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Near-flawless performance takes Sato to victory at Barber

by racedaysaeditor | Posted on Sunday, April 7th, 2019

Takuma Sato takes the checkered flag at the Honda Indy Grand Prix at Alabama on Sunday. Photo by Joe Skibinski

 

Courtesy of the NTT IndyCar Series

BIRMINGHAM, Alabama – Takuma Sato drove flawlessly – almost – to win the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama presented by AmFirst and throw his name firmly into the NTT IndyCar Series championship conversation.

Takuma Sato. Photo by Chris Owens

The Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing driver made Scott Dixon a Barber Motorsports Park bridesmaid for a record sixth time, beating the reigning series champion to the finish line by 2.3874 seconds. It was the fourth win of Sato’s 10-year NTT IndyCar Series career, with the 42-year-old from Tokyo becoming the third different driver – each from a different team – to pull into victory lane in three races this season.

HONDA INDY GRAND PRIX OF ALABAMA: Official race results

“This is because of the team, they did a fantastic effort,” Sato said. “My car was superb! (On alternate) red tires, (primary) black tires, I didn’t have to worry about it.

“It’s probably the cleanest race I ever won. … I think we come here with the hopes, always do, but honestly never really, really expected to be this much of a domination.”

Takuma Sato. Photo by Joe Skibinski

Starting from pole position after winning the NTT P1 Award the day before, Sato led 74 of 90 laps on the 17-turn, 2.3-mile permanent road course that hosted the NTT IndyCar Series for a 10th straight year. Track officials announced a healthy three-day weekend attendance of 82,889.

About the only time Sato turned a wheel wrong came with five laps to go, when his No. 30 Mi-Jack/Panasonic Honda went wide in Turn 8, going airborne briefly as it rattled through the grass. His car undamaged from the off-track excursion, Sato gathered himself and kept Dixon at bay to the checkered flag.

“Outside, (it) probably looked easy winning from the cruising and the pole position, but it wasn’t really cruising,” said Sato, the 2017 Indianapolis 500 winner. “So I was really pushing hard using push-to-pass on everything the last 10 laps. So it was tough, and I had a little moment into Turn 8.

Takuma Sato. Photo by Joe Skibinski

“Anyway, it was not necessary to give the little bit sort of heart attack to the body.”

The win was the 27th for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing in its 27th year as an Indy car team. Co-owners Bobby Rahal, the three-time Indy car champion and 1986 Indy 500 winner, and David Letterman, the iconic late-night talk-show host, were on hand and overjoyed with the result.

“I’m really pleased for Takuma, he drove beautifully,” Rahal said. “The team did a fabulous job, pit stops were great, strategy was great. But I honestly think Takuma was in a league of his own.”

Dixon was thwarted again in his effort to win at Barber, finishing on the podium at the track for the eighth time. Still, the result was the 42nd second-place finish of his 19-year career, moving Dixon ahead of Helio Castroneves and alone behind only Mario Andretti’s 56 career runner-up finishes.

Scott Dixon. Photo by Chris Owens

“We’ve got to be happy with that,” Dixon said. “It’s always tough competition. We come here to win, but second place (was) great for points. … Hopefully, we can try and get a win here one day.”

Sebastien Bourdais successfully employed a two-pit-stop strategy to finish third in the No. 18 SealMaster Honda for Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser-Sullivan. It was the 57th podium finish for the four-time Indy car champion and his best showing in nine Barber races.

“Hats off to that Team SealMaster Honda crew, they really gave me a great car,” Bourdais said. “I guess we were one of the rare teams to stick to the two-stop strategy. It means that Dale (Coyne, team co-owner) has a heck of a lot more faith in me than I have in myself, that’s for sure. 

“On Lap 18, I said, ‘I don’t think I can hang onto the car for another 10 laps,’ and he was like, ‘Well, you’re committed now.’ So, I wasn’t quite sure about it, but it worked out and I finished third.”

Josef Newgarden. Photo by Chris Owens

Sato had never finished better than eighth in nine previous races at Barber, but became the fifth driver to convert a pole position at the track into victory. He leapt 10 spots in the season standings into third place, 34 points behind leader Josef Newgarden. Dixon is second, 27 points behind Newgarden.

A three-time Barber winner, Newgarden struggled all weekend until the race. The 2017 NTT IndyCar Series champion drove his No. 2 Fitzgerald USA Team Penske Chevrolet from 16th starting position to finish fourth.

“We had a good car today, we just started too far back,” Newgarden said. “That was kind of our story this weekend, couldn’t really get going really enough … so nice to get a fourth today and Chevy did a nice job getting us what we needed.”

There was just one full-course caution to tie the track record for fewest in a race. Graham Rahal, Sato’s teammate who started second in the No. 15 One Cure Honda, stopped on course on Lap 57 and Carlin’s Max Chilton slid into a tire barrier shortly after while avoiding Tony Kanaan of AJ Foyt Racing as both attempted to enter pit lane.

Sato joins Newgarden (Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg) and rookie Colton Herta (INDYCAR Classic at Circuit of The Americas) as race winners in 2019. Sunday’s race will receive an encore telecast at noon ET Monday on NBCSN. 

The next NTT IndyCar Series race is the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach on Sunday, April 14. Race coverage begins at 4 p.m. ET on NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.

‘What They’re Saying’ from the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama

JOSEF NEWGARDEN (No. 2 Fitzgerald USA Team Penske Chevrolet): “I didn’t mean to push (Alexander) Rossi as much as I did. He braked really deep. I had a good run on him and he went pretty deep into the corner and I locked the front up and just went into him a little too aggressively. Honestly, he gave me a ton of room there and let me do my thing. Hats off to him for making it work. We had a good car today. We just started too far back – that was kind of our story this weekend, couldn’t really get going really enough. Our Fitzgerald car, it’s good to have those guys on board. We got a race win here (with Fitzgerald) in 2017, so nice to get a fourth today and Chevy did a nice job getting us what we needed.”

MATHEUS LEIST (No. 4 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): “Tough race here at Barber. Unfortunately, not the result we wanted. We were struggling a lot with both Firestone tires, red (alternate tires) and black (primary tires). We just didn’t have the pace today. Our tire degradation was higher than the other drivers and when you have a high tire degradation there’s not much you can do. Unfortunately, we got a lap down when we pitted before the yellow (flag). Nothing we could do from there on, just a disappointing day here at Barber considering that we finished 12th here last year and we probably could have done a better job this year. Let’s see what we can do at Long Beach.”

JAMES HINCHCLIFFE (No. 5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda):
“Obviously, with the pace we had all weekend, sixth is a bit of a disappointment, for sure. The Arrow car had a solid podium going there until that yellow (flag) caught us off guard. We were all over (Scott) Dixon’s gearbox in that third stint. We were quite a bit quicker, just couldn’t get past. We were looking to make a move during that cycle, but that restart just threw us for a loop. We had a little bit too much understeer in the car in that last stint. We had a good long-run car, but we weren’t the quickest getting up to speed. I don’t think our out laps were great, and the first lap or so on the restart, we weren’t awesome. Certainly, a bit disappointed. I feel like we left a couple of positions out there today. It is what it is. The pace was good all weekend, and if we keep doing that, eventually our day will come.”

MARCUS ERICSSON (No. 7 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda): “It was another great race for us. I think like St. Pete and COTA, we’ve shown how strong we are in the races. Going from an obviously disappointing qualifying starting from P20 going all the way up to P7, I think that shows the potential we have and the whole package that we’ve got. So, I’m really, really happy with my race; we got the strategy perfect again like we have done the last couple of times, as well. It was really nice to finally get the result as well. We should’ve been in the top five in COTA without that penalty and also in St. Pete we were in for a top-eight finish. It’s so nice to finally bring it home and not get that bad luck to cause our problems like the last two rounds. It’s really positive and really happy for the Arrow guys – they did a great job again this weekend. We can definitely build on this performance. Now we just need to sort it out so that we can qualify a bit higher, because if we can do that, we can really challenge for podiums and wins.”

SCOTT DIXON (No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda): “We had a lot of (tire degradation). We started off where 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 both Graham (Rahal) and (Takuma) Sato early on in the race. But the last 10 laps were just miserable. On that last run, I just tried to hold a steady gap to (Sato), and from there, I have to thank the team. The PNC Bank guys were very strong in the pits (and) we jumped Sebastien (Bourdais) in the pits. He drove a hell of a race and went really far on that first stint. (Bourdais) was good on (tire degradation). Another second (at Barber) and now second in points. Hopefully, we can try and get a win here one day.” 

FELIX ROSENQVIST (No. 10 NTT DATA Chip Ganassi Racing Honda): 
“It was a long race. I went out on the reds (Firestone alternate tires) in the beginning, which felt OK to begin with, but they fell off quite a lot because we were fighting other guys and there was some big action going on in the first couple of laps. I think that took a bit out of the tires. Then we pitted for new blacks (Firestone primary tires), and that was initially good, but then my rear (tires) started to fall off a lot and we had a lot oversteer in the NTT DATA car. So that was probably my worst run, I would say; I couldn’t really push anyone that stint. My second stint was a bit better but then someone stopped the race and we pitted. Just as I pitted, the pits closed light came on, so I had to pass through the pit and we lost, luckily, only two spots. Normally if that happens you can basically be last. That was a big shame, it could have been a really good move maybe for top five or top six finish. Anyways, the final stint was OK and we got (Will) Power in the end and we got (Tony) Kanaan, so I think we salvaged some good points from starting P17 today. Not the weekend I wanted, and we still have a lot to work on. At least we had one car on the podium and one with seven positions gained from the start position, so good day.”

WILL POWER (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet): “It was a tough day, but we did the best we could with the Verizon Chevy. We just didn’t have the right tire setup for the race and it cost us. Barber is hard on the tires and it was difficult to hold on at times. We had to save fuel quite a bit on the last stint and that actually helped us take care of the tires a bit more. We’ll take the 11th place result here, but we know we can get a better result next week in Long Beach.”
 
TONY KANAAN (No. 14 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet):
 “We shot ourselves in the foot. We need to do a better job. We had a top-12 car and they miscalculated the fuel twice – that’s a very bad mistake that shouldn’t happen and it cost us.” 

GRAHAM RAHAL (No. 15 One Cure Honda): “About Lap 3, the throttle started to stick and I tried to make it hang on. We did, I don’t know, 15 laps that way. Finally, it was going to put me in a gravel trap or something; for sure, I was hanging on way too much. The car just died, completely shut off. We had this (problem) in qualifying, luckily it was on my cool-down lap from the lap where I (qualified second). But these have to be connected. Last night, we changed the throttle pedal, we changed the sensors, we checked all the tuning. I don’t know, but it has to be something in the loom. It’s just a shame. One Cure, this whole team was working really good. Takuma (Sato) and I were running away there at the start. I thought it was our day, man, I thought it was our weekend. Here and at St. Pete, with the flat tire, man, c’mon. At some point (our luck) has got to change.”

SEBASTIEN BOURDAIS (No. 18 SealMaster Honda): 
“The team guys did a great job, so hats off to that Team Sealmaster Honda crew, they really gave me a great car. I guess we were one of the rare teams to stick to the two-stop strategy. It means that Dale (Coyne team owner) has a heck of a lot more faith in me than I have in myself, that’s for sure. On Lap 18, I said, ‘I don’t think I can hang on to the car for another 10 laps,’ and he was like, ‘Well, you’re committed now.’ So, I wasn’t quite sure about it, but it worked out and I finished third.”

SANTINO FERRUCCI (No. 19 David Yurman Honda): “I kind of got boxed in at the start since I was on the outside, so I had to go through the grass. Fortunately, we didn’t lose too many spots, but it took us out of the top 10. I managed to gain back a few positions and we had a good strategy going, but then the yellow (flag) caught us out as I was unable to pit before the pits closed and that really hurt us. The No. 19 David Yurman car was pretty good today, so it’s unfortunate that we couldn’t get a better result out of it. Once again, I can’t thank the guys enough for their hard work this weekend.”

ED JONES (No. 20 Ed Carpenter Racing Scuderia Corsa Chevrolet): “We struggled the whole weekend. We made changes this morning for the race to see if we could make some improvements. In the warmup, it felt quite good, but I think we were struggling a bit for the balance in the race. We didn’t ultimately have the pace. It was a long, not very eventful race for us, which is not that fun. I made a mistake at the start. People checked up and I got out of line then jumped the start. We got a penalty for that. In the pits at the end, there was an unsafe release situation which cost us probably 30 or 40 seconds there. So, probably not an ideal race. I’m happy to have this weekend out of the way after the struggles. It can only get better from here.”

SPENCER PIGOT (No. 21 Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet): “It ended up being a really unfortunate race. We went for a two-stop strategy, which proved to be difficult, but we thought we would still make it inside the top 10 at the end. Unfortunately, the yellow (flag) came out and we were hit with the pit lane penalty that dropped us to the back. After that, our race was kind of ruined and we only salvaged 17th. We do have some really good things to take away from this weekend and we are looking forward to having a smoother race next week in Long Beach.”

SIMON PAGENAUD (No. 22 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet): “It was actually pretty fun out there – a lot of passing, side-by-side racing and a lot of strategy going on. The Menards Chevy was good today, but we weren’t able to start up front and we had to work really hard to try and make up ground. We know we have the pace to win a race. I guess we have to be a little more patient. Our next race at Long Beach is one of my favorite tracks, and hopefully, we can get back on the podium there.” 

ZACH VEACH (No. 26 Gainbridge Honda): “Overall from where we started (P23), I think it was a pretty good day. This weekend was a bit of a mess on my part, I was just pushing a little too hard when we had the speed to begin with. We were able to pull things around in the race, which I am thankful for. I can’t thank my crew and everyone at Gainbridge enough for making this happen. I feel like we finally started to get our feet back under us in the middle of the race, so I am hoping that carries over into Long Beach and we can get back to where we are supposed to be.”

ALEXANDER ROSSI (No. 27 NAPA AUTO PARTS Honda): “The red (Firestone alternate) tires were definitely a step better – just disappointing that we really didn’t find this out until the race, but that is a topic for another day. A good job by the No. 27 NAPA Andretti Honda boys and we will take a top five. We are still looking for a podium, but we are sure it is around the corner. We started eighth, finished fifth. We didn’t really have a car to fight for the win, which was disappointing. We need to get our game together and regroup for Long Beach next weekend.” 

RYAN HUNTER-REAY (No. 28 DHL Honda): “We soldiered on today. Went from 11th to eighth. I really think that was about all we had considering the tire strategy that the others had with newer reds (Firestone alternate tires) at the end of the race. We’ll take our eighth place and move on.”

TAKUMA SATO (No. 30 Mi-Jack / Panasonic Honda, NTT P1 Award winner and race winner): “It’s a great turnout. A really big thank you for Bobby (Rahal) and Mike Lanigan to make this (possible) for me. And big thank you to Graham Rahal; we were working so closely together. I mean today, either of us was going to be competitive. It was very unfortunate what happened to him, but this is great for the team.” (About issues in his first pit stop): “I think on the No. 30 car, we have new boys and are always learning and (slow stops) happen; it’s racing. You know, I make mistakes, too. It’s OK. I think we were back in the lead after that, and the car superb today.” (About the late mistake in Turn 8): “Maybe I shouldn’t have pushed that hard. It was a very intense battle; it was good.”
 
PATRICIO O’WARD (No. 31 Carlin Chevrolet): “That was definitely a hard one to take. We were working our way through the field and making up a lot of ground, but when we came in for our second stop we had an issue with the fuel that we just never recovered from. The No. 31 Carlin Chevrolet was better than 16th, for sure. I think we were actually looking at seventh or eighth, so it’s a tough pill to swallow. Regardless of how frustrated I am, we were able to take some positives out of today’s race with the progress I made with fuel saving from COTA. It’s obviously disappointing that we didn’t get another top 10, but thankfully we’re going straight into Long Beach, which I’m really excited about.”

MAX CHILTON (No. 59 Gallagher Carlin Chevrolet): “It was an unfortunate day for the No. 59 Gallagher Carlin Chevrolet and the whole Carlin team really. We were on pace most of the race and we decided to go with an alternate strategy to shake things up coming from the back. When that yellow (flag) came out for (Graham) Rahal stopped on-track, we were coming straight into the pits putting us right back in the hunt, but (Tony Kanaan) ran us into the grass and into the wall at the pit entrance. We had some front wing damage and lost a few laps, which obviously took us out of it completely. It was just really disappointing because with the fuel saving I did for the rest of the race, I think I was headed at least to an 11th place finish, if not higher.”

JACK HARVEY (No. 60 AutoNation/Sirius XM Honda): “I think it’s encouraging that we keep getting decent results, we always just end up a bit disappointed. I was a bit disappointed in the drive-through penalty; I wasn’t sure what happened there. My pit lane speed limiter just didn’t latch all the way in. I don’t think we nailed the strategy, so it was a bit of a frustrating day. We took away a 13th place result. In the end, it’s all encouraging because we are knocking at the door of transferring into the Firestone Fast Six in qualifying and we’ve had two top tens (in qualifying) and a 13th place result, so we are right where we want to be. We just have yet to put together a perfect weekend.”

COLTON HERTA (No. 88 GESS International Honda): “It was a frustrating day. We had an issue that hampered us while on track. It was something that to do with the fueling causing the engine to keep cutting out. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the best of days. I just want to give a special thank you to everyone at GESS International; I feel very honored to be in the GESS RNG Biogas circle of drivers and I’m looking forward to having them on board for (Acura Grand Prix of) Long Beach. Super thankful for them. And thank you to all the No. 88 boys, they worked so hard during the race in order to get the car fixed. They got the car back out, which is very important because we got to learn some crucial information about the car. It really sucks, but at least we only have to wait a week before the next race.”

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