Takuma Sato poses on the main stretch the morning after winning the 2017 Indianapolis 500, at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 29, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana. File photo by Mike Gentry/UPI | License Photo
DETROIT -- Reality now sets in for Takuma Sato, the new Indianapolis 500 champion.
Since last weekend's historic victory, when Sato became the first Asian driver to win the oval race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, he has been wined and dined, celebrated and honored, applauded and given a king's welcome.
There were tributes in Indianapolis, New York and Dallas before he landed in Detroit. Now, it's time to get back to work, twice in fact.
The Verizon IndyCar Series waits for no one, even Indy winners. This weekend's Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix features not one but two races, and each awards the same number of points.
If Sato wants to remain in championship contention -- the double-points Indy 500 has him in a three-way tie for second place, just 11 points out of the lead -- he will have to start making hay in Motown. There are 70-lap street races here at Belle Isle Park on Saturday and Sunday -- both on ABC -- and they figure to go a long way toward establishing title contenders.
Sato has never won a race at this venue, and he has never finished higher than 13th in the standings.
Sato, who has only two career IndyCar Series wins, said he is always focused on what's next, and now the Detroit doubleheaders are certainly that.
"After (the first) Long Beach win, after the Indy 500 win, OK, so when is the next one?" he said. "I don't care when it is. I'm happy to go back on the podium at Detroit and then the following (week) at Texas, and I'm so looking forward, particularly now, (to seeing the) championship standings. My standing is very high now, and certainly it is the real challenge for the championship.
"That's the most exciting thing for my life right now. Let's try and give it everything."
Indy runner-up Helio Castroneves leads the standings, and the first of his 29 career IndyCar Series victories came at this track in 2000. It was then that the Brazilian first climbed a fence, his now-signature move after victories. A win in either race here would set him up nicely for the stretch run.
Simon Pagenaud, last year's series champion, looms in Castroneves' rearview mirror. They are teammates at Team Penske, so they will have each other's setup information, and the Frenchman is in the second-place logjam with Sato and Scott Dixon, a four-time series champion.
Dixon is fortunate to still be physically able to contend. Last week's crash in the 500, which started with Jay Howard's damaged car sliding into his path, was one of the most unbelievable in series history, with his flying car splitting on impact with the barrier. Miraculously, Dixon climbed out under his own power, and it was only later confirmed that he had a small fracture in his foot.
This will be the fifth consecutive year IndyCar has staged a pair of races at this circuit in the same weekend, and there are six former race winners in the weekend's 22-car field. Castroneves has won the most Detroit races (three), the most recent in 2014. Will Power has won twice (2014, '16), while Tony Kanaan (2007), Dixon ('12), Pagenaud ('13) and Carlos Munoz ('15) have won one each.
Sebastien Bourdais has won two of the past three races here, but he won't be in the field. The Frenchman sustained pelvic fractures and a broken hip in Indianapolis qualifying May 13. He was replaced in the Indy 500 by James Davison; this week former Formula One driver Esteban Gutierrez will have the ride. Gutierrez will be making his IndyCar Series debut.
Bourdais hopes to be back in the Dale Coyne Racing car by the season-ending event in Sonoma, Calif.
As exciting as races on the 14-turn, 2.35-mile Detroit circuit tend to be, seldom does the winner go on to win the championship. In fact, only Power in '14 has won here and gone on to the title in the past 18 years.
However, there stands a really good chance of continuing another streak. This season has seen six different drivers win races in the first six races, and that follows a balance-of-power trend. Since 2012, seasons have produced an average of 8.75 winners, with eight last year and a record 11 in '14.
IndyCar teams were in Indianapolis for nearly a month, and Dixon knows as well as anyone how the hangover can linger.
"It seems you can hardly take a breath after Indianapolis, and you have to be squarely focused on Detroit," he said. "You put so much time and effort into Indianapolis, but you have to also keep your attention on the bigger picture in terms of the championship, and that continues right away in Detroit this weekend.
"Two races in two days and two (qualifying sessions) in two days can really affect the championship race. We're hoping we can take advantage of the points on the table this weekend."
As Sato also knows, it's time to get serious.