Thoughts from Long Beach

Taku comes through — finally

As intriguing as A.J. Foyt Racing's hire of ex-Formula One racer Takuma Sato was, I had trouble believing that it would work out.

Three years into his IndyCar career, Sato had developed a reputation that can be tough to shake for a racer: Exciting to watch, but not good at bringing home the result. To me, the "No Attack, No Chance" philosophy that guides Sato meant nothing if he couldn't starting bagging wins, podiums and Top-5s on a regular basis. With the series boasting a staggeringly high level of competition, you need a reliable driver and I wasn't sure he was it for A.J. and Larry Foyt, the team director.

Consider me a believer now. Sato's fearless style has injected new life into the franchise and on Sunday, he became the first Japanese driver to win in IndyCar. He did it in grand fashion too, taking the checkered flag at Long Beach and joining the galaxy of stars that have won North America's most beloved street race.

The last time a Foyt car was in Victory Lane came in 2002, when Airton Dare of Brazil captured the checkered flag at Kansas Speedway. Back in those days, the IZOD IndyCar Series was still the all-oval Indy Racing League — an entity far, far different than what it is now. As the series morphed multiple times over the decade, A.J. Foyt Racing fell back into the pack and while recent drivers such as Mike Conway and Vitor Meira always served as dark horses (particularly on road and street circuits), the team desperately needed a jolt going into 2013 after Conway's departure.

I figured Sato could certainly deliver a bit of "fighting spirit" to the team. It was the consistency that I worried about. While it's early yet, Sato's delivering in that regard. One win and two Top-10s in the first three events have pulled him within six points of leader Helio Castroneves in the championship.

When the Foyts and Sato joined together, some of us didn't know what to make of it. But after Sunday, we do now.

It's a partnership that both sides needed to have.

Andretti, Penske teams struggle

Honda delivered a lockout of the top four positions at the checkered flag, a result that the manufacturer really needed after losing the first two events to Chevrolet. But the Bowtie Brigade's efforts were severely hampered by its two biggest teams, Andretti Autosport and Team Penske, falling on hard times.

Three of the Andretti drivers — James Hinchcliffe, E.J. Viso and Ryan Hunter-Reay — saw their races severely impacted on Lap 35, when Hinch tried to pass Tony Kanaan on the inside of Turn 1. But the Canadian hit TK instead and then went into Viso. Hunter-Reay, who won the most recent round at Barber Motorsports Park, sustained damage in the incident as well and eventually saw his day end in the tire barriers on Lap 49 after overshooting Turn 8 while passing Ana Beatriz.

The luck was just as sour for the Penske trio of Will Power, Helio Castroneves and A.J. Allmendinger. Power's race was marred by a Lap 51 pit road incident under yellow with Tristan Vautier, who exited his pit box just as Power was coming into his. The two collided, but while Power escaped serious damage, his car subsequently stalled and needed to be re-started. He wound up 16th at the finish.

With the 'Dinger suffering a terminal mechanical failure in that same caution period, it was left to Castroneves to salvage the day. But he too had to rally from damage on his car, which required him to get a new nose cone during early service on Lap 12. He soldiered home to a 10th place finish.

Hard luck for Mike Conway

You had to feel bad for Mike Conway, who was a threat to win throughout the weekend in his one-off ride for Rahal Letterman Lanigan. Conway, a former winner at Long Beach, qualified fifth but fell back into mid-pack early after a rough first restart of the race. He managed to climb back up to fourth but just as it appeared that he was in prime position for the second half of the event, an electrical issue developed on his car and forced him into the pits.

A subsequent change of both the battery and power distribution block was not enough to solve the problem, and Conway was forced to retire after 38 laps.

Still, he proved that he was still very much one of the top street course talents in IndyCar. For now, the Englishman will focus on his sports car drive in the World Endurance Championship but I wouldn't be surprised if he returns for another race or two later in the season if funding can be found…

Dario delivers in 250th start

It's not the ideal result, but a fourth-place finish for Dario Franchitti is a welcome one for the Scotsman and his No. 10 Target Chip Ganassi Racing team after they suffered back-to-back DNFs in the opening couple of rounds. The margin for error in regards to contending for the championship remains slim, but it would've been practically none had Franchitti not converted his pole position into something positive.

If he can get out of Sao Paulo in two weeks' time with another solid finish, then the Indianapolis 500 — a race he's won three times — could be his ticket to rocketing back into the title picture.