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Sato Overcomes Nerves To Earn IndyCar Pole At Pocono

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, August 20 2017

Driver Takuma Sato and team owner Michael Andretti celebrate after winning the pole at Pocono. (Photo courtesy of INDYCAR)

Last in the qualifying order, first on the speed chart.

Takuma Sato put the blinders on and his foot to the floor following a grinding crash by Andretti Autosport teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay to qualify on-pole for Sunday’s ABC Supply Verizon IndyCar Series race at Pocono Raceway.

Long-regarded for a fearless demeanor on the racetrack, Sato put together two wide-open laps at 219.639 mph around the 2.5-mile “Tricky Triangle” in Long Pond, Pa., to earn the pole during the day’s final qualifying attempt. The ABC Supply 500 is the 14th of 17 races on the 2017 schedule.

Sato was forced to sit in the cockpit for several minutes after Hunter-Reay crashed on the warmup lap before his attempt. The reigning Indianapolis 500 champion, Sato momentarily parked concerns for his teammate to collect his second pole position of 2017 and seventh of his eight-year  IndyCar Series career.

“We see Ryan’s moment. Really made me nervous because he was just in front of me,” Sato said of the circumstances surrounding RHR’s sidepod-shredding wall-banger. “Yes, it made me nervous. We share a lot of parts and philosophy on the car. So it’s directly expecting what he has is what I have.

Alexander (Rossi) came to me before the qualifying, he give me what he felt in Lap 1 to Lap 2, Turn 1 to Turn 3. Because here it’s a lot of downshift. We had to deal with the weight-jackers, had to really work on that. Everything was proactive. I was able to put down a great lap, and I really have to say thank you to all my team.

“Basically, (my) engineer just went through (as much) data as possible at that particular moment and we backed off a little bit (of) front wing to a little bit secure the rear. I got a good feeling on that warmup lap (at 218 mph) and I couldn’t believe it. Obviously, the engineers and guys did an incredible job. What an incredible achievement for Andretti Autosport.”

Sato’s run included a hair-raising moment entering Turn 1 on his second lap _ a move that placed him inches from the wall. “Yeah, a couple inches,” said Sato, driver of the No. 26 Andretti Autosport Honda. “I get used to that from Indy. This time it didn’t hit, so…

No, I mean, it was actually good. Nice and tidy and very smooth. But then there are times of tire degradation because, as I said, we are extremely trimming. The car got slide. Into Turn 1 on the second lap, the car just couldn’t make it so I had to lift a couple of times _ quick lift, then manage it _ just manage it.

“Still I think we kept reasonably good momentum, so I think the second lap was still very fast. I think the car worked really well. I think I’m very fortunate situation.”

Sato’s run knocked reigning series champion Simon Pagenaud of Team Penske from P1. Pagenaud settled for second in the No. 1 Chevrolet with a two-lap average of 219.395 mph.

“Today was pretty much ‘ego day’ trying to get that pole position,” Pagenaud said. “Almost. We were just a little short. Actually, the car was very enjoyable. The balance was perfect. Starting position here isn’t quite what it is at some other places since the race is 500 miles (200 laps). A lot of things can happen, but the good thing is that the car has good balance and worked well in traffic during the morning session. I think we’ll have a good car for the race.”

Pagenaud said he could not publicly and politely say what was going through his mind as he watched Sato complete his run and relegate him to P2.

“Disappointing, of course,” Pagenaud said. “You can taste the win, and that’s what we’re all about. We’re racers. We want to win. I’m here to win, to be first, not to be second.

“In the meantime, it’s a really good starting position. At the time it’s like gambling. You’re in the game and you feel like you could win, so it’s very exciting. That’s the rollercoaster of racing in your life as a racer. It’s up and down, up and down your whole career. These moments are why I race. It’s happiness, satisfaction of doing the job.”

Chip Ganassi Racing drivers Charlie Kimball and Tony Kanaan locked up the second row. Kimball was third in the No. 83 Honda at 219.369 mph, with Kanaan fourth in the No. 10 Honda at 219.012 mph.

“I honestly didn’t expect our run to be that good,” Kimball said. “I’m really proud of that effort from the whole crew. Everyone from Novo Nordisk Chip Ganassi Racing really put their heads down between practice and qualifying and made some pretty significant changes that put us right there in the window.”

Meanwhile, championship leader Josef Newgarden of Team Penske qualified 14th in the No. 2 Chevrolet at 217.235 mph. Newgarden leads teammate Helio Castroneves _ who also crashed during qualifying _ by seven points and Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon, a four-time series champion, by eight points.

Newgarden, who is leading the point race for the first time in his six-year INDYCAR career, is seeking his third consecutive victory after closing-out July with consecutive wins on the Streets of Toronto and at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

Newgarden leads Pagenaud by 17 points, 2014 series champion Will Power of Team Penske by 52 points and Graham Rahal of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing by 58 points.

Hunter-Reay was among three drivers unable to complete qualifications attempts and therefore will start from the rear of the 22-car grid on Sunday. Driving the No. 28 Honda, Hunter-Reay spun exiting Turn 3 on his warmup lap, with the left side of the car making hard contact with the SAFER Barrier before it slid down the track and made secondary contact with the inside wall on the front straight.

Hunter-Reay, the 2012 series champion and 2014 Indy 500 winner, limped to the INDYCAR medical response vehicle with help from the Holmatro Safety Team. After being evaluated at the track’s infield care center for injuries to his left hip and knee by Dr. Geoffrey Billows, INDYCAR medical director, Hunter-Reay was transported by ground to Lehigh Valley Hospital-Cedar Crest in Allentown, Pa., for further evaluation. Hunter-Reay was treated and released Saturday evening but has not been cleared to drive, pending a re-evaluation Sunday morning. 

“During qualifying today, out of nowhere, the car stepped-out on me,” Hunter-Reay said in a statement from Andretti Autosport. “It was a bit of a wiggle, which I caught. The second time it happened, it came with no warning _ which is a bit confusing. I hit my hip pretty bad as well as my knee, so the doctors thought it would be best to go in for further evaluation. After a CT scan and MRI, I am able to go and get a good night’s sleep. I’m sure I’ll wake up sore, but will hopefully be able to get back in the DHL machine (Sunday).

“I know the entire Andretti Autosport team worked hard to get the car put back together and with 500 miles, there is still a chance to win from the back of the field. I can’t thank the Holmatro Safety Team enough for their quick response along with the medical staff at INDYCAR, Pocono and Lehigh Valley Hospital -Cedar Crest. Also, thank you to the fans for reaching out with their support.”

Earlier in the session, Castroneves lost control of his No. 3 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet heading into Turn 1 on the first lap of his qualifying attempt. The car’s left side made hard contact with the SAFER Barrier, but Castroneves walked away uninjured. The popular Brazilian will start from the outside of Row 10 in Sunday’s race.

“That’s really disappointing,” said Castroneves, chasing his first series championship. “The car was good this morning and I really thought we had a chance. Certainly it (the crash) is a mistake, no question. With something like that, you should know a little bit better. But I’m not worried about where you start; the good news is it’s 500 miles. Last year Hunter-Reay actually started last and nearly won the race. It shows that if you have good balance, which we do, have a good team and everything, we should be able to overcome this obstacle. That’s what I’m looking for.”

Team owner/driver Ed Carpenter crashed in nearly the same place as Hunter-Reay in Turn 3 during morning practice. Carpenter was not injured. The No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet sustained significant left-side damage that his crew was unable to repair in time to put the car into the qualifying technical inspection line. Carpenter did not make a qualifying attempt and will start last.

“The car had felt pretty good,” said Carpenter, recounting his crash. “Graham (Rahal) was coming in the pits in front of me and slowing up. I don’t know, I maybe lifted a little bit for him slowing down to keep the gap and it may have shifted the balance. Frustrating, not the start that we wanted but we’ll just have to rebound. It’s early in the weekend and we can recover from it.”

Sunday’s race will be the 24th for Indy cars at Pocono Raceway dating to 1971. NBC Sports Network’s live coverage will begin at 2 p.m. (EDT), with a pit stop practice set for 2:04 p.m., followed by driver introductions at 2:40 p.m. The command to start engines is set for 2:45 p.m. The race also will be carried by the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.

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Sebastien Bourdais has been cleared to resume competing in the Verizon IndyCar Series by Dr. Geoffrey Billows, INDYCAR medical director, following recovery from injuries the Frenchman sustained in a crash during Indianapolis 500 qualifications.

Billows said the 38-year-old driver for Dale Coyne Racing was evaluated by INDYCAR orthopedic consultant Dr. Kevin Scheid earlier this week and given clearance to fully return to racing activities.

Bourdais was involved in a frightening crash during an Indianapolis 500 qualifying attempt on May 20. The crash in his No. 18 Honda left the four-time Champ Car champion with fractures in his hip and pelvis. He returned to a car for a medical evaluation test at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course on July 31.

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Qualifying results for the ABC Supply 500 Verizon IndyCar Series race on the 2.5-mile Pocono Raceway, with qualifying position, car number in parentheses, driver, aero kit/engine, and speed:

  1. (26) Takuma Sato, Honda, 219.639 mph   
    2. (1) Simon Pagenaud, Chevrolet, 219.395 mph   
    3. (83) Charlie Kimball, Honda, 219.369    mph
    4. (10) Tony Kanaan, Honda, 219.012 mph 
    5. (12) Will Power, Chevrolet, 218.688 mph    
    6. (98) Alexander Rossi, Honda, 218.622    mph
    7. (15) Graham Rahal, Honda, 218.099 mph
    8. (88) Gabby Chaves, Chevrolet, 218.020 mph    
    9. (9) Scott Dixon, Honda, 217.819 mph    
    10. (8) Max Chilton, Honda, 217.748 mph
    11. (19) Ed Jones, Honda, 217.565 mph
    12. (5) James Hinchcliffe, Honda, 217.556 mph    
    13. (18) Esteban Gutierrez, Honda, 217.292 mph
    14. (2) Josef Newgarden, Chevrolet, 217.235 mph
    15. (7) Sebastian Saavedra, Honda, 216.943 mph
    16. (27) Marco Andretti, Honda, 216.801    mph 
    17. (4) Conor Daly, Chevrolet, 215.964 mph
    18. (14) Carlos Munoz, Chevrolet, 215.115 mph    
    19. (21) JR Hildebrand, Chevrolet, 214.988 mph    
    20. (3) Helio Castroneves, Chevrolet, no speed
    21. (28) Ryan Hunter-Reay, Honda, no speed
    22. (20) Ed Carpenter, Chevrolet, no speed

 

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, August 20 2017
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