Tuesday, April 4, 2023

INDYCAR: Sato’s first race with Ganassi ends with early crash at Texas

SCREENSHOT: ESPN en Star Plus / @helinhodepre via Twitter

by William Soquet
LASTCAR.info Staff Writer

Takuma Sato finished last for the 17th time in his NTT IndyCar Series career in Sunday’s PPG 375 at Texas Motor Speedway when his #11 Niterra Honda crashed out after completing 46 of the race’s 250 laps.

The finish came in Sato’s 216th career start, and was his first since Toronto last year, nine races ago. In IndyCar Series history, it was the 200th due to a crash, the seventh for the #11, and the 213th for Honda.

Since Sato’s early crash at Toronto, he picked up two more top-ten finishes in the back half of 2022. After a disappointing first race of the Iowa doubleheader, he rebounded to finish 10th in the second one. Additionally, he had his best weekend of the year at Gateway, qualifying eighth and finishing fifth. Despite that, a tough overall season left him 19th in the standings, and most expected Sato to head into the sunset after a long and successful IndyCar career.

But then, Chip Ganassi Racing found themselves in need of a driver. After two years of IndyCar competition, Jimmie Johnson headed for retirement – that is, until he bought a stake in a NASCAR team. Stock car racing notwithstanding, CGR decided to keep operating a fourth car after Johnson left the team. The organization looked for a full-time driver but struggled to find a candidate with ample amounts of both talent and budget. Eventually, the team nabbed former Formula 2 driver Marcus Armstrong for the road courses, announcing the signing in early December. Rumors swirled about who the oval driver would be, but Sato was eventually announced. In many ways, this made sense as IndyCar’s most loyal Honda driver and best oval ace was paired with the team that won the 2022 Indianapolis 500. While the deal was only originally announced for Texas and Indianapolis, neither the team nor Sato has made any indication that he will not drive at the late-season ovals.

Sato was one of two changes on the entry list from St. Petersburg, taking over the reins from Armstrong, who fought back from early adversity to notch an 11th-place finish on the lead lap. Ed Carpenter returned as well, primed for yet another season of doing the oval races in a third entry for his Ed Carpenter Racing team.

While Sato’s eighth-place run in opening practice may have been a small story for those who expected a transition period, the real story was the lack of pace from Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. The team endured a languid start to the 2022 season, and while they turned it around in the latter half of the year, the team now looks to be back to square one. The team’s three cars were 26th, 27th and 28th in first practice. While Graham Rahal and Jack Harvey were within a tenth of catching Carpenter, Christian Lundgaard, in only his second year of oval racing, was a few tenths off the entire field.

Qualifying was more of the same story, except that ECR joined the misery. Cars from the Rahal and Carpenter teams combined to take the bottom five spots of qualifying, with only Ed Carpenter breaking into the Top 20. This time, it was Harvey who was the slowest car on track, with a two-lap total time of 47.97 seconds. This was only two-hundredths more than Lundgaard, who in turn was just fifteen-hundredths of a second off of Rinus VeeKay. Sato, meanwhile, qualified sixth, two-tenths off the pole.

Final practice was about a half-hour after qualifying on Saturday and was used by many teams as an opportunity to get back into race trim. Harvey once again sat at the bottom of the charts, the only car in the 24-second time bracket. VeeKay narrowly avoided the same fate, clocking a fast lap of 23.95 seconds. Sato continued to be on the rise, going from eighth in first practice to sixth in qualifying and third in final practice. He looked to be a legitimate dark horse race winning candidate, pulling within a tenth-and-a-half of Scott Dixon’s hot lap in the session.

With ominous skies looming on race day, the start time of the race was moved up to approximately 11:15 A.M. local time to try and have an official race before the rain came. Harvey wasted no time if that was to be the case, jumping Lundgaard, 25th-place starter Conor Daly and 23rd-place starter Sting Ray Robb by the time the first lap ended. Still struggling for pace, Lundgaard dropped into the 28th spot. 

Lundgaard remained there for the opening run, following in the tow of Daly. The Danish driver was 4.4 seconds back after the first lap and nine seconds back after nine laps, a mere three-tenths behind Daly’s Ed Carpenter Racing machine. The two gradually drifted back until they fell into the clutches of leader Josef Newgarden, who put Lundgaard a lap down on the frontstretch coming to Lap 34 and then put Daly a lap down in Turns 1 and 2 the next time by. Lundgaard and Daly continued to work towards the first round of pit stops until Lap 45, when Rahal pitted from 25th. Already a lap down, the #15 dropped to the bottom of the scoring pylon following the stop. 

Two laps later, Sato found himself on the outside of a three-wide situation in Turns 1 and 2. His car got outside of the two-wide groove, lost traction, and jerked towards the outside wall. He struck the wall on the exit of Turn 2, spun around, and backed into the inside wall, terminally damaging the left side of the car.

Kyle Kirkwood finished 27th, the victim of a pit incident when Alexander Rossi released from his pit stall as Kirkwood was turning in to find his. Felix Rosenqvist and Robb were the next two cars out, both crashing out in single-car incidents similar to Sato’s. Rahal rounded out the Bottom Five, retiring from the race after he crashed into Devlin DeFrancesco, who was sliding up the track in Turn 3 after crashing on the backstretch.

*This was the first last-place finish for the #11 since Barber last year, when Tatiana Calderon finished the race under power.
*This is the first last-place finish for the #11 as a Chip Ganassi Racing entry, the previous last-place finishes come from KV Racing Technologies (three, all in 2013 with Tony Kanaan), A.J. Foyt Racing (two) and Andretti Green Racing (one).

28) #11-Takuma Sato / 46 laps / crash
27) #27-Kyle Kirkwood / 97 laps / crash
26) #6-Felix Rosenqvist / 177 laps / crash
25) #51-Sting Ray Robb / 208 laps / crash
24) #15-Graham Rahal / 219 laps / crash

1st) A.J. Foyt Racing, Chip Ganassi Racing (1)

1st) Chevrolet, Honda (1)


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