In a race that had seemed so unpredictable after practice and qualifying, Takuma Sato laid a decisive beating on the NTT Data IndyCar Series field in the Honda Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports park. The polesitter controlled the pace from the outset en route to his fourth career win.
“I have to go back to Formula 3 days,” the Rahal Letterman Lanigan driver said when asked by NBC Sports if he’d ever had such a dominant car. “Black tire, red tire, I didn’t have to worry about it.”
By contrast, there were plenty of worries for Scott Dixon, who had to settle for second place at Barber for the sixth time in his career.
“Really tough,” said Dixon of his day after finishing 2.4sec behind Sato. “We started off really quick and could close the gap, even on some of those cross-overs in the pits we able to hone in on Graham (Rahal) and Sato. But the last 10 laps were just miserable — we were just trying to hold a gap to Taku.”
The race began with everyone trying to hold off Ed Jones. The Ed Carpenter Racing driver made a spectacular start from 21st to blast all the way up to fifth into the braking zone for Turn 1, only to be flagged for jumping the start. The first lap then featured four-wide but impressively clean action in the braking zones as Sato broke free out front while teammate Graham Rahal immediately had his hands full with Scott Dixon.
Newgarden was the first among the contenders to commit to a three-stop strategy, pitting on Lap 8. Sato steadily grew his lead to 2.5sec over Rahal until pitting on Lap 18, as all the front-runners with one significant exception opted for a three-strop strategy in expectation of heavy tire degradation on the abrasive track. Unfortunately a balky tire change led to a slow stop for Sato — but not as long as his teammate’s a lap later, as Rahal’s crew plugged in to try and diagnose a balky throttle sensor and fell back through the field. He briefly regained pace and tussled with the Penske cars in the midfield before the car stopped on course.
“About Lap 3 the throttle started to stick. We tried to hang on but finally it just stopped,” said the disconsolate Rahal. “Last night we changed the throttle pedal, we changed the sensors…it’s just a shame. I thought it was our day. Man, at some point it’s gotta change.”
All this handed the lead to Sebastian Bourdais, who made his scuffed reds last into the two-stop window — and within the window to stay in the fight for the lead minus the pit stop delta. Dale Coyne’s call for a two-stop did get him ahead of Dixon after the latter’s second stop — which played into Sato’s hands as Bourdais, trying to save his tires and fuel, held off the Ganassi driver through the mid-race stint.
The final third of the race could have been scrambled by a full course yellow triggered by the luckless Rahal grinding to a halt on course — and then lengthened when A.J. Foyt Racing called Tony Kanaan in at the last moment and balked Max Chilton on his way into the pits, sending the Carlin driver into the tires in avoidance. This time, though, Race Control delayed the pit closure until all the front-runners had completed their stops. Sato then broke clear on the ensuing restart as Dixon and Bourdais took a precious couple of laps to lap Mattheus Leist.
Dixon was unable to make much impression on the leader, and found himself under pressure from the resurgent Bourdais with 10 laps to go after his Coyne team gave him the go-ahead on fuel to push to the finish. But the Frenchman — alone among the front-runners on reds for the final stint — responded grimly, “I’m out of tires.” Even so, he was able to give it another go in the final laps but couldn’t keep Dixon from yet another second place at Barber.
“It was just about as tough as I can remember a race being,” said Bourdais. “About Lap 18 when everybody started to bail on the two stop strategy I was like, ‘We just buried ourselves,” but Dale (Coyne) was like “Well, you committed yourself now, it’s too late!”
Newgarden completed an impressive comeback from his 16th-place starting spot with fourth, elbowing his way past Rossi with four laps to go.
“About as much we could hope for today, starting 16th,” Newgarden mused. It’s as simple as that: You have to start up higher if you want to do better.”
Newgarden said he apologized to Rossi for their wheel-banging moment at the end.
“I told him, ‘Hey, sorry for shoving you out,’ honestly a little more than I wanted to. He just braked a little deeper than I thought he would and I locked the right front, which sent me into him a little bit more than I liked. He gave me racing room and I pushed him a little harder than I wanted.”
Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsport’s James Hinchcliffe and Marcus Ericsson came home sixth and seventh, while Ryan Hunter-Reay, Simon Pagenaud and Felix Rosenqvist rounded out the top 10.
Along with Rahal, Colton Herta’s hopes of repeating his COTA heroics also faded early as a reported fuel pick-up issue struck him a dozen laps in, producing a steadily worsening misfire until he pitted for repairs on Lap 33.