By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
Five-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon led 111 of 200 laps in the 104th Indianapolis 500 Presented by Gainbridge, but not the most important lap that would’ve gotten him a second Indy triumph.
After starting on the middle lane of Row 1, the series points leader quickly humbled pole sitter Marco Andretti and seamlessly took the lead in Turn 1 without a fight. It set the tone because for much of the race, Dixon mastered the clean air as very few would amounted a legitimate challenge towards his No. 9 PNC Bank Honda.
One of few who were looking to dethrone Dixon was Takuma Sato, who went low on the frontstretch, taking the race lead on Lap 158.
Fuel consumption became a key part of the race as Dixon regained the lead on Lap 169 when Sato made his final stop, but that’s when his 500 started to really change. That’s because of a lengthy stop on the back end of his Honda cost him a lot of ground on Sato.
Lap traffic then began to play a pivotal role and with 21 laps to go, Dixon lost ground on Sato after dealing with Ben Hanley. Far from over and down to the race’s final 16 laps, Mike Hull gave Dixon the good-to-go of allowing him to go full attack mode on Sato.
“When we ran the first couple laps after the last restart, we couldn’t get the fuel mileage we needed to finish the race,” said Dixon. “We went to a leaner mixture, just kind of sat there. We didn’t think they were going to make it on fuel.”
Shortly thereafter, Dixon attempted a pass on Sato, but as soon as an attempt was being made in the middle lane, the leader sharply denied him from overtaking. Not once, but twice on the frontsretch in as many laps.
Dixon said at that point, hesitation started to kick in because Sato was starting to really step up his game as fuel lingered on the minds of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.
“Seemed like there was a hesitation maybe about 15 to go or 12 to go where I got beside him on the straight,” said Dixon. “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.”
Consequently, Dixon’s bid of his second Indy 500 win was over with five to go when Sato’s teammate Spencer Pigot had a vicious crash on the pit entrance barrier, ending the Indy 500 under caution for the first time since 2013.
Fans were upset about the race not being red-flagged to assure a one or two-lap dash to finish. Even Dixon was surprised, thinking IndyCar would halt the 500-mile race for the 19th time since 1965, but it wasn’t meant to be.
“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,” Dixon on Pigot’s crash. “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.”
Had they done so, Dixon believed he would’ve been in an ideal spot of snatching the lead and win away from Sato.
“It would have been really good because I think the leader would have been a sitting duck. That’s kind of harsh on Sato,” said Dixon. “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.”
Once the race concluded, the agonizing loss really kicked in for Dixon as he scored his third runner-up finish at Indy and the second since his only 500 win 12 years ago.
Dixon wished he would’ve been more aggressive on Sato in the closing laps, but was overall content with the entire No. 9 team’s efforts on bringing a strong Honda this month.
“I probably should have been a little more aggressive on that high side there. 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,” Dixon on the closing laps.
“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.
“Definitely hard to swallow for the team. Massive thank you to the 9 car crew. They did a tremendous job on pit road today, strategy, everything we could. Got to say congrats to Sato, too. He drove a hell of a race. They were victorious. He’s drinking the milk, and that’s what counts.”
With the dream of drinking the milk having to wait at least another nine months, the focus goes back to the championship trail as a sixth series title is still at large going into the Gateway doubleheader next weekend.