INDYCAR's top 10 stories of 2017, Part 3: International allure, American champion

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INDYCAR witnessed another year of memorable storylines in 2017 – both on and off the track – as the Verizon IndyCar Series continued its upward trend in worldwide exposure, fan growth and exciting, intense racing.

Selecting the top 10 stories of the year was a difficult exercise, to say the least. IndyCar.com writers Joey Barnes, Jeff Olson and Phillip B. Wilson, along with the rest of our staff, compiled our subjective consensus of that list.

Today, read about the top three stories of the year in INDYCAR.

Takuma Sato

No. 3 – Sato wins thrilling 101st Indianapolis 500, becomes national hero in Japan

By Phillip B. Wilson

Takuma Sato arrived in May at Indianapolis Motor Speedway as one of six Andretti Autosport drivers and overshadowed by the media hype surrounding a teammate, two-time Formula One world champion Fernando Alonso.

The 40-year-old Japanese driver known as “Taku” didn’t depart the same way.

A career-defining victory in the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil etched Sato’s name and likeness in history on the Borg-Warner Trophy.

“It’s beautiful,” Sato said. “I dreamed of something like this since I was 12.”

It was an ironic ending for Sato, who won in a late duel with three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves of Team Penske. In this same race in 2012, Sato tried to pass Dario Franchitti for the lead on the final lap but crashed in Turn 1.

“This time, I was pointing in the right direction (exiting Turn 1), wasn’t I?” Sato said, smiling.

It’s the first time a Japanese driver has won the Indy 500. Sato had never won on an oval in the Verizon IndyCar Series, his other victory coming on the streets of Long Beach in 2013. After that win, he went home to Japan and was greeted by about 300 media. This time, thousands of media and fans celebrated his homecoming. He was honored by Japan’s prime minister in August and was joined by the Borg-Warner for a history-making and massively popular victory tour of Japan earlier this month.

“Taku did an awesome job,” said Andretti Autosport CEO Michael Andretti, who boosted his Indy 500 win total as an owner to five, including three of the last four.

Castroneves, bidding to tie A.J. Foyt, Rick Mears and Al Unser with a record-tying fourth Indy 500 win, took the lead on Lap 194. 

“When he had to go, he went,” Andretti said of Sato.

Sato pulled off a slingshot pass just before the iconic yard of bricks start/finish line at the end of Lap 195 and Castroneves couldn’t overtake the No. 26 Andretti Autosport Honda.

“I knew I could do it,” said Sato, who will drive for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing in 2018. “But just, you know, waiting (for) the moment. The last few laps, they were the moment.”

Fernando Alonso

No. 2 – Alonso captivates motorsports world by entering, leading Indy 500

By Jeff Olson

Little more than a month before competing in the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil in May, Fernando Alonso sat in the conference room of an Andretti Autosport transporter at Barber Motorsports Park and acknowledged how much he had to learn.

“I will need the help to be competitive,” he said. “I’m very open-minded, knowing that the series is completely different, the cars are completely different and superspeedways require a driving technique and a driving feeling that’s completely different and that I don’t have yet.”

His words proved prophetic, and Alonso proved to be a quick learner. The veteran of 32 victories and two championships in Formula One had no experience with Indy cars or Indianapolis Motor Speedway, yet he showed speed from the start of practice. He qualified fifth in the 33-car field, led 27 laps of the 200-lap race and was running among the leaders when a mechanical failure sidelined him just 21 laps from the finish.

But it was Alonso’s embrace of the trappings of the Indy 500 – the demands of the media, the fans and the schedule – that endeared him to a worldwide audience. His one-day test at IMS was streamed live on May 3 and “broke the internet,” with more than two million unique views. He zipped through Gasoline Alley on a motorized skateboard, signed autographs and affably entertained curious fans and even fellow drivers.

The first time he took the race lead, Alonso saw “29” – his car number – atop the scoring pylon, an experience that humbled one of the world’s best racers.

“I was thinking at that moment that if someone from the team was taking a picture of the tower, I want that picture at home,” he said. “It was an amazing experience.”

Josef Newgarden

No. 1 – Late-season tear pushes Newgarden to first Verizon IndyCar Series championship

By Joey Barnes

American. Millennial. Champion.

Never have those three words been combined in the Verizon IndyCar Series, but Josef Newgarden’s hoisting of the Astor Cup at season’s end did exactly that.

The Tennessean enjoyed a banner year during his sixth season in the series and his first with Team Penske. At the age of 26 during the campaign, he sped to career highs in wins (four), top-five finishes (10), top-10 finishes (13) and laps led (390).

It didn’t look like a championship-type season through the first half of 2017, however. Though he did win at Barber Motorsports Park in April and finished second in the second race of the Detroit doubleheader in early June, Newgarden was stuck in seventh in the point standings after crashing out in 13th place at Texas Motor Speedway on June 10.

Not to be denied, Newgarden put together an impressive run to grab the title by the throat. Following the Texas debacle, he ran off a string of three wins and two second-place finishes in six races. The exclamation point came under the lights at a jam-packed Gateway Motorsports Park on Aug. 26, when he bumped his way past teammate Simon Pagenaud for the race lead and drove away to victory.

“Simon gave me a lane to work with,” Newgarden said of the move. “I had a good tow on him, put my car inside in the opening, got about halfway alongside of him. … I tried to get Simon to move over a little when we were coming to the opening of the corner. We both had to slow up. Fortunately, (it) worked out well for us on the (No.) 2 car side.”

Pagenaud, who finished third in the race, was livid immediately afterward but had calmed by the race the following weekend at Watkins Glen International – even apologizing for his emotional outburst. Still, the points swing for that move proved decisive for the championship. When Newgarden placed second to Pagenaud in the season finale at Sonoma Raceway on Sept. 17, he clinched his maiden series title by 13 points over the Frenchman.

A new American champion was crowned to lead a new generation of INDYCAR driving stars.

“I’m proud to carry the flag happily,” Newgarden said. “I love the IndyCar Series. It’s got the whole world in front of it.

“It was all year and it took a lot to make it happen,” Newgarden added. “It’s a huge team effort at Team Penske. To finally get it done is a dream come true.”

As the confetti fell during the championship celebration at Sonoma, it was legendary team owner Roger Penske who put the moment in perspective.

“This young kid who just won the championship, you’re just starting to see him,” Penske said. “He’s going to be great.”

(Read Part 1 and Part 2 of the three-part series recapping the top 10 INDYCAR stories of 2017).

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