Takuma Sato comes out on top in IndyCar return to Portland

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Takuma Sato

In what is surely one of the wildest races of the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season, Takuma Sato and his No. 30 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing team were the ones left standing at the end by winning in the series’ return to the Portland International Raceway.

In the championship chase, Scott Dixon overcame a first-lap melee that shuffled him to the back of the pack to actually extend his points lead heading into the final race of the season at Sonoma Raceway.

A highly-anticipated first corner complex lived up to its exciting billing when James Hinchcliffe and Zach Veach made contact and collected Dixon, Marco Andretti, Graham Rahal, Ed Jones and Sebastien Bourdais.

In the accident, Andretti climbed over Hinchcliffe and dramatically rolled his No. 98 Andretti Autosport Honda into the dirt.  All drivers walked away safely without injury, with only Andretti, Jones, and Hinchcliffe retiring early.

At first glance, the accident looked to be a devastating blow to Dixon’s championship hopes.  Buried into the dirt with Hinchcliffe and Rahal on each side of him, Dixon would miraculously emerge from the cloud of dust with just minor nose and suspension damage.

The Kiwi would grab a new pair of Firestone tires and continue on without any extra time devoted to damage repair, despite a broken radio antenna that offered communication issues throughout the race for Dixon and his No. 9 team.

When action resumed, Will Power led the race shortly before a gearbox issue forced him out of the lead.  Power would battle the issue for much of the day as the Aussie was without first gear, and at one point even found the tire barrier in Turn 12.

After Power relinquished the lead on lap 9, it was Alexander Rossi sitting pretty with the race and points lead.  At that moment, Rossi was running with a 14-point advantage in the championship on Dixon, who was mired back in the pack.

As pit stops commenced, Rossi’s luck improved even further when Dixon was handed a pit speed violation on lap 41 and had to serve a pass-through penalty.   That was about when the luck ran out for Alexander Rossi today.

On lap 49 it was Josef Newgarden taking command of the race lead as he manufactured yet another daring pass on the entry to Turn 1, devouring Rossi for the top spot.  Shortly thereafter, Zach Veach brought out a full course caution to shuffle the pit strategy.

With 45 laps remaining, Ryan Hunter-Reay had moved into the race lead with Newgarden and Rossi mired back in the pack.  Somehow, someway, Dixon had leap-frogged each of them and found himself in a better position considering track position and fuel strategy.

Newgarden and Rossi would mount a valiant charge through the field, and nearly caught a break when Santino Ferrucci stalled his Dale Coyne Racing machine out on the course for what looked like an immediate full course caution.

Instead, race control allowed the field to all make stops before throwing the caution, nullifying any opportunity at re-shuffling the running order.

The final restart of the race came on lap 82 as Max Chilton led Takuma Sato and Hunter-Reay.  The battle for the race win had narrowed to Sato and Hunter-Reay as Chilton would soon pit for fuel, and sure enough, on lap 86 it was Chilton removing himself from the fight.

Saving fuel for much of the race, Hunter-Reay would be unleashed by his No. 28 DHL Honda race engineers with four laps remaining and a boatload of push-to-pass in the bank.

The American driver quickly closed a 1.5-second gap to Sato over the next two laps, but struggled to break inside the half-second mark.

In the end, it was Sato holding off Hunter-Reay for the victory in IndyCar’s return to Portland.  Sebastien Bourdais capped off a resilient weekend for both himself and his No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing team by finishing 3rd, while Spencer Pigot finished 4th in a great run for Ed Carpenter Racing.

Rounding out the top five, remarkably, was Dixon in 5th.  Rossi would finish the day in 8th place, unable to overcome Charlie Kimball as the two battled for much of the final 15 laps in the race.

Remarkably, despite Dixon’s bad luck early and the stars aligning for Rossi, the four-time champion padded his lead by 3 points entering Sonoma.  It is now a 29-point gap between Dixon and Rossi heading into the 2018 season finale.

Other notables include the best run of young Pietro Fittipaldi’s career, with the Brazilian driver coming home 9th today.  Fittipaldi outran the defending series champion Newgarden, who would finish 10th.

Image by Stephen King/INDYCAR.

Tanner Watkins

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