Redemption is sweet for Takuma Sato

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MADISON, Ill. – For the past week, Takuma Sato has been a human punching bag after his involvement in a first lap crash last Sunday at Pocono Raceway. He was widely criticized by the other drivers involved in the crash, including Alexander Rossi and Ryan Hunter-Reay.

Sato and his Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing team supported their driver and even released on-board video footage shot form Sato’s car that they believe showed the driver did not make an erratic move.

Still, Sato arrived at World Wide Technology Raceway as a driver in serious need of redemption. He found it in Saturday night’s Bommarito Automotive Group 500.

Sato led the final 61 laps of the 248-lap contest at the 1.25-mile short oval and claimed the fifth NTT IndyCar Series victory of his career.

Redemption is sweet for Sato.

“This win for the whole team effort, we can put it all behind,” Sato told NBC Sports.com. “Tonight’s champagne tasted so beautiful, but I have to thank everyone so much for their support.”

At one stage, Sato was a lap down, but the race played out perfectly for the driver from Tokyo to not only get his lap back, but race to the front.

“It’s been an incredible weekend,” Sato said. “Every race weekend is intense with a lot of pressure, but this one was a tough one after Pocono. I got support from a lot of people, actually. They changed their mind after seeing the evidence.

“My team’s support was incredible. I want to thank every single person on the team and all the fans that supported me, and the media, they showed what was a fact. It wasn’t easy, but we focused and built a fast car. We kept our head down and it was a very, very exciting show tonight.”

It was Sato’s first short oval victory of his career and the 42-year-old driver from Japan has now won on every type of track in the NTT IndyCar Series. His first win was on the streets in the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach in 2013 driving for AJ Foyt Racing. His second win came at the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the 101stIndianapolis 500 in 2017 when he was racing for Andretti Autosport.

He won last year’s Portland Grand Prix on a permanent road course for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. This year, it’s the first time Sato has won two races in the same season. In April, he won the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park, another natural road course, and then claimed the short oval win at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway Saturday night.

Sato has collected the entire set.

“It’s a nice collection with a lot of great trophies and memories,” Sato said. “Before tonight, the best finish on a short oval for a driver from Japan was Hidecki Mutoh at Iowa when he finished second (to Dan Wheldon in 2008). We have now completed all types of course, but we have to keep winning of course.

“To get two races in the same season is a fantastic feeling. That was on my target list.”

Earlier in the race, the main players in last week’s crash at Pocono were racing side-by-side at Gateway with Sato and Hunter-Reay just inches apart and with Rossi close by.

This time, there was no incident, but it was certainly ironic.

“When Ryan and I went side-by-side we tried to give each other room,” Sato recalled. “Today was very close again. We raced fair, in a hard battle, and I had no problem with that.

“But I had a huge moment at the start when James Hinchcliffe and I touched at the start and I lost a lot of positions on that.”

But Sato was able to battle back.

When Sato went down one lap, he went to the back of the grid at the end of a caution and pitted one more time so that he could stretch his fuel and get the lap back. He was successful in that.

He was able to use the same strategy later in the race when he stretched his fuel again and went from 13 to first. He was also able to save fuel during the final caution that lasted from Laps 192 to 204.

“That, too, was a very important moment,” Sato said.

When the checked flag waved, there was Sato driving under the checkered flag and achieving redemption.

“Literally the definition of professional sports: hero maybe one minute, zero the next, hero again,” Team Penske driver Josef Newgarden said of Sato’s performance. “That’s just how it goes.

“Everyone thought Takuma was the worst thing on the planet of Earth leaving Pocono. Now it was like it wasn’t his fault. Now he’s probably a hero again. Next week he could be a loser one more time. No one knows.

“You live day by day in this sport. It’s every day you’re judged. A great day for him obviously. All these teams put in a lot of work. I’m sure it’s very gratifying for those guys. Really everyone in front of us did a great job. Santino had a great race. All these guys did a pretty nice job. I’m sure for Sato and his crew, they’re going to be pretty happy about it.

“I wish it was us. It’s hard not to feel happy for everybody because there’s a lot of work that goes into this paddock from all the teams.”

New Chip Ganassi driver Marcus Armstrong will team with boyhood idol Scott Dixon

Marcus Armstrong Scott Dixon
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Marcus Armstrong was a Scott Dixon fan his entire life, and when he was 8, the aspiring young racer asked his fellow New Zealander to autograph a helmet visor that he hung on his bedroom wall.

Next year, Armstrong will be Dixon’s teammate.

Armstrong was named Friday as the fourth IndyCar driver in the Chip Ganassi Racing lineup and will pilot the No. 11 next season on road and street courses.

A driver for the five oval races on the 17-race schedule will be named later.

The No. 11 is essentially the No. 48 that seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson drove the last two seasons, with Chip Ganassi making the change to run four cars numbered in sequential order. Indianapolis 500 winner Marcus Ericsson drives the No. 8, six-time champion Dixon drives the No. 9, and 2020 IndyCar champion Alex Palou drives the No. 10.

So just who is the second Kiwi in the Ganassi lineup?

A 22-year-old who spent the past three seasons in Formula One feeder series F2, a Ferrari development driver in 2021, and former roommate of Callum Illot and former teammate of Christian Lundgaard – both of whom just completed their rookie IndyCar seasons.

“I’ve always been attracted to the IndyCar championship because it’s one of those championships that’s been really well televised in New Zealand since I was young, mainly because of Scott and his success,” Armstrong told The Associated Press. “As time progressed, as I got closer to F1 and single-seaters, the attraction to IndyCar grew just because of how competitive the championship is – I like to challenge myself and the level of competition in IndyCar is remarkably high.”

Armstrong, from Christchurch, New Zealand, was set to travel from his current home in London to Indianapolis this weekend to meet his new team. He won’t need an introduction to Dixon, the 42-year-old considered the best IndyCar driver of his generation and Armstrong’s unequivocal childhood hero.

Last season, Dixon earned his 53rd career victory to pass Mario Andretti for second on the all-time list. Dixon has driven for Ganassi in all but 23 of his 345 career starts.

“For a long time I’ve been a Scott Dixon fan. I don’t want to make him cringe with our age difference,” Armstrong told the AP.

Despite the two-decade age difference, Armstrong never considered someday racing with Dixon a fantasy.

He convinced his father after winning five national karting championships to allow him to leave New Zealand for Italy at age 14, where he moved by himself to pursue a racing career. Armstrong said as soon as he’d received parental permission, he’d never look back.

Armstrong was in Formula 4 two years after his move to Italy and won that title in his first season. He won four races and four poles in F3 in the 2018 and 2019 seasons, then collected four wins and eight podiums in three seasons of F2.

“Maybe it’s a strength, or maybe it’s a weakness, but I always thought I was capable of doing great in the sport,” Armstrong told the AP. “I think you probably have to succeed in the sport, you need to believe in yourself. I always pictured myself being in IndyCar.

“As Scott’s teammate? I can’t specifically say I saw that. It’s an extraordinary chain of events.”

Armstrong becomes just the latest driver to leave Europe, where F1 is the pinnacle but has only 20 seats each year. Alexander Rossi began the trend in 2016 when the American left F1 and won the Indianapolis 500 as a rookie. He’s been followed by Ericsson, last season’s Indy 500 winner, Romain Grosjean, Illot, Lundgaard, and on Thursday three-time W Series champion and Williams F1 reserve driver Jamie Chadwick was announced as driver for Andretti Autosport in IndyCar’s second-tier development series.

Armstrong said he could have remained in F2 for a fourth season, but he’d been watching IndyCar for so long, and after conversations with Illot and Lundgaard, he decided to make the move to what he believes is the most balanced racing series in the world. He tested for Dale Coyne Racing at Sebring in October.

He doesn’t know if European racing is done for good, just that he wants to be in IndyCar right now.

“I don’t want to think too far into the future, I’m just grateful for this opportunity that is standing right in front of me,” Armstrong said. “I want to perform as well as I can in the near future and just consolidate myself in the fantastic chance that is IndyCar and just do my best.

“I’m not looking at F1 as a landing spot – I am looking at IndyCar, and that’s exactly why I am here.”