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Sato Positioned for Second ‘500’ Win in Career of Second Chances

Amid bright sunshine Saturday morning at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, 33 drivers gathered in Pagoda Plaza for the last official meeting of the 104th Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge.

The spotlight of the annual Indy 500 Drivers Meeting shined mostly on pole sitter Marco Andretti and five-time NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion and current points leader Scott Dixon, two of the favorites to win Sunday’s race (1 p.m., NBC, Pennzoil INDYCAR Radio Network).

Additional focus was on Rinus VeeKay, the highest-starting rookie in this field, and the vast amount of accomplished drivers starting in the back four rows – “500” winners Will Power, Tony Kanaan, Simon Pagenaud and Helio Castroneves, plus two-time Formula One World Champion Fernando Alonso.

And yet, somehow there was a driver who has proven his IMS skill many times sitting front and nearly center, and he’s not generating as much talk as a strong candidate to win the 200-lap race.

Takuma Sato, who starts on the outside of Row 1, certainly knows how to find Victory Lane, reaching it in 2017 with Andretti Autosport by outdueling Castroneves, a three-time winner, in the closing laps.

History shows that Sato is just a blink from being a three-time winner of this iconic event. In 2012, he crashed trying to pass Dario Franchitti for the lead in the final trip through Turn 1, and he finished third last year, a scant three-tenths of second behind Pagenaud.

Even in years where the box score doesn’t reflect it, Sato has had fast race cars.

“Sometimes things move in your favor, sometimes not, but that’s the name of the game in this sport,” Sato said. “We want to make sure we prepare so much to make that happen.”

Nearly 43 percent of the “500” winners in history have started on the front row, and the No. 3 starting position has produced the second-most race winners. That suggests Sato has solid odds to grab his second victory.

Many drivers in this race’s history have had a shot to win only to realize they never got a second chance. In 2012, Sato feared that might have been his one chance.

“Who gets a second chance in your life?” he said. “As long as you keep challenging, keep opening the door, you will eventually have a chance.

“When you have a chance you really need to grab, and I had that in ’17. Once again after three years I have another great opportunity … an unbelievable opportunity for me.”

This is Sato’s third consecutive year and fourth overall with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. Bobby Rahal’s organization helped put Sato in position to win the 2012 race. The team knows how to contend here – and elsewhere. Sato and RLL will seek their fourth NTT INDYCAR SERIES race victory together, having won on two road courses (Portland International Raceway and Barber Motorsports Park) and a short oval (World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway), all coming in the past two seasons.

Sato’s relevance is measured this way: He entered this season as one of only four NTT INDYCAR SERIES drivers to have won races each of the past three years. The others: Rossi, Power and two-time series champion Josef Newgarden.

Sato keeps plugging away, remaining in contention, finding his way to the front even as the spotlight shines elsewhere.

“It’s a lot of circumstances and combinations and some of the luck, as well, but I’m very fortunate enough to have a lot of great shots, in particular 2012, which was an unforgettable moment,” he said. “Now, of course, we didn’t make it (big laugh), but that gives us the confidence we can be very competitive, trying for the winning. That was a huge moment for me.

“I know this place is extremely challenging, but year after year it’s different organization, different car, a different moment, different circumstances. But I think you will see another amazing race.”

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