Sato carrying run of momentum to Honda Indy Toronto

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Takuma Sato continued his run of strong races at Sunday’s Iowa Corn 300 and looks to keep the momentum going at this weekend’s Honda Indy Toronto.

Sato finished third at Iowa Speedway to collect his first podium finish of the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season and first since winning the 2017 Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil. The Iowa result also marked Sato’s fourth top-seven finish in the last five races, a sign of growing comfort in his return to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing this season.

Sato’s opening stint in the race may have been his most important of the day in the No. 30 Mi-Jack/Panasonic Honda. Starting 10th, he slowly moved up to fifth place, picking off car after car on track as they faded near the end of the stint. Just as important, Sato kept from being lapped by leader Josef Newgarden, who set a blazing pace throughout the first three-quarters of the 300-lap race.

Sato had a spirited battle with Spencer Pigot for the final 200 laps. Sato passed the Ed Carpenter Racing driver for third place on Lap 172, but Pigot regained the edge on the final round of pit stops. Pigot wound up finishing a career-best second, one spot ahead of Sato.

“Spencer and I had a lot of great, I think, side by side (racing),” said Sato. “One stage was a little close, but I think we respected each other all the time.”

Sato led Laps 224-226 before making his final pit stop. Exiting the pits in fifth, he maintained position and avoided disaster when the spinning car of Ed Carpenter made light contact with Sato’s right rear on Lap 294.

“It was a big moment with Ed,” Sato said. “I thought I was going through it, but he basically snapped it and (was) coming back towards me. We clipped it a little bit and had really gentle contact, which (got) him back in the straight.”

Both cars continued to finish the race, but the contact brought out the caution flag. Newgarden and Robert Wickens, running second and third at the time, made pit stops under the yellow in anticipation of a restart that never came. Those pit stops elevated Sato to his eventual finishing position of third when the race ended under caution.

Sato and teammate Graham Rahal were among some 10 drivers who didn’t participate in testing a week before the Iowa race, leaving them at a disadvantage heading into race weekend.

“We were struggling and we weren’t necessarily sure (on race) morning how competitive we would be,” Sato admitted. “We knew we’d be in the top 10, but we weren’t really expecting to be competing for the podium. It’s great, you always have to believe in the race and you go for it, but today was one of the tough days.”

With no time to rest, it’s on to Canada for the popular street-course race around Exhibition Place.

“We have good momentum right now so I hope we can continue in Toronto,” Sato said. “Toronto is a challenging track. It's probably one of the bumpiest tracks of the season and is also challenging because the track surface changes multiple times in one corner, from asphalt to concrete.

“On the engineering side and the driver's side, it's always very challenging because no matter what setup you apply, the cars go all over the place. However, it's a good track. There is a long straight followed by heavy braking which gives the drivers opportunity for overtaking and makes the race exciting for the drivers and the spectators.”

Practice for the Honda Indy Toronto begins Friday, with Verizon P1 Award qualifying on Saturday (same-day telecast at 5 p.m. ET on NBCSN) and the race on Sunday (3 p.m., NBCSN and Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network).

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