By JENNA FRYER
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Takuma Sato had victory in sight once before at the Indianapolis 500. When he attempted a last-lap pass, Sato lost control of his car, crashed and Dario Franchitti went on to his third victory in “The Greatest Spectacle In Racing.”
In nearly the same position five years later, Sato leaned on lessons learned in that 2012 defeat and became the first Japanese driver to win the Indianapolis 500.
“I do feel after 2012 that I really needed to correct something I left over,” Sato said. “In 2012, going into Turn 1 with Dario was a big risk. But you always learn something from those situations, and this time we proved we had what it takes.”
In winning for just the second time in IndyCar, Sato had to hold off Helio Castroneves over the closing laps on May 28 to deny the veteran a record-tying fourth Indianapolis 500 victory. The two swapped the lead, and Castroneves made one last attempt at a pass for the win that he couldn’t make stick.
“When Helio was coming with three laps to go, on a big charge into Turn 1, we went side-by-side,” Sato said. “But this time I ended up still pointing in the right direction and still leading. It was job done, and the last two laps the car worked beautifully.”
The win was the second straight for Andretti Autosport in the Indy 500 and third in the last four years. An Andretti driver has now won the 500 five times overall dating to 2005 with the late Dan Wheldon.
Last year, it was with rookie Alexander Rossi. This time it was with Sato, who joined the team this season and had largely been overlooked at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The Andretti camp expanded to six cars for the 500 to add Fernando Alonso, a two-time F1 champion who brought massive European interest to the race.
Six cars never seemed to spread the team too thin, and the main issue facing Andretti Autosport was the reliability of its Honda engines. Alonso put on a thrilling show and even led 27 laps but he was sent to the paddock when his engine blew with 20 laps remaining.
Still, his race was spectacular and Alonso simply fell victim to his engine late in the race. The crowd gave the Spaniard a standing ovation as he climbed from his car.
“It’s a very nice surprise to come here with big names, big guys, the best in open-wheel racing and be competitive,” said Alonso, who didn’t rule out a return.
“The last two weeks, I came here basically to prove myself, to challenge myself,” Alonso added. “I know that I can be as quick as anyone in an F1 car. I didn’t know if I can be as quick as anyone in an Indy car.”
The Honda teams had a clear horsepower advantage over Chevrolet, but things were dicey in Indy for more than a week and certainly on race day: Before Alonso’s failure, 2014 winner Ryan Hunter-Reay lost his engine and so did Charlie Kimball. Hunter-Reay led 28 laps and was a strong contender late.
Still, Honda had the winning engine at the end and six of the top 10.
“I’m really happy for Honda. They worked really hard to get us here,” team owner Michael Andretti said. “I know how big this news is going to be when they wake up in Japan. It’s going to be huge. I’m really happy for them, that we were able to give them a win with our Japanese driver here.”
In a Chevrolet for Team Penske, Castroneves briefly took the lead but couldn’t hold it as Sato grabbed it back. Castroneves was disappointed to fall short of the four-time winners club — particularly since it was his third runner-up finish.
“Being second again sucks, being so close to getting my fourth,” Castroneves said. “I’m really trying. I’m not giving up this dream and I know it’s going to happen.”
Ed Jones finished a career-best third and was followed by Max Chilton and Tony Kanaan, the highest finishers for Chip Ganassi Racing.
A joyful Sato dumped a bottle of 2 percent milk over his head, received a kiss from the Indy 500 Princess and raised his finger in the air.
Andretti ran down pit lane to reach Sato’s crew, then rushed to hug his driver. Even Franchitti made his way to victory lane to congratulate Sato, who was eager to see the impact of his win at home in Japan.
“This is going to be mega big,” he predicted. “A lot of the Japanese fans are following the IndyCar Series and many, many flew over for the Indianapolis 500. We showed the great result today and I am very proud of it.”