After a week spent weathering criticism for his part in the opening-lap accident at Pocono last Sunday, Takuma Sato found the perfect reply at Gateway when he drove from last to first to win a chaotic NTT IndyCar Series race on Saturday evening.
Predictably, it was a race defined in significant part by strategy and the timing of the yellows, and this certainly rang true for Sato. The No. 30 RLL Honda started from fifth, caused a minor heart attack on the Andretti pitwall when he banged wheels with Ryan Hunter-Reay off the start – echoes of a week earlier – but then sank through the field like a rock during the first stint. Sato was in last place when he made his first visit to the pits.
His car improved as the evening went on, though, and with the help of a long third stint that brought him back into the same zip code as the leaders, he was able to capitalize on a yellow that cycled him towards the front of the field.
As everyone else’s late-race fuel strategies played out, Sato was still out in front, and when the final restart came with just over 40 laps to go, the field was led by the improbable trio of he, Ed Carpenter and Tony Kanaan. And nobody had an answer for them.
Kanaan lost touch with Sato and Carpenter over the closing laps, but Sato more than had his hands full with Carpenter, who surged into attack mode with two to go and drag-raced Sato down to the finish line. The final margin was just 0.03s.
“We kept out head down and did our job,” said an elated Sato. “Obviously today was a little lucky in terms of strategy, but we were fast. It was tough. We made it happen today, and a really big thank you to the team. This is superb.”
Carpenter was delighted to end his 2019 campaign on a strong note, but perhaps rued the fact that the finish line wasn’t another few yards further down the track.
“Yesterday was brutal,” said Carpenter. “It was one of the hardest days I’ve had in a car. We kept our heads down and really didn’t have to change much to get it in the window, and we were really good on the long runs tonight. Just needed a little more time to get Takuma. Good way for me to finish my driving season.”
Meanwhile, Sato wasn’t the only one who had some doubters to silence, Kanaan celebrating his third place as both a shot in the arm for an A.J. Foyt Racing team that has endured a difficult year, and also as a chance to fire back at some critics.
“Great job for us,” he said. “We’re having a tough year, and I’ve heard it all by now; and I think we proved… our strategy played out, but once we were in front, I tried to hang in there. Happy for the team; happy to shut up some of the people that are criticizing us. When I go through tough times, I perform better. Bring it on. Keep it coming.”
So what happened to everybody else? What didn’t? It’s a race that will stand up to repeated viewing, if only to answer all the ‘How did XXX end up finishing XXX’ questions. But it says something about the flavor of the evening that for quite some time it was looking like a potential Dale Coyne Racing 1-2 – led not by Sebastien Bourdais, but by Santino Ferrucci, who again single-handedly delivered enough excitement to justify the ticket price.
Ferrucci was genuinely quick through most of the evening, particularly on restarts, and the sniff of a possible top-three finish turned an already energetic drive up to 11 during the closing laps. At that point he was ‘fighting’ Josef Newgarden who, with his eye on the championship, wasn’t putting up too much of a defense of his fourth place. Things went a little sour right at the end, though, when Ferrucci drifted high and caught the marbles, saved himself from disaster, and shot straight back down onto the racing line – which was already occupied by Newgarden.
That put Newgarden into a spin at the final corner of the final lap, and dropped him from fourth to seventh. From a championship standpoint it could have been catastrophic; but luckily for him, most of his rivals were having an even worse night, and he actually managed to leave the race with a slightly larger points gap than he’d had going in.
“It’s important to know that [Ferrucci] is a rookie,” Newgarden said. “What he did was, in my opinion, dangerous. He came over to talk to me and said he was loose, but I’ve been in the same position tonight, and knew what it was like to get into the marbles. He came back down to get the position, which he didn’t need to.
“I let him go two times tonight. But he has got to learn that this is big-time auto racing, and if you do a move like that on an oval, you will cause a wreck. His instinct was to come back onto the racing line, but you cannot do that on an oval. It’s a lesson; I hope he learns that.”
Ferrucci conceded that Newgarden’s frustration was justified.
“He wasn’t fighting us and I respect that from him,” he said. “I was trying to bring home some hardware because we were strong all night. I did close the line on him a little bit too much, but we’re fighting for two different championships. I probably could have given him a little more room, but I really wanted that hardware. I had so much fun this race.”
Just behind Ferrucci was Simon Pagenaud, whose fifth place was enough to move him ahead of Alexander Rossi into second in the championship.
“I can’t wait to watch this race again,” he said. “We really struggled on restarts to get temperature into tires, but the car was really good on long runs, and at the end I had to be like a ninja and slide though the field. It was a good championship day for us. Sorry for what happened to Josef at the end, but for us, I think that’s where we would have ended up — maybe a little better.”
Conor Daly went off sequence early, and while the yellows and track position never quite played into his hands at the right time, sixth was still an excellent return for his effort. Behind him, Newgarden, Hunter-Reay, Colton Herta and Marco Andretti rounded out the top 10.
For the Honda side of the championship fight, Gateway was a disaster. Rossi’s car got faster as the evening went on, but he caught the wrong end of the yellow and was hung out to dry in the final quarter of the race when he found himself trying to fight position with older tires and a more severe fuel mileage number than everyone around him. He was forced to stop again with 20 to go and hope for a yellow that never came.
Ironically, his was the last car to pass the stricken Newgarden on the approach to the finish line, but by that point he was a lap down.
“We drove up to P3 on pace,” he said. “It’s the way this series works and the yellows fall sometimes. It’s frustrating. The whole team did a really good job overnight; put together a fast race car. We were content running up there, and could run the same pace as Newgarden, if not quicker.
“It’s unfortunate, but we’ve got two races to go, and we’ll see what we can do in Portland.”
Bad as his day was, he was still classified 111 laps ahead of Scott Dixon, who sustained a punctured radiator on the opening lap and then lost a massive amount of time getting it repaired. He did return to the track, but parked the car again once he’d made up the maximum possible positions.
“Just really bummed for the team,” he said. “The car was really good; the latter part of the stint it just came on. Just feel bad. Had we been able to show the potential of the car, I think we would have been looking good tonight, but it wasn’t to be.”
It could have been a good night for Pocono winner Will Power, too, who was within range of being able to attack Newgarden for the lead at the end of the first stint. That threat was neutralized after the stops, though, when Power went high and slapped the Turn 4 wall on his out lap.
“The car was great,” he said. “I came out on cold tires and just got a little bit out of the groove, and it’s like ice. [Firestone] brought a new tire and it really sheds the rubber. My bad for getting up there. You can’t put an inch on that stuff; you just go straight. It’s ridiculous.”
He wasn’t alone: Spencer Pigot and Bourdais both ended their evenings in the wall, and there was a long list of others who narrowly avoided the same fate.
The only other retirement was Graham Rahal, who dropped out during the final stint with a mechanical problem.