Behind the final battle for the win in Sunday’s 104th Running of the Indianapolis 500

INDIANAPOLIS — The battle for racing lore was on. Three drivers looked like the favorites to be drinking an ice cold glass of milk for Sunday’s 104th Running of the Indianapolis 500. Scott Dixon, Alexander Rossi and Takuma Sato. By the time the sunset on the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway with an empty silhouette of the massive grandstands below it, one of those three was going to be celebrating the night away.

Alexander Rossi gave his chance up with a controversial penalty when he came out of his pit stall and hit the left side of Takuma Sato’s No. 30 Honda. Both would continue on without any damage and exit pit lane in the top four behind Dixon and rookie Pato O’Ward. But, while under that caution, the NTT IndyCar Series determined that Rossi had an unsafe release and penalized him on Lap 128. So, on the ensuing restart, he’d go from third to 21st.

In a race that was difficult to pass, Rossi had his work cut out for him. Still, he found his way forward. Unfortunately for him, it was short lived. Rossi, found the Turn 2 wall on Lap 144. He was pushing too hard and found the limit.

“We were never planning on being that far back,” a disappointed Rossi said after his 27th place finish.

That set up a Dixon and Sato duel for supremacy. Both past winners. Both trying to end a streak of six straight years of first time Indy 500 winners.

Dixon, had the edge through the final round of stops. He came out on track ahead of Sato for what was at the time for fourth place. Sato, pit on Lap 168, Dixon Lap 169.

Zach Veach, Max Chilton and James Hinchcliffe had yet to pit but no way they could make it to the end. Hinchcliffe peeled off on Lap 170. Chilton, came to pit lane not long after.

Meanwhile, that on track battle between Dixon and Sato was for the win. Sato, had a run on Dixon down the front stretch and looked to pass entering Turn 1 on Lap 172. He’d do so successfully and what we didn’t know then, that was the pass for the race win.

Veach, pit for his final time on Lap 184, which handed the lead over to Sato for the final time.

We all sat anxiously waiting for Dixon to close back up. He’d shorten the gap right? He passed legends like Bill Vukovich first, then Parnelli Jones, Emerson Fittipaldi, Wilbur Shaw, AJ Foyt and Mario Andretti on the overall lap leaders chart at Indianapolis on Sunday. He led a race-high 111 of 200 laps. That speed in the No. 9 Honda would make this easy and cruise to his 50th win of his Indy Car career and second in the Indy 500.

But, it never happened.

Dixon, didn’t think he had enough fuel to make it to the end. He decided to go into fuel conservation mode early in this run and to just ride in Sato’s shadows. He also didn’t think Sato could make it to the end either, so he felt if he saved enough Speedway fuel over the final stint, victory wreath would be around his neck in celebration a few minutes later.

“When we ran the first couple laps after the last restart, we couldn’t get the fuel mileage we needed to finish the race,” Dixon said. “We went to a leaner mixture, just kind of sat there. We didn’t think they were going to make it on fuel.

“Seemed like there was a hesitation maybe about 15 to go or 12 to go where I got beside him on the straight. It’s like they started to go to a lean mixture, then they decided it was just too slow, so they kind of went back at it.”

Sato’s team owner Bobby Rahal said that fuel was never a problem for them though. Their No. 30 Honda was going to make it to the end easily.

“He had plenty,” Rahal said. “He had plenty. He only stopped one lap before Dixon did the final stop. I’m pretty sure it was one lap before. It was awesome. Dixon came in with Graham or Graham in with Dixon.

“We were good. That was never an issue for Graham or for Takuma.”

Dixon, looking back on it, wishes he would have pushed harder then. He was second guessing all of this because finishing second sucks here.

“I probably should have been a little more aggressive on that high side there,” Dixon continued when he got to pull up to Sato at one point. “I think he would have just run me up anyway, which maybe would have put both of us in the fence, or maybe just me.

“Maybe we should have gone harder. Maybe we would have run out of fuel and been in the same position. I don’t know what was the right call. Just shows you, when I was asked if I wanted to be leading with five laps to go yesterday, absolutely, especially with a scenario like this.”

Still, we never got to see it anyways. A caution for Spencer Pigot on Lap 194 left this race ending under caution. It’s a finish many wondered why it never was red flagged to preserve a green flag result. Sato, beat Dixon and his teammate Graham Rahal for his second Indy 500 triumph in the last four years.

Dixon, wondered why a red wasn’t displayed too.

“I definitely thought with five to go, I thought they were going to immediately because, one, the size of the crash, and two, where it was, it wasn’t going to be a quick cleanup,” said the current IndyCar points leader. “I was kind of surprised they didn’t. I kind of heard they said, Normally we don’t do that. History would tell you that’s not true either.”

INDYCAR wanted to go to a red flag and issued a statement after. They just knew that even if they did, it wouldn’t have been enough time to get back to green anyways.

“INDYCAR makes every effort to end races under green,” a statement read from the series Sunday evening. “But, in this case following the assessment of the incident, there were too few laps remaining to gather the field behind the pace car, issue a red flag and then restart for a green-flag finish.”

Rahal, said that he was obviously glad a red wasn’t displayed.

“Well, I’m really pleased they checkered the thing, obviously, as any team owner would be, right?” said Rahal. “I don’t know any team owner out there that would say, Let’s…

“You can prognosticate all you want about what if they red flagged it and you had a restart. All I know is we won the Indy 500 today and that’s what counts.”

So, even if a red flag was thrown and we were able to restart this race with a couple to go, Sato likely wouldn’t have won if a yellow doesn’t come out. The drivers and Rahal know that too.

“For us it would have been really good because I think the leader would have been a sitting duck,” Dixon continued. “That’s kind of harsh on Sato. If they got out there and had a dash with three laps to go, I think all is fair in a situation like that.

“I can’t change that. It is what it is. I think it would have been interesting to see how that played out. It would have been much better for us rather than Sato.

Rahal agreed, saying that his son Graham Rahal may have been in the catbirds seat if so.

“Like I said earlier, maybe the guy in third would have been the guy in the upper hand, big tow, went by both of them. Who knows,” said the now two-time Indy 500 car owner.

Sato is an Indy 500 champion, the 20th multi time ‘500 winner while Dixon is still chasing a second Indy win.

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