Takuma Sato found redemption in the backdrop of St. Louis on Saturday night.
Out of the frying pan and into Victory Lane.
This is the best possible way to describe what the past several days has been like for Takuma Sato. Just six days ago, Sato found himself under fire by his peers due to his involvement in the violent first-lap crash at Pocono.
And wouldn’t you know it, he again found himself three-wide on the first-lap with both Alexander Rossi and Ryan Hunter-Reay, surviving this one without incident but eventually falling from outside the top-5 to losing a lap to the leaders.
He was effectively eliminated from contention, his stout qualifying effort reduced to an ill-handling car that didn’t look capable of contending.
So how in the world did the Bommarito 500 at Gateway end up with a podium of Sato, Ed Carpenter and Tony Kannan?
Track position, clean air and a fortuitous caution.
The Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing No. 30 ran a pair of long stints during the middle stages of the race and was just one of four cars on the lead lap when Sebastien Bourdais spun on Lap 190 near the end of green flag pit stops.
He cycled through with the lead, and despite Carpenter’s best efforts, was untouched over the final laps — ending with a photo finish.
It was a remarkable turn of events for a guy that really needed the good vibes.
Sato was so embattled over the first half of the week that the Rahal team actually sent out a rare mid-week press release in defense of its driver, attaching a video file of his onboard that indicated that the 2017 Indianapolis 500 winner was not entirely at fault.
And then, to cap off a tumultuous week, he landed in Victory Lane.
“This is special, particularly after the difficult circumstances, to come here, qualify strong … A difficult start,” Sato said. “I was sandwiched, then (went) backwards. It was difficult to get away (on) the first stint.
“We put our heads down, did our job, believed in ourselves…We came back. We made a lot of good pace over the next two stints and stretched the fuel how we needed.
“So yeah, the yellow came out. Some luck happened. But I think this is the whole effort of the team completely behind me, their support. So happy to bring the win for them. I’m very, very happy.”
When Sato says he is happy, he means it. And equally, when he said he took the past week personally, the criticism from his peers, he meant that too.
“I really appreciated it,” Sato said of the Rahal team support. “Really, I call the Rahal team my home. Especially Mike (Lanigan) and Bobby (Rahal). Bobby came to my town and we had a great lunch together two nights ago. Team is fully behind me.
“He told me ‘don’t worry Taku. Just get focused and do you what you do.”
There has been a lot of talk about what Sato does over the past week, but next week, it will be about his second win of the season and fifth of his career.
“Literally the definition of professional sports: hero maybe one minute, zero the next, hero again,” Josef Newgarden said of Sato’s moment. “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.”
With every due respect to the podium, they can look to the Bourdais spin on Lap 190 as the decisive moment of the Bommarito 500. Sure, each of the teams gambled on a caution and ran long stints to place them in position to capitalize, but they don’t finish in the top-three without that caution.
A weekend long narrative centered around the inability to pass at single-groove Gateway and that proved to be accurate.
Sato, Kanaan, Carpenter and Newgarden were the only drivers on the lead lap at the time Bourdais hit the wall and spun off Turn 4.
They cycled back through to the lead when the wave around cars got their laps back and restarted behind the Fortuitous Four.
The track position proved vital because cars lose downforce on their front wings in traffic, so the podium was even able to keep a faster Newgarden behind them.
That’s also why Carpenter was able to make gains on Sato at the end once the leaders started working through traffic. Newgarden and Santino Ferrucci seemingly had faster cars than the podium, but just couldn’t overcome the dirty air.
In fact, Newgarden even threw a late block of sorts on Ferrucci, with the latter noting that “he took my air.”
Carpenter was aware of the circumstances that landed him on the most unexpected podium of the season.
“You have a caution at the right time that mixes the field up and it can totally reset things at any given moment,” he said. “It’s rewarding to be up front. It’s nice to finish my year off on a good note. Nice to be racing up front with these guys. It’s been a while and I’ll enjoy it.”
It was Carpenter’s first podium since finishing second in the 2018 Indianapolis 500. It was AJ Foty Racing’s first podium in 1,546 days and first with Kannan.
It was utterly unpredictable.
Josef Newgarden’s championship lead remained largely static after Saturday night’s race, but with a slight alteration. Instead of leading 35 over Alexander Rossi, he now leads by 38 over Penske teammate Simon Pagenaud.
Newgarden was poised to gain on all parties as he was running inside the top-five in the closing laps after Rossi made a late pit stop.
But a last lap spin after hard racing with Santino Ferrucci knocked Newgarden to seventh in the final rundown, and combined with a fifth-place run by Pagenaud, kept the dynamic largely the same with just two races remaining at Portland and Laguna Seca.
Keep in mind that Laguna is a double-points race so any driver within 80 points has a mathematical shot, and any within 40 has a top-10s chance of making it happen under the right circumstances.
1. Josef Newgarden Ldr
2. Simon Pagenaud -38
3. Alexander Rossi-46
4. Scott Dixon -70
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