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Detroit — Takuma Sato is enjoying the best year of his 10-year IndyCar career this season, winning at Alabama and finishing third in the Indianapolis 500 and again in Race 1 of the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix doubleheader Saturday.

Sato’s consecutive third-place finishes heading into Sunday’s Race 2 on Belle Isle’s 13-turn, 2.3-mile street course put him fourth in points.

And, it looked like Sato was contending for yet another podium finish before getting overtaken by Andretti Autosport teammates Ryan Hunter-Reay and Alexander Rossi while running fourth 2/3 of the way through the 70-lap event, then getting pushed off the track by rookie Felix Rosenqvist while battling for sixth on Lap 59.

Sato was forced to pit a lap later and ended up a disappointing 13th, but still leaving the island fifth in points, 61 points behind points leader Josef Newgarden of Team Penske, but just nine points behind Race 2 winner Scott Dixon.

“The whole team melting into together, it’s the second season (for us) and (Bobby) Rahal and continuing to work with the people is extremely important,” said Sato, who finished 12th in points in his first year with Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan Racing last year. “Me, I always feel like I’m learning something, always improving and I don’t feel any degradation yet. Hopefully, we can continue our strengths in the second half of the season.

“The season so far has been fantastic, already winning a race and having a couple of podiums already in the pocket. It’s exciting to be challenging for the championship.”

Sato’s boss Bobby Rahal is happy with his driver.

“He’s had three podiums and has won a race,” Rahal said of 42-year-old Sato, who competed in Formula One from 2002-08. “He’s been doing a very good job. If we keep doing what we’re doing he’ll be right in the hunt for the championship. We have to give both guys (Sato and Graham Rahal, Sato’s teammate and Bobby’s son) a little better cars. We’re struggling this weekend a little bit for some unknown reason. If we give them good cars then they’ll be up front so that’s our commitment.”

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Sato was the first Japanese driver to win an IndyCar race when he won the 2013 Toyota Grand Prix in Long Beach while driving for A.J. Foyt. He won the Indianapolis 500 for Andretti Autosport in 2017.

While Sato finished third Saturday, he admitted his No. 30 Mi-Jack Panasonic Honda was a second off the pace, but his aggressiveness put him in position to earn a podium finish. He said during the postrace press conference that he needed to find speed for Race 2.

So, did Sato find that speed?

“No, clearly not,” Sato said after qualifying 16th in the 22-car field Sunday morning. “We were a second off the pace yesterday and 1.2 seconds off the pace today so whatever we tried went the opposite so we’re going to have to do something for the race.”

Graham Rahal swept the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix doubleheader in 2017 and finished seventh Saturday, but had trouble in qualifying Sunday.

“We had gearbox failure in qualifying,” Bobby Rahal said. “They allowed us to take some of the gears out and some other ones back in, but it would be nice if we could go back and really attack the problem (during qualifying), but they (IndyCar) won’t let us. We’ll be able to take it back (after qualifying), but we’ll be starting way back.”

Graham Rahal had a solid finish after starting 22nd, again taking seventh to leave him ninth in the points.

Ericsson takes second

The IndyCar rookie class of 2019 has been a strong one with Colton Herta becoming the youngest driver in series history to win a race earlier this season at the Circuit of the Americas in Texas at age 18, Rosenqvist finishing fourth in Race 1 of the Detroit Grand Prix on Saturday, followed by a runner-up spot by Marcus Ericsson in Sunday’s Race 2.

Rosenqvist made a big jump in the points Saturday, moving from 15th to a 10th-place tie with Graham Rahal, but finished 16th with a late crash Sunday which had to leave his car owner Chip Ganassi disappointed despite watching his other driver Scott Dixon celebrate with the win.

“There’s certainly some very, very good rookies: Pat O’Ward, Colton (Herta), Felix Rosenqvist, Marcus Ericsson so to win the Rookie Championship this year is a big deal because there’s so many good guys,” Team Penske veteran driver Will Power said.

Ericsson, 28, competed in Formula One from 2014-18 and is running in the No. 7 Honda for Arrow Schmidt/Peterson Motorsports.

“It was very special, my first podium since 2013 and I’ve missed that feeling,” said Ericsson, who shared the podium with a pair of former Indy 500 winners in Dixon and Power. “In IndyCar, it’s so close where competition between P1 and P22 is always a second and you have so many moments in the race where you have to execute well, you need to make the pit stop, the pit crew needs to do their job right, coming off of cold tires, restarts, all the things that makes it a complex and difficult series so I think that’s something that I’ve learned this year.”

Herta qualified fourth Sunday and finished 12th. O’Ward gave Chevrolet its second-best finish in Race 2, placing 11th. Honda drivers took 10 of the top 11 spots.

Series shifts to oval in Texas

After running most of May to prepare for the Indianapolis 500 on the 2 1/2 mile oval, the drivers moved on to the island for the series’ most challenging street course.

Now, it’s back to an oval on Saturday as the series moves on to Texas Motor Speedway’s 1 1/2 mile circuit. Dixon is the defending champion, having won twice in the last four years.

“After last year it will be a very good time to have a good night there, we crashed out last year unfortunately so we’re looking forward to it,” said Power, who won at Texas in 2017.

david.goricki@detroitnews.com

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