It’s been a season to remember for Takuma Sato, but he isn’t ready to call it in by any means.
The 40-year-old from Tokyo is in his eighth season in the Verizon IndyCar Series, but first with Andretti Autosport – and it’s seen him take his abilities to new heights. He electrified everyone with his passing en route to leading 17 laps and winning the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil and is on the cusp of doing something he has not done before: finish in the top 10 of the championship.
The driver of the No. 26 Andretti Autosport Honda sits seventh in the standings, the best of the team’s four drivers and 72 points behind overall leader Josef Newgarden of Team Penske heading to this weekend’s race on another superspeedway oval – the ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway. He will drive with a new livery this weekend, with sponsorship from Expedite Home Loans -- a division of Ruoff Home Mortgage which sponsored his Indy 500 victory.
“I always believed that … it’s just the package I needed,” said Sato. “To have a good team, good environment, strong equipment and great team members, that’s how you really compete for a championship. In INDYCAR, in a good meaning, it’s unpredictable. From short ovals to big ovals, and road courses to street courses, there is just so much variety and being consistent with strong finishes each and every week is a very tough challenge. But somebody has to win the championship.”
Sato’s Indy 500 victory drew worldwide attention as he became the first driver to win “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” But it was just his second in the Verizon IndyCar Series – the other coming at Long Beach in 2013 with AJ Foyt Racing. He also went winless in 90 starts over seven Formula One seasons before coming to the Verizon IndyCar Series in 2009.
Andretti Autosport is Sato’s fourth time in the series and he feels it gives him the best chance of any thus far to battle for a title.
“I won a title and major international races with absolute dominance during my British Formula 3 days in Europe (in 2001), and I feel that the potential is there with Andretti Autosport to be strong for the championship,” he said. “It is still up and down, but I feel really good with where I am at with the No. 26 crew and the cars. We all work extremely well. With a little bit of luck, maybe we can still make a push for this championship. That’s my ambition, anyway.
“Coming to Andretti Autosport over the offseason, I naturally expected to have a strong season and that is exactly what it is. There is still lots to come and we have lots left to learn from this season.”
That begins this weekend at Pocono Raceway. In four starts at the “Tricky Triangle,” Sato has qualified in the top 10 each time, including third last year. He also had a strong showing in 2015, leading three laps before ending the day sixth.
With the superspeedway race package at the 2.5-mile oval similar to that of Indianapolis Motor Speedway in May, Sato sees reason for optimism.
“Absolutely, it is an exciting moment and I love it,” said Sato. “Very excited and motivated to go to the last few races.
“Of course, mathematically it is possible to still win the championship. Winning is the dream and is the target, but realistically thinking, it is going to be very tough. It feels good to be in this position, though.
“The two goals we set out to do this year was challenge for the championship and challenge for the Indianapolis 500, which we won and it was fantastic. Now with a few races left to go, it’s a great feeling to have a chance at title.
“My approach for the rest of the season: If I have an opportunity, of course go for the win; but if not, we just need to have good, solid races and strong finishes and then see how it all ends up.”
Action begins Saturday at Pocono with practice at 9 a.m. ET (streaming live on RaceControl.IndyCar.com). Qualifying airs live at 1 p.m. on NBCSN. A final practice is set for 5 p.m. (RaceControl.IndyCar.com).
Coverage of the 200-lap race starts at 2 p.m. Sunday on NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.