Takuma Sato back with Rahal Letterman Lanigan in 2020

INDYCAR Photo by Chris Owens
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MONTEREY, California – Team owner Bobby Rahal has solidified his 2020 NTT IndyCar Series lineup by announcing a contract extension with 101stIndianapolis 500 winner Takuma Sato for another season at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.

Rahal also said in an exclusive interview that as each day passes, it is becoming more unlikely that he will be able to expand to a three-driver team next season.

“With each passing day, the reality becomes less that we will have one,” Rahal told NBCSports.com. “I don’t think it’s a dead issue at this stage, but if something is going to happen, it has to happen pretty quickly.

“We would like to, but only if it is right. I’m not interested in having a third car, just to say we have a third car.”

Sato has won three races with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing in the last two seasons, including victories in the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park in April and the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 at WeatherTech Raceway at Gateway in August.

He is a five-time IndyCar Series winner.

“He has developed a good relationship with engineer Eddie Jones, and they have had some pretty good races this year,” Rahal said. “They’ve had some that could have been better, but that is like anything in racing. Takuma is a very committed guy. There is some good chemistry between he and Eddie, and the team and it has produced some results.”

Sato again will team up with fellow driver Graham Rahal.

“The challenge we face for both Graham and Takuma is to be more consistent,” Bobby Rahal said. “We seem to be hot and cold. One weekend we are hot and the next weekend we are cold. If you look at Team Penske or Chip Ganassi Racing, they are pretty consistent. We need to figure out how to be that kind of a team. Our processes need to be better and that is our commitment to each other over the offseason, how to generate that consistency to fight for wins every race in the championship.”

At 42, Sato is one of the oldest drivers in the series, but he continues to get better. When he first arrived in the IndyCar Series in 2010, Sato had blazing speed but often drove over the edge.

Simply put, he crashed a lot.

In recent years, Sato has been able to harness that speed, and it has helped him excel. He has a better understanding of the racecraft.

“He is making a lot fewer mistakes than he used to make,” Rahal said. “Some of that is having confidence in the car and the team. People forget, I retired when I was 45 and was still finishing on the podium. Takuma still has some good years left to win races and get on the podium.

“He works very hard off track. Sometimes, I think too hard to be honest because he is a very busy guy. We like him being on the team and having him as part of the team.”

Sato splits his time between his home in Tokyo with his family and his racing family in the United States. That makes him the most well-traveled driver in the series.

“Takuma was fundamental in NTT becoming the sponsor of the series,” Rahal said. “A lot of people don’t know that. He spends a lot of time in Japan taking care of his sponsors and it is demanding for sure.

“I think he travels too much. But, he’s not afraid to do it.”

He is also very popular with the sponsors on the team.

“Everybody likes Takuma,” Rahal said. “It’s fun to be around him.”

Sato first joined the team in 2012 and returned in 2018.  He has earned five wins in the series to date, three of which coming with the team.  The 2020 season will be his third consecutive with RLL, and fourth overall.

“I am very happy to continue our path together again after this season,” Sato said. “Every single member of the team is extremely loyal and have given me unbelievable support. I truly feel at home here and I am so proud of the team. We have had another great season this year and even had some tough times, but it only made our relationship stronger. I can’t thank Bobby, Mike (Lanigan), David (Letterman) and the entire team enough and I am looking forward to finishing the season strong and also looking forward to 2020.”

Sato has made 168 starts in the IndyCar Series since his rookie season in 2010.  His Indy car highlights include wins in the 2017 Indianapolis 500, 2013 Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, 2018 Portland Grand Prix, 2019 Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama and Bommarito 500 at WWT Raceway, with three of the five coming with RLL.

Of his 12 podium finishes to date, eight have come with RLL and he has earned nine Indy car poles, two of which are with RLL.  Prior to joining the IndyCar Series, he competed in 90 Formula One races between 2002-2008 with his highest finish of third at the 2004 United States Grand Prix.

Jenson Button joins NASCAR Garage 56 at Le Mans with Jimmie Johnson, Rockenfeller

Jenson Button NASCAR Le Mans
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The NASCAR Garage 56 entry in the 24 Hours of Le Mans will be driven by champions of three major-league series — Jenson Button, Jimmie Johnson and Mike Rockenfeller.

The lineup of the Hendrick Motorsports-prepared Next Gen Camaro was announced Saturday before the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

NASCAR’s Garage 56 project was announced in March 2022 as a joint effort by NASCAR, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet and Goodyear. It marks the return of a NASCAR team to Le Mans for the first time in nearly 50 years with Hendrick fielding a Camaro ZL1 as the “Garage 56” entry in the 100th edition of the sports car classic.

It’s long been expected the car would include Johnson, the seven-time Cup Series champion who is returning to NASCAR’s premier series as a driver-owner in 2023. Rockenfeller, the 2013 DTM champion and 2010 Le Mans overall winner, has attended every NASCAR Garage 56 test since last year while racking up simulator testing hours.

The surprise was Button, the 2009 Formula One champion who has become a popular commentator. Rick Hendrick initially said wanted four-time Cup champion and current Hendrick Motorsports COO Jeff Gordon to drive the car, and Gordon had raced a sports car at Indianapolis last year to test his race shape.

GARAGE 56 ANSWERS, ANALYSISMore on the NASCAR-Hendrick entry for the 24 Hours of Le Mans

“Since the beginning of the Garage 56 project, it has been our goal to partner with the top racers in the world to represent us in Le Mans,” NASCAR chairman and CEO Jim France said in a release. “The lineup of Jimmie, ‘Rocky’ and Jenson is everything we could have dreamed of – three elite drivers who have won at the highest levels of motorsports worldwide. As we celebrate the 75th anniversary of NASCAR, we are honored to have these world-class champions help bring the sights and sounds of a NASCAR race car to fans in Le Mans, and across the world.”

Button had one of the most prolific careers in F1 history finishing with 15 wins and 50 podiums on top of his 2009 World Championship and is widely considered one of the top British drivers of all time.

“As a lifelong racing fan, I have always dreamed of racing certain cars, with and against certain drivers and competing in certain events,” Button said in a release. “In June, a number of those dreams will come true in one event when I get to bring NASCAR to the world stage alongside my pals Jimmie and ‘Rocky’ for the 100th anniversary of the most prestigious race in the world. I’m really looking forward to sharing this journey with NASCAR, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet and Goodyear, and current and future NASCAR fans from around the world.”

Johnson will make his 24 Hours of Le Mans debut a year after starting his first Indy 500. He has 83 victories in the Cup Series, where he will return for the Daytona 500 next month with his Legacy Motor Club team.

He also has been involved with testing the Garage 56 Camaro.

“I’m super thrilled – it’s been at the top of my bucket list to compete in the 24 Hours of Le Mans someday,” Johnson said. “To have this opportunity come – and to partner with everybody and this driver lineup – is truly an incredible opportunity and one that I am thankful to be a part of.”

Rockenfeller teamed with Johnson on the No. 48 Ally Cadillac in the Rolex 24 at Daytona in 2021-22. The German driver has been the lead test driver for Garage 56 and has driven during every on-track test.

“It has been a great journey so far with the whole team and project,” Rockenfeller said. “To be involved as a driver from day one until now was already a great honor, and to now have Jimmie and Jenson alongside me as teammates in Le Mans is unbelievable.”

The car will continue testing with all three drivers next week at the Daytona International Speedway road course. Rolex 24 and four-time IMSA champion Jordan Taylor, who drives for Corvette Racing, will be the team’s backup driver and coach. Taylor also won the GTE Pro class in 2015 at Le Mans, where he has four podium finishes.

The project also is being supported by IMSA GTP team Action Express, whose general manager is former NASCAR executive and Daytona 500-winning crew chief Gary Nelson. Action Express built the first test car for the Garage 56 but since has handed off the project to Hendrick, where it’s being over seen by vice president of competition Chad Knaus (the crew chief for Johnson’s seven championships).

“Action Express got it going and built the mule car, and then Hendrick joined the program, took it from where we had it, and they’re doing a major percentage of the work,” Nelson told NBC Sports. “We just did a test a couple months ago on a wet track. We’ve done a couple of other tests as they were ramping their program up. Now their car is good, tested and running. We’re still involved and here to help. The Hendrick guys have taken the reins, and Rick Hendrick and Chad Knaus are a thrill to work with and doing a much better job. It’s more NASCAR than prototype racing.”