Joe Skibinski / IndyCar

Takuma Sato enters Portland with giant weight off his shoulder

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PORTLAND, Oregon – It’s a been a great week for Takuma Sato.

The driver of the No. 30 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda has worn his title of “Defending Champion” like a badge of honor, as he enters this weekend’s Grand Prix of Portland as not only the most recent winner in NTT IndyCar Series competition, but also as the most recent IndyCar winner at Portland International Raceway.

That’s quite the turnaround for a driver who entered the last race at World Wide Technology Raceway with a cloud of negativity following him around.

After being accused of being responsible behind the Lap 1 crash at Pocono Raceway two weeks ago by both fans online and even some of his peers, Sato did not know what kind of reception he would receive from fans at the track going into the final oval race of the season.

Fortunately for Sato, many of the fans he met in St. Louis showed him support.

“I’ve really appreciated all of the people who have supported me,” Sato told NBC Sports. “The last few weeks have been very difficult, so I’m really happy to share all of the excitement and joy with everyone.”

Sato would have plenty of excitement to share with everyone, as he would go on to win for the second time this season, narrowly edging out Ed Carpenter for the victory in exciting finish to last Saturday’s Bommarito Automotive Group 500.

With his redemption victory last weekend, Sato can now sigh a breath of relief before he returns to action and attempts to duplicate last year’s winning performance in Portland.

“We just need to have a strong race,” Sato said. “That’s what we did last weekend. We just did our job, believed in ourselves, and then we went out and came back really strong.

“We’re carrying great momentum, and my team and I are really up for the last two rounds of the IndyCar Series. We had an amazing week last year, so of course I’ve looked forward to coming back to Portland for the whole year.”

Live coverage of the Grand Prix of Portland begins Sunday, September 1 at 3 p.m. ET on NBC.

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Attention NASCAR teams: IMSA drivers available for Daytona!

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NASCAR will be making its debut on the Daytona International Speedway road course next month, and there’s a big fan who’d like to join the historic weekend.

This fan actually has impressive credentials, too — a few thousand laps around the 12-turn, 3.56-mile layout that annually plays host to the Rolex 24 at Daytona in January.

In 2014, the winning GTLM team in the sports car endurance classic included IMSA Porsche driver Nick Tandy, who rabidly has followed NASCAR for more than 30 years since growing up in England.

So why not try racing NASCAR? Especially because Tandy has the weekend of Aug. 14-16 free.

He’s not picky, either — offering up his services on Twitter (as well as those of Porsche teammate Earl Bamber) for an ARCA, Xfinity, trucks or Cup ride.

Tandy’s affinity for American stock-car racing runs deep.

His first trip to the World Center of Racing was as a fan attending the 50th running of the Daytona 500 on Feb. 17, 2008. During Rolex testing in January, Tandy, 35, said he hadn’t missed a Cup race on TV in 15 years.

Among his favorite NASCAR drivers: the Earnhardts, Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch. When IMSA ran the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course in 2014, Tandy stayed a few extra days at the Brickyard and bought Kyle Busch gear for himself and his children.

He briefly took the stage during a NASCAR weekend last October. After IMSA’s season finale at Road Atlanta, Tandy made a few demonstration laps and a burnout in his No. 911 Porsche before the Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway.

He also has some experience in stock cars, having raced Modified-type grass-roots series on England’s quarter-mile short tracks.

Couple that with a Daytona road course record that includes two consecutive podium class finishes (including last Saturday) and a sports car resume with 13 IMSA victories and an overall win in the 2015 24 Hours of Le Mans … and maybe a NASCAR team should take a look.

And Tandy isn’t the only IMSA driver who likely would be available.

Corvette driver Jordan Taylor, who won the 2017 Rolex 24 overall title with Jeff Gordon as a teammate (and the inspiration for his Rodney Sandstrom persona), also tweeted his availability for the weekend on the high banks.

Sports car veteran Andy Lally, a GTD driver with multiple class wins in the Rolex 24 as well as 38 Cup starts (he was the 2011 rookie of the season in NASCAR’s premier series), also hung out his shingle.

There also is AIM Vasser Sullivan’s Jack Hawksworth (who just won at Daytona last Saturday), the Englishman who teamed with Kyle Busch at the Rolex 24 in January and made an Xfinity start at Mid-Ohio last year with Joe Gibbs Racing.

Many sports car drivers (such as Taylor) already live in Florida, and many are hunkering down in the Sunshine State with IMSA returning to action at Daytona last week and Sebring International Raceway next week. Because of COVID-19-related travel concerns and restrictions, several IMSA stars who live outside the country are riding out the pandemic within a few hours of Daytona with nothing to do.

Why not a weekend at the World Center of Racing?

Over the years, scads of “road-course ringers” (including some Formula One veterans) have tried their hands in stock cars at Sonoma Raceway and Watkins Glen International.

How about considering the many sports car drivers who already have reached victory lane at Daytona by making a few right-hand turns, too?