Did you really expect the 2020 Indianapolis 500 to end any other way?
The longest, loneliest and latest racing classic ever run here at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was a good race that finished under bad circumstances. Anytime a race ends under caution at 60 mph it sucks for the fans, and all the competitors except for the guy leading.
When Spencer Pigot piled into the attenuator at the head of the pits with five laps to go, the immediate thought was ‘let’s go red flag,’ because it had happened in 2014 with seven laps left, and again last year with 18 laps remaining. This year’s race was a different animal, because the attenuator was destroyed, and IMS officials estimated it would have taken an hour to repair. NBC wasn’t about to fill that kind of a hole.
And the history of Indy isn’t about trying to ensure a green-white-checker finish – that’s why Sato joined Rick Mears (1988), Emerson Fittipaldi (1989), Helio Castroneves (2002), Buddy Rice (2004), Dan Wheldon (2005, 2011), Dario Franchitti (2007, 2010, 2012) and Tony Kanaan (2013) in taking the checkered flag at a reduced speed behind the pace car.
There was nobody in the grandstands to boo, but the texts and emails about feeling robbed by the IndyCar officials were blowing up five minutes after the race.
And naturally, a restart would have been exciting since Scott Dixon and Graham Rahal were right in Sato’s wake before Pigot’s accident. But the 43-year-old Japanese veteran wasn’t given anything – he earned it.
Sato took away what looked like a sure victory for Dixon with laps of 221-220 mph as he held off the Kiwi the final 16 laps in his RLL Honda while handling traffic with the poise he didn’t have 10 years ago.
Indianapolis is a cruel place, always has been, always will be, and Dixie deserved a better fate after leading 111 laps, getting fantastic pit stops all day from his Ganassi crew and performing like a five-time champion.
There have been many times in Indy’s history where the fastest, most dominant car didn’t win (Mario in 1987 and Michael Andretti in 1992) but this was more of a case where the fastest car at the end pulled into Victory Lane.
Starting third, Sato hung around the front all day, running from third to sixth, yet never flexed his muscles until he passed Dixon for the lead on lap 157. After their final pit stops, Scott was back in front but Sato made what turned out to be the race-winning pass on lap 170 when they sat third behind the off-sequence Zach Veach and Max Chilton.
It was at that point when it appeared that maybe the 2008 Indy 500 winner was content to sit behind the 2017 Indy winner, biding his time and saving fuel until getting the command to go full rich and track down the second-oldest driver in the field.
“I think I had fastest car in the last 30 laps,” said Sato as co-owner David Letterman hugged him in Victory Lane. “It was good all day, but it was really fast at the end when I needed it to be and I can’t thank RLL crew enough.”
Engineer Eddie Jones and strategist Derek Davidson (a former USAC sprint racer) have meshed well with the guy who always seemed to crash at inopportune times (pit lane in Pocono, first lap at Pocono) and had a wild streak despite his speed. He managed one win (2013) during his first seven seasons before winning Indy for Andretti Autosport in 2017. But with RLL he seems to have matured into a thinking man’s racer, and has now won four times in three years.
Is he getting better as he gets older? “I don’t know,” he responded. “Look, Helio is still on his game, and Tony (Kanaan). I think this sport, just name the sport, Olympic athletes have to be premium ages — 20s and 30s. But in motor racing, was long as you’re fit enough to drive the car, why not? I know the car is different today to 43 to me is only a number.”
The key numbers Sunday were zero spectators, a race that didn’t end until almost 6 p.m. and car No.30 in the winner’s circle. Fortunately, Sato had heard all the cheers in 2017 so it wasn’t too tough to only celebrate with his immediate racing family. In all the pre-race talk, few were mentioning Taku as someone to keep an eye on, but that’s nothing new because he’s never really been labeled a favorite.
But all he answers to now is two-time Indy winner.