By Evan Lande | @landemann
Sports Capital Journalism Program
Takuma Sato won the Indianapolis 500 for the second time on Sunday, this time under a yellow flag that ended Scott Dixon’s chase following Spencer Pigot’s crash with five laps to go. The 104th running – the first without fans due to the COVID-19 pandemic – ended with an anticlimax that made Sato the 20th multiple winner. The achievement was a stark contrast from the beginning of the season, when a crash during qualifying kept Sato out of the race at Texas.
Sato, 43, now joins Emerson Fittipaldi and Bobby Unser as the only drivers with two Indy 500 victories in their 40’s. “Simply an amazing day,” Sato said. “I just can’t think of a word for it. A big thank you to everyone.”
Most of the race was dominated by Scott Dixon, who led 111 laps. The New Zealander entered Sunday’s race ninth overall on the Top Ten Lap Leaders at IMS having led 452 laps. His performance moved him up to third on the all-time lap leader list with 563. Dixon follows behind Al Unser, the all-time lap leader at IMS with 644 laps led and Ralph DePalma, second on the list, who has led 612.
Marco Andretti, whose emotional qualifying run put him in the pole position, finished 13th after not leading a single lap. “We had high hopes coming into the race today after being fast all month, but we didn’t have it today,” Andretti said. “We didn’t have the pickup we needed on the restarts. That left us a sitting duck, and we weren’t able to gain ground on pit stops to make up for anything. Everything combined left us 13th.”
His Andretti Autosport teammate, 2016 champion Alexander Rossi, swapped the lead with Dixon 13 times over the course of 19 laps. But Rossi’s day ended abruptly on Lap 144.
A brief but decisive delay during the replacement of a right rear tire led Rossi’s car to contact with Sato’s. Rossi was penalized for an unsafe pit release and forced to cycle to the back of the field. Rossi got loose in Turn 2 and nailed the wall, ending his day in 27th place.
“Up front, the No. 27 NAPA AUTO PARTS/AutoNation Andretti Honda was awesome,” Rossi said. “I thought we had the car to win, and had we stayed up front we could have made a run for it. But because of a pit lane penalty that we still don’t fully understand, we didn’t get to stay up front. We shouldn’t have been in a position to have to run in the back. There was a lot of dirty air back there, and we just lost it. Not how we were hoping to see today go.”
From the first turn of the first lap, when Dixon passed Andretti to establish his early dominance, many drivers made very racy and aggressive moves early to gain track position and set themselves up for a race focused on fuel mileage. Dixon, Sato, Andretti, and others began setting up for a long race ahead of them as pit stops started after an early caution. The Honda powered entries had the speed early. “The Honda was extremely strong and competitive,” Sato said. “…HPD and Honda gave us a lot of power, a lot fuel mileage.”
The Chevys of Oliver Askew and Simon Pagenaud had strong race pace, as both had battled for the lead when green flag pit stops started to begin around Lap 46. As the pit stops cycled through, Dixon inherited the lead at the quarter distance mark. He led the race towards the halfway mark and as the race went back to green, Dixon and Rossi traded the lead, back and forth, while trying to save fuel and build enough of a lead to be ahead of the rest of the field. “Rossi and I were actually trying to work together to try and do it on two stops or three stops,” Dixon said. “We were trying to run in a lean mixture and kind of swap every other lap or every lap.”
Rookie Alex Palou brought out a caution on Lap 122, at time when pit stops must be perfect in order to gain track position and curve the fuel mileage. Rossi’s misfortune was a signal that the inevitable attrition had become a factor. Rossi’s crash on Lap 144 played into the strategies of Dixon, Sato, Santino Ferrucci, and Josef Newgarden.
Andretti, Sato, and Newgarden pitted at Lap 168. Newgarden and Sato each employed a different fuel mileage strategy than Dixon, who pitted on Lap 169. Dixon, Sato and Newgarden were attempting to manage their tires, save fuel and maintain pace, the factors that could determine a champion.
Dixon believed the one-lap difference in pit stops had given him a decisive advantage. Sato and Dixon began a two-man fight for the lead position, both looking smooth, calculated, and aggressive, with Sato taking the lead from Dixon on Lap 174.
Dixon’s commanding pace had withered as he followed behind, unable to make a move to regain the lead after a failed attempt to overtake Sato. “We definitely had a really fast car,” Dixon said. “We knew it was going to get tricky at this point of the day. We thought we made the right call. When we ran the first couple of laps after the last stop, we could get the fuel mileage we needed to get to finish the race.”
Sato faced a difficult balance between generating the speed necessary to hold the lead and managing the remaining fuel. “We led the race a little too long,” Sato said. “We had to dive into the pits one lap before Scott [Dixon] and put us for the fuel mileage. I wanted to go to the full power of the Honda, but still I had to save the fuel, so I was back-and-forth with the lean mixture and less power when Dixon was coming.”
All at once with five laps to go, elsewhere on the 2.5-mile oval, Sato’s challenge ended and any drama disappeared. The crash by Pigot with five laps to go meant that race would continue under yellow, and Sato’s celebration could begin early. A red flag would have stopped the race and created one last dash. Officials explained in a statement: “INDYCAR makes every effort to end races under green, 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.”
Dixon’s third second-place finish left him wondering what might have been. “We should’ve maybe gone harder or maybe would’ve run out of fuel and been in the same position,” he said. “I don’t really know what was the right call. It just shows that when I was asked if I wanted to be leading with five laps to go yesterday, I said absolutely because of a scenario like this and that’s how it played out.”