Sato, 40, a failed Formula One driver who had just one previous victory in 123 IndyCar starts, is perhaps best remembered for spinning out of the 2012 Indy 500 on the final lap while challenging the eventual winner Dario Franchitti for the lead.
Sato ended up leading for 17 of the 200 laps in this race, the 101st edition; Chilton led for the most, at 50.
“I knew I was racing against a real champion,” Sato said of the duel with Castroneves through the final laps. “You can trust him in a situation like that to race you fairly and cleanly. But when he came up beside me with three laps to go to take the lead from me, I decided this was my moment, to win or lose the race.
“I just had to go for it.”
Despite his lofty fourth-place starting position in the 33-car field, Sato was perhaps the least-heralded member of his own team, the six drivers for the Honda-powered Andretti Autosport. The team owner Michael Andretti, whose cars have won five 500s since 2005, said Sato’s tenacity was the reason he had hired him this season.
“The guy just never gives up,” Andretti said. “There’s no quit in him. But those last laps were heart-stopping to watch. I didn’t know if he could pull it off.”
The race was considerably less satisfying for Andretti’s star driver, the two-time Formula One champion Fernando Alonso, whose engine expired with less than 50 miles to go. He was the leader for a total of 27 laps.
“Who knows what position we could have been in, if that had not happened?” Alonso said. He was knocking on the door of the top five when the engine seized.
That ended a bold run for Alonso, a rookie at Indy and in oval-track racing.
“I must say this has been the best experience of my career,” Alonso said. “I feel if I come back again, it will be easier to run up front, and maybe to win.”
It was no solace to Alonso, who skipped the Monaco Grand Prix to try Indy, that similar engine failures had struck a number of other Honda entrants in the race, as well as in the weeks of practice and time trials.
The race was briefly stopped about a quarter of the way in after the death-defying crash involving Dixon, the top qualifier. Jay Howard’s car had bounced off the outside wall, and as it ricocheted across the track, it collected the trailing machine of Dixon.
Dixon’s car was launched high into the air, and it seemed to float until it landed broadside on the inside guardrail. The car lost its engine and rear wheel assembly in the first big impact, and then almost everything but the driver’s safety capsule before it stopped tumbling.
There were no immediate signs of injury, but Dixon, the 2008 Indy winner and a four-time IndyCar champion, returned to the care center later complaining of a sore ankle, for which he was outfitted with a heavy protective boot.
A few laps after the race restarted, there was another scary-looking accident, involving Conor Daly and Jack Harvey. Another yellow caution flag was waved when Marco Andretti’s car lost a wing section.
At the halfway point, Castroneves was in front of three Andretti drivers thanks to a fuel strategy that seemed to be working better than those of his rivals.
Those strategies became harder to calculate amid more and more yellow-flag slowdowns for crashes, and as pieces fell off cars in the bang-bang style of racing.
Ultimately the caution slowdowns caused the fuel strategies to go out the window.
Ryan Hunter-Reay, the 2014 winner, had led for the most laps when his car’s Honda engine let go without warning in Lap 137. Charlie Kimball also lost a Honda engine before Alonso’s quit.
The Chevrolet engines of Castroneves and his teammates proved more durable but a tick of the clock slower — which meant the difference in the race.
“Hopefully, the crowd enjoyed it,” Sato said of the race. “It’s beautiful. I dreamed of something like this since I was 12.”
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