Sato extends with Rahal as IndyCar free agency heats up

(AP Photo/Jeff Roberson, File)

By JENNA FRYER

AP Auto Racing Writer

LAGUNA SECA, Calif. (AP) Takuma Sato will return to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing next season, and Colton Herta is closing in on a deal to be pulled inside the Andretti Autosport camp, as IndyCar drivers are getting a jump on their 2020 plans.

Rahal said Saturday it had picked up the option for next year on Sato, a former Indianapolis 500 winner who has won twice this season for RLL.

"We have been very pleased with the results and level of competition Takuma has shown this season," team owner Bobby Rahal said. "His two wins and two poles don't fully indicate how competitive he has been overall this season and the fact that he was a contender at many other races. He is an integral part of our team. This decision allows us to keep the continuity and continue to build upon our program for 2020."

Andretti had no official announcement on Herta, who earlier this season became the youngest winner in IndyCar history when he grabbed a victory days before his 19th birthday. The son of former driver and Andretti business associate Bryan Herta has been consistently quick all year, including this weekend at the season finale at Laguna Seca Raceway.

His fellow competitors describe him as fearless, and he's impressed many with his ability to get up to speed quickly at nearly every track while driving for small, underfunded Harding Steinbrenner Racing. The Harding team is affiliated with Andretti, which would expand to five cars next season by bringing Herta inside.

What isn't clear is if Harding will return to the series for a third season. The team has fought for sponsorship all year, even after Herta's victory and his rapid claim as a future IndyCar superstar.

The future of A.J. Foyt Racing, as well as popular driver Tony Kanaan, is also uncertain because primary sponsor ABC Supply is leaving after Sunday's race. Larry Foyt, who runs the team, said the plan is to field two cars next year but noted the search for funding is still underway.

ABC plans to sponsor one Foyt car for the Indianapolis 500, and there is no indication if it will be for Kanaan, who is in his 22nd season and the most veteran driver in the series.

McLaren head Zak Brown has at least one seat to fill at Arrow Schmidt Motorsports next season when the brand returns to IndyCar as a partner with Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. The team has interest in Conor Daly, as does Carlin, which has used Daly in four races this year.

Yet speculation still swirls around James Hinchcliffe and his future with the Schmidt team. He has a heavy alliance with Honda, but Schmidt will be moving to Chevrolet after the McLaren addition, ending Hinchcliffe's lucrative relationship with Honda unless he finds an out to join another Honda team.

He angered sponsor Arrow by appearing in ESPN The Magazine's "Body Issue" that came out last month and featured photos of Hinchcliffe naked on the Yard of Bricks at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, using a checkered flag or tires to cover himself. Hinchcliffe had agreed to be part of the popular annual issue to show the many scars from his near-fatal 2015 crash at Indy. He nearly bled to death and has made promoting blood drives part of his platform.

But Arrow was unhappy with the issue, which nearly cost Hinch his job. The episode did lead to president Jon Flack's departure last week, as well as the team public relations representative.

So despite repeated assurance from Brown that Hinchcliffe will be with the team next year, speculation still swirls about his 2020 plans.

Indianapolis 500 winner Simon Pagenaud has yet to announce an extension with Team Penske, even though owner Roger Penske said after Pagenaud's victory in May the Frenchman would return. Pagenaud winning Indy saved his job with Penske and eliminated an option for Alexander Rossi, who re-upped with Andretti.

Chip Ganassi will likely field a third car next season, at least partially, and it could go to Indy Lights champion Oliver Askew. By starting Saturday's race, Askew wins the title and the $1.1 million "Road to Indy" scholarship money that is a guaranteed three-race IndyCar program that includes the Indy 500.

Santino Ferrucci has had an outstanding rookie season with Dale Coyne Racing and said he'd like to return next season for a second year studying under four-time series champion Sebastien Bourdais.

"I'm pretty sure I'm going to be where I am, I don't think there will be too much change," Ferrucci told The Associated Press. "I'm very happy to be back with Dale and our engineering staff. I feel like we have something good going, and you know, it's also having continuity. It's really important I think as a rookie going into something that you already know next year and you're not having to reset again."

Later Saturday, Ferrucci was seen entering the Rahal hospitality tent as talk continues on Rahal expanding to a third car next season. The Rahal organization signed a five-year extension with Honda on Saturday that will take the team and engine maker to 30 years together.

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Updated September 21, 2019

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