Takuma Sato dominates Barber Motorsports Park on way to IndyCar win

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Takuma Sato won the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama for his fourth career series victory after leading the field to green from the pole and dominating the race.

Even with a comfortable lead, he was giving it his all during the final laps. With less than five laps remaining, Sato ran off course and knocked a diffuser from the bottom of his Honda, but if anything, it made him a little faster. He had an off course excursion in that same turn complex (Turn 8/9) during Friday’s practice.

Over the course of those last five laps, Sato extended his lead from a little under two seconds to a 2.3874-second advantage over Scott Dixon, who was under heavy pressure from Sebastien Bourdais.

“This is because of the team,” Sato said at the conclusion of the race on NBCSN. “They made a fantastic effort. That car was superb – red tire, black tire, I didn’t have to worry about it.”

Sato credited his teammate for helping him find the setup that allowed him to dominate.

“This morning warmup helped a lot. Thank you very much to Graham Rahal, my teammate. We (found) a problem and he found a very good setup and I installed it.”

Sato’s dominant weekend vaulted him 10 position to third in the standings from 13th entering the race.

For Dixon – who remains winless at Barber – it was his sixth second-place finish at the track.

Dixon finished second to Josef Newgarden in 2017, Ryan Hunter-Reay in 2013, Will Power in 2011 and 2012, and Helio Castroneves in 2010.

“It was really tough,” Dixon said. “We had a lot of [tire degradation]. We started off and we could push really hard and be really quick and close the gap – even on some of those crossovers in the pits, we were able to hone in on Graham and Sato early on in the race.

“But the last 10 laps were really miserable. On that last run, I tried to hold a steady gap to Taku.”

Dixon admitted to being a little annoyed with all of his second-place finishes before the race, but given how this protected his position in the standings, he was anything but annoyed this week. Dixon leap frogged Colton Herta to land second in the points.

“Catching (Dixon) was no problem,” Bourdais said. “It was the push to pass in a lap and I was in his rear wing. The problem was both times I did, as soon as I got behind him, it started to slip and slide. The tires are not that fresh anymore at that point.”

Coming off back-to-back wins and three victories in the last four Barber races, Josef Newgarden finished fourth. Alexander Rossi rounded out the top five.

The only caution of the day didn’t wave until Lap 58, but to make up for lost time, it was for multiple issues. Max Chilton crashed at pit entry when he ran up on a slowing Tony Kanaan – who made a late entry to pit lane because Rahal stalled on track in Turn 8.

Losing power on track put a period to a long and frustrating day for the outside pole sitter.

Rahal had a throttle issue on Lap 19 before losing power for good on Lap 58.

“About Lap 3, the throttle began to stick,” Rahal said on NBCSN. “I tried to make it hang on; we did maybe 15 laps that way. Finally, it was going to put me in a gravel trap or something. It was hanging on way to much. And then the car died. Completely shut off. We had this in qualifying, luckily it was on my cool down lap from the lap I went P2. These two have to be interconnected.”

Colton Herta retained the lead in the Rookie of the Year standings despite a disappointing day.

He went from first in the most recent race to last (24th) at Barber with a fuel pickup problem on Lap 33 after experiencing an engine issue early in the race.

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WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Marcus Ericsson was the highest finishing rookie of the race in seventh. … Felix Rosenqvist finished 10th to score his second top-10 of the season. … James Hinchcliffe rebounded from a 16th-place finish at Circuit of the Americas to finish sixth.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Ed Jones got off to a strong start – too strong as it turned out. When the green flag waved over a slow start, he jumped the field advancing from 21st to fourth before Turn 1 Jones was penalized with a drive through penalty and never recovered. He finished 19th. … Max Chilton ran out of room on the pit road entry and nosed into the Turn 16 wall. He lost two laps while they pulled him back on track to finish 22nd.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: “Oh my gosh, what a delightful day. What a delightful day yesterday. I’m sorry about Graham. Something went to sleep on him, but Takuma Sato – fantastic afternoon.” – David Letterman, team owner of Rahal, Letterman, Lanigan Racing.

WHAT’S NEXT: IndyCar heads to Long Beach, Calif. for next Sunday’s Grand Prix of Long Beach on NBCSN (coverage begins at 4 p.m. ET).

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Alexander Rossi remains the story in IndyCar in 2019

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ELKHART LAKE, Wisc. – Alexander Rossi’s greatness was on full display Monday at Road America.

He started on the outside of the front row, drafted behind pole sitter Colton Herta at the drop of the green flag, pulled out a perfectly timed move to race side by side with Herta going into Turn 1.

By Turn 2 of the first lap, Rossi’s No. 27 NAPA Honda was out front and drove away from the field, easily winning the REV Group Grand Prix of Road America by nearly 30 seconds over Team Penske’s Will Power.

Rossi was so good, it appeared he was running on a different race course than the other 23 competitors. There was some outstanding racing throughout the field with 191 total passes, including 175 for position, but none of those passes were at the front.

According to Rossi’s engineer, Jeremy Milles, there was just one thing kept Rossi’s race from being deemed complete perfection.

“It we had stayed out two laps longer on the last pit stop, we would have led every single lap instead of Graham Rahal leading one lap,” Milless told NBC Sports.com. “It’s good to see when we give him a proper car, he puts it to work.

“He’s not like a lot of drivers.”

Rossi led 54 of the 55 laps in the race and defeated Power by 28.4391 seconds – a huge margin of victory by today’s standards. Back in 1982, Hector Rebaque defeated Al Unser by a full lap at the 4.014-mile, 14 Road America road course, but those were far different times than today’s very deep field in the NTT IndyCar Series.

Although it was Rossi’s second victory of the season and the seventh of his career, the 27-year-old from Nevada City, California, has been the driver everyone talks about in 2019. The win snapped a four-race streak where he finished second three times and fifth in the other.

Simon Pagenaud won the 103rdIndianapolis 500 on May 26, but the fans and media were talking about Rossi’s bold, daring moves, including some wildly aggressive passes down the front straight and to the outside in Turn 1.

Rossi had a fantastic car the next week in the first race of the Detroit Grand Prix at Belle Isle but was burned by the timing of a caution period for a crash as his main challenger, Josef Newgarden, dove into the pit area to make a stop just before pit lane closed because of the caution.

Rossi had to wait until the pits were reopened to make his stop, and that put him behind Newgarden and ultimately decided the race.

After a fifth-place finish the following day in Race No. 2, Rossi was once again standing up in his seat and on top of the steering wheel in a tremendous battle with Newgarden at Texas Motor Speedway on June 8. Rossi tried his best to make his car stick on the outside lane going into Turn 1, but when he discovered the risk was much higher than the reward, he had to begrudgingly settle for second, finishing 0.816 seconds behind the current NTT IndyCar Series points leader.

Rossi left no doubt on his Sunday drive through the Wisconsin woods as he never was challenged.

In just three short seasons, Rossi has developed into one of the greatest drivers in a generation in IndyCar. He doesn’t even have 10 victories yet, and he already had the makings of a legend.

“It’s almost like Juan Pablo Montoya, when he arrived as a rookie, he was great immediately,” Rossi’s team owner Michael Andretti told NBCSports.com after the race. “Juan is one of the greats, and I think as time moves on, Alex will prove to be one of the greats.

“He is very aggressive, very calm, very confident, everything you want in a driver. He wasn’t racing anybody all day; he was just racing himself not to make any mistakes.”

For Andretti, this is a very important time in his relationship with Rossi. The driver’s contract concludes at the end of this season, and he is the focal point of speculation on where he will race in 2020.

Before Pagenaud revived his career with a sweep of the major events at Indianapolis Motor Speedway during the Month of May, Rossi looked like “Penske Material” as the driver that would take over the No. 22 Chevrolet. After Pagenaud won the Indy 500, team owner Roger Penske assured him he would be back on the team in 2020.

Rossi’s loyalties lie with Honda. Both he and his father, Pieter, share a close relationship with the engine manufacturer that helped the former Formula One test driver at Manor find a full-time home in the NTT IndyCar Series.

Andretti told NBCSports.com on Friday that he was “optimistically confident” that he will re-sign Rossi once a sponsorship agreement with NAPA is completed.

INDYCAR Photo by Chris Jones

Andretti remains confident after Rossi’s win on Sunday.

“We’re getting there,” Andretti said. “I think we’re getting there. We are feeling pretty good about it.”

There are others, however, that aren’t as optimistic.

If Roger Penske wants a driver, who turns down an opportunity like that? After all, Team Penske is far and away the winningest team in IndyCar history, including a record 18 Indy 500 wins.

Think of these scenarios.

What if McLaren makes a substantial offer to align with Andretti Autosport for a full-time NTT IndyCar Series team in the future after McLaren’s debacle in this year’s Indy 500?

In order for that to happen, though, Andretti would have to switch to Chevrolet, because Honda ‘s parent company in Japan will no longer do business with McLaren.

The last time Andretti considered leaving Honda for Chevy, Rossi was set to leave Andretti to join another Honda team, Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports in 2017.

If Andretti Autosports and McLaren joined together, that would also mean the Andretti-aligned Harding Steinbrenner Racing would become a Chevy operation.

Honda could keep Rossi as one of its drivers by leading him to Chip Ganassi Racing. Five-time Cup Series champion Scott Dixon remains on top of his game, but it’s unlikely he will be racing Indy cars 10 years from now.

Barring unforeseen circumstance, Rossi will still be in the cockpit and winning races in a decade, and that would position Ganassi’s team for the future. The team’s second driver is rookie Felix Rosenqvist, who is currently racing with a one-year contract.

Even Rossi knows his situation for next year is complicated, which is why he chooses not to talk about it. He has developed a strong bond with Milless as his engineer and Rob Edwards (white shirt on left) as his race strategist.

Do both of those key members end up on a different team with Rossi? Edwards is a key member of management at Andretti Autosport as the Chief Operating Officer.

Rossi is as cerebral as he is aggressive. After his victory, when pressed upon his next contract, he concluded the conversation perfectly.

“I have no considerations,” Rossi said regarding his contract status. “It’s in God’s hands.”