Takuma Sato enjoyed a refreshing spell of dominance during IndyCar's race weekend at Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama, racing from the pole to victory lane by Sunday's end. The 42-year-old ex-Formula 1 driver and 2017 Indianapolis 500 winner resultantly claimed his fourth career IndyCar win and nudged out five-time champion Scott Dixon as well as the ever-quick Sebastien Bourdais, who also has four Champ Car titles to his credit, for the "W."
Sato started on the front row alongside his Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing teammate Graham Rahal, though the latter promptly had his hands full with Dixon after the green flag. Taku took advantage of this squabble and built a gap thanks to his exceptionally quick No. 30 MiJack Honda.
Team Penske's Josef Newgarden was the first to pit on Lap 8 as part of his three-stop strategy, and others would soon follow in order to push hard on both fuel and tires over the course of 90 laps. Newgarden, as well as his teammates Simon Pagenaud and Will Power, was forced to make up ground quickly as for the first time since Long Beach 2014, no Penske car managed to qualify in the top-12. He would eventually finish in fourth, climbing high up the order from his P16 starting position.
By the time Sato pitted on Lap 18, he had a 2.5-second lead to Rahal who would later be plagued by reliability issues. A botched tire change slowed the veteran's stop, however, and he was left to fight with the Penskes in the midfield while Bourdais commandeered the race lead.
Bourdais, who was on a two-stop strategy, minded his tires and fuel mileage while leaving pace on the table, allowing Sato to climb to the top. His competitor's racecraft subsequently played to his advantage as he ran in clean air at the front and Bourdais fought off the persistent Dixon battling for P2.
“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!”
Moving toward the second half of the race, Rahal's No. 15 Honda would come to a stop on-track, causing havoc for those who unexpectedly caught him at speed. Soon after, Tony Kanaan was called into the pits at the last second and the Brazilian punted Carlin's Max Chilton into the wall, causing a full-course yellow. IndyCar Race Control delayed pit closures until the frontrunners made their stops, and the forthcoming restart would dictate momentum.
Sato pulled away while Dixon lept in front of Bourdais, a top-three that would hold to the end of the race despite yet another scrap for second with only a handful of laps to go.
"Outside probably looked easy to win from the cruising and the pole position, but it wasn't really cruising, so I was really pushing hard using push-to-pass on every [corner] exit in the last 10 laps," an elated Sato confessed after reaching the checkered flag first. "So, it was tough, and I had a little moment into Turn 8… It was not necessary to give the little bit sort of heart attack to the body!
“I thank again, Bobby [Rahal], Mike Lanigan, and of course David Letterman who decided to fly in this morning after locking up the front row with Graham Rahal. It was great that we demonstrated such a great result in front of him and very, very happy, very proud of the entire team.”