Contact John Sturbin
FORT WORTH — At age 43, Takuma Sato truly may be just hitting his open-wheel prime.
The Japanese star certainly is not slowing down, as evidenced by his pole-winning effort Friday afternoon for the DXC Technology 600 NTT IndyCar Series race at Texas Motor Speedway.
Sato will start Saturday night’s 248-lapper from P1 after lapping TMS’ high-banked/1.5-mile quadoval in a two-lap average of 220.250 mph. “Taku” scored his ninth career pole and first in Cowtown at the wheel of the No. 30 ABeam Consulting Honda fielded by Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.
Fifth in championship points and already a winner from pole on the Barber Motorsports Park road-course this season, Sato is as fit, motivated and aggressive as any series rookie.
“You could judge from outside,” said Sato, the ex-Formula One racer who scored the biggest win of his career in the 2017 Indianapolis 500. “Obviously, I’m challenging all the time. But this time, of course, I’ve got great support from the team. Yeah, I can feel more confident, more comfortable shall we say, that the things when you need it, pushing 100 percent of course.
“But, I mean, it’s like name of sport. Every athlete tries to improve yourself. Every time jump in the car, I still feel I developing, I still learning. I survived Detroit (doubleheader) last weekend. I’m still feeling fresh and ready to go. Hopefully, this trend goes to the end of the season so I can challenge for the top three of the championship.”
Sato is 61 points behind series leader Josef Newgarden of Team Penske, a little over one-race in the INDYCAR scoring system at the season’s mid-point.
“It’s been a great weekend,” Sato said. “Here in Texas, it’s kind of dreaming about it, be on pole. I have been saying that to the guys, that this is one of iconic track in IndyCar Series — high-banking, very fast passing. You never know till very last lap.
“To be on-pole is great. But at this track, you can do completely anything possible from the back row.”
Sato will be joined in the two-car front row by Scott Dixon, the defending event winner, after his effort of 220.162 mph in the No. 9 PNC Bank Honda fielded by Chip Ganassi Racing. Dixon, a three-time winner here, will be looking to join Team Penske’s Helio Castroneves of Brazil as the only four-time winners of “America’s Original Nighttime IndyCar Race.”
“It was close but congrats to Taku,” said Dixon, the five-time/reigning series champion from New Zealand. “Don’t feel like we did too much wrong in that qual run. Qualifying doesn’t really mean much here, I don’t think. You definitely want to be in the front half of the field. Hopefully, we can stay up front.”
Dixon, third on the all-time series list with 45 victories, said Sato has refined his game while learning to adapt to American oval-track racing.
“I think Taku has always had tremendous speed, pulled it out of nowhere, which has always been fun to watch,” said Dixon, 37. “He’s a big talent. He’s a smart guy. I think he’s excelled at a lot of different teams, too, which is not always the easiest thing to do.”
Honda-powered cars also occupied Row 2. Frenchman Sebastien Bourdais will start third after lapping at 219.746 mph in the No. 18 SealMaster Honda fielded by Dale Coyne Racing. Ryan Hunter-Reay of Andretti Autosport will start fourth after his run at 219.537 mph in the No. 28 DHL Honda.
Reigning Indianapolis 500 champion Simon Pagenaud leads the Chevrolet contingent in fifth after his run of 219.355 mph in the No. 22 DXC Technology Team Penske entry. The Frenchman finished second to Dixon, who led the race’s final 119 laps, last June.
The top qualifying rookie was Colton Herta, driver of the No. 88 GESS/Capstone Honda fielded by Harding Steinbrenner Racing. Herta averaged 218.406 mph and will start 10th in the 22-car field.
Tire degradation continues as a key issue. Thursday’s rained-out night practice was scheduled to allow teams to experience conditions similar to what they likely will deal with Saturday night. As a result, sanctioning body INDYCAR ordered all teams to scrub-in four sets of tires during an extra 30-minute session that preceded Friday’s one-hour practice.
After tire-testing here in October 2018 and in March, the Firestone Race Tire Engineering team brought a faster-wearing right side compound that is more heat-resistant on the 1.5-mile layout. The right-side construction and the left side tires are the same as last year.
“It’s going to be more tight (racing) than last year, because we have 100 pounds more downforce,” Sato said. “I don’t think it will be pack racing.
“The pack racing is always tough to draw the line. You want to see exciting race here, especially for the Texas, two-wide, three-wide. But again, I completely understand the safety issue.”
John Sturbin is a senior writer at RacinToday.com, based in Fort Worth. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.