (of PIR), such an important place for North American racing. The fans are so educated. Generation by generation, so much a great place.”

Portland has a large Asian community, as well as Asian racing fans from Seattle-Tacoma, and northern California. It’s also an easy flight from his native Japan for fans who wanted to watch him race.

“Here is a very easy (for fans both from the west coast as well as Japan to travel to),” Sato said. “All the West Coast is very easy for Japan to come for the travel.

“We have a very enthusiastic fans from Japan. Also, the Portland community here is a great Asian community, including Japanese, a lot of business, too. We can hear a lot of Japanese cheering on the parade lap. That was great.

“Winning in front of such an enthusiastic crowd in Portland was something I expected, but this was more than expected. I think the people genuinely here are so enthusiastic (and) very happy that IndyCar came back here.”

Given that Portland was the second-to-last race on the schedule, Sunday’s win also potentially helped Sato leave town perhaps feeling a bit more secure about his future, as well.

Even with his win in the Indy 500, Sato surprisingly left Andretti Autosport after last season to rejoin RLL – for which he raced in 2012 – for a one-year deal for 2018 and with an option for 2019.

But options are never guaranteed until they’re picked up – that is, if they’re picked up.

So now, as this season is close to its end, it would be natural to wonder if Sato will return to RLL in 2019.

He even said so after Sunday’s race.

“The future is at the moment uncertain,” he said. “Hopefully this is a boosting to the talk to (return) next year.

“But most important (is) my passion and (I) wanted to win for the team, That’s really come all together. It’s very helping for the situation.”

Indeed it is. A team spokesperson told MotorSportsTalk a few hours after the race that, “We are in the process of extending (Sato’s) contract.”

That’s a good reward for a good job done Sunday.

Or more precisely, it was a day that ended in good luck for Sato because he hung in there all the way to take the checkered flag.

Yep, Sato couldn’t have said it better: “Ganbare!”

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Newgarden tries to regain control of IndyCar championship race at Iowa

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NEWTON, Iowa – There are just six races left in the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series championship and Team Penske driver Josef Newgarden has a hard-charging Alexander Rossi closing in on his gearbox. Newgarden’s lead is down to just three points after last Sunday’s Honda Indy Toronto.

Newgarden has been the leader in the standings after every race this season, with the exception of the 103rdIndianapolis 500, when he trailed Team Penske teammate and Indy 500 winner Josef Newgarden by one point.

Is Newgarden worried entering Saturday night’s Iowa 300 at Iowa Speedway?

“I’m confident we have good cars,” Newgarden told NBC Sports.com. “You can have bad weekends here and there. I think we can have a good result the rest of the year. But there are a lot of guys still in it. Rossi is the guy who is the closest, but you can’t count out Simon Pagenaud, Scott Dixon or Will Power. It’s going to be a fight until the end for this championship.

“We briefly lost the points lead after the Indy 500. Simon and I were one point apart. We’ve had better consistency this year. That is what is going to pay off at the end. We’ve been consistent up to this point and we have to continue it to the end.

“Look at all of these championship runs, most of the times it goes to the most consistent driver. You have to have clean finishes for every run. If you don’t, it’s pretty tough to make up the deficit.”

Newgarden has had a remarkably consistent season with three wins, six podiums (top three) and nine top-five finishes in 11 races.

Rossi has nearly matched him with two wins, six podiums and nine top-five finishes in 11 races.

These two drivers are nearly in a dead heat, so as the championship leader, can Newgarden force his fiercest foes into making mistakes?

“I’m a little bit boring,” Newgarden said. “I do the same thing every time. It puts more pressure on guys like Scott Dixon, who has to win races to catch up. They are going to be more aggressive. Our program is boring and that is trying to maximize each race individually. That is what we have to do.

“I don’t know if it is that different than being in a fight with Will Power or Simon Pagenaud or Scott Dixon. They have different tendencies. Alex is the more aggressive of those other drivers. It’s fun going up against all of them. Alex is really good. He has a certain style you have to play against. If it was Scott, it would be just as exciting, but it would be a different game.

“Alex brings a more aggressive side to the conversation.”

That aggressive fight continues to the .875-mile short oval at Iowa Speedway, site of Saturday night’s Iowa 300.

It’s one of Newgarden’s better tracks. He set an IndyCar Series record for leading the most laps in a single race when he was in front for 282 laps in his 2016 Iowa win with Ed Carpenter Racing. That was preceded by two straight second place finishes at Iowa in 2014 and 2014.

Since joining Team Penske in 2017, Newgarden finished sixth that season and fourth in 2018 in a race where he led 211 laps.

“We were pretty good there last year,” Newgarden admitted. “We qualified well, but we were a little shy of what we needed last year. The race didn’t pan out the way we needed it to. Our strategy wasn’t perfect there. But those are things we can clean up. We have a really capable group. I think we’ll have a good car there, again. I feel good about it. We’ve had good cars there in the past, we were just a tick off. I think we will be better there this year.

“We should be fine.”

Short oval racing is a unique form that adds diversity to the schedule as drivers have to get on an off the accelerator and on and off the brake, all while dealing with traffic throughout the 300-lap contest.

It’s that type of close quarter racing that real racers love.

“Iowa, for sure is a racer’s track,” Newgarden said. “It’s very bumpy, with a lot of character. It’s one of my favorite short ovals that we go to. I love that place. A lot of the tracks we go to are racer’s race tracks. There aren’t a lot of bad ones of the schedule. There are tracks with diverse challenges and you like that. Going from Toronto to Iowa to Mid-Ohio, they are all different tracks that require different setups, different driving styles.

“It’s like the championship is a driver’s championship. That is what it demands.”

An NTT IndyCar Series race at Iowa Speedway is a special experience because it’s played out in front of grass-roots racing fans. These are the fans that following auto racing on a regular basis, many of which are regulars for sprint car racing down the road at Knoxville Speedway in Knoxville, Iowa.

“They are all different race fans,” Newgarden said. “Toronto has a bustling city vibe. Iowa is a bunch of farmers. Really nice people who are salt of the earth farmers who come out and enjoy racing. Mid-Ohio is a hybrid. It’s very much a Midwest race but different from Iowa.

“You get these different pockets of different fans, different people, different racers but they all like IndyCar racing and that’s pretty cool.”