Sato looking to pay back RLL for career support with Indy 500 victory

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There are few people in the IndyCar paddock more kind and humble than Takuma Sato.

The Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing driver has been a favorite among fans for his ‘no attack, no chance’ philosophy and aggressive driving style.

But Sato is also known as one of the most approachable drivers in the series, and he enters the 103rd running of the Indy 500 looking to give back to long-time supporters with another strong showing in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing”.

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“There’s no easy way [to win the race], obviously,” Sato told NBC Sports. “I think it’s going to be quite challenging. We will compete with high hopes. I believe we are very capable of being very competitive on Sunday.”

With five races complete in the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season, Sato currently sits fifth in the points standings after three top 10 finishes, including a dominant win from the pole at Barber Motorsports Park where he led 74 of 90 laps.

Though there is not much of a comparison between the road and street courses that make up the first five races of the schedule, Sato said that a great start of the season can relieve a considerable amount of stress when entering the month of May.

“In terms of the team’s morale and motivation and just the overall environment, it’s more comfortable,” Sato said. “You enter the month of May with high hopes. I think everything works better when you have a good start.”

Sato knows what it’s like to have a great month of May in Indianapolis. He qualified fourth in 2017 for Andretti Autosport after showing speed all month and led 17 laps, including the final six, to become the 71st different driver to win the 500.

The victory was the biggest of his career. But despite winning one of the biggest events in sports, Sato didn’t want the victory to be all about him.

“Obviously, I felt such great satisfaction [by winning], but also it was such a nice way to give back to the people who have been supporting me for a long time. Fans, sponsors, family. To share such a fantastic moment together was probably the biggest thing for me.”

Now, Sato hopes to share another Indy win with Bobby Rahal, David Letterman and Mike Lanigan, the same three men whom he drove for in the 2012 race – in which he made a daring attempt to pass Dario Franchitti on the inside for the lead on the final lap.

Unfortunately for Sato, he lost control, spun, and hit the wall. But despite his defeat, Sato did not lose any support from his team.

“Mike Lanigan has been such a huge supporter of mine since 2012,” Sato said. “We’ve had a great relationship since then. Even when I was racing with different teams, he’d always come and congratulate me and cheer for me.

“When I finally came back to race for Bobby and Mike last year, I was really happy to carry his Mi-Jack sponsorship. The company was founded by his father, and unfortunately Mike’s father passed away this year, so he wanted to have a tribute for his father.”

In honor of the late Lanigan, Sato’s Indy 500 entry will sport Mi-Jack’s red and yellow colors in a livery similar to the one Conquest Racing ran during the mid-2000s, when Mike was the team’s co-owner.

Although Sato stated that he looks forward to Sunday’s race and is hopeful he runs well, he acknowledges that a good finish at the Brickyard requires an error-free performance. Sato will start from the 14th position.

“Everything has to be perfect,” Sato said. “You need a strong team, a fast car, good driver and even a little bit of luck. Every single piece of the puzzle needs to come together to become a winner. Winning the 500 is just so special.

“Obviously everyone wants to win, and so do I. Hopefully we can pull off another great win.”

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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.”