Story by Patrick Reynolds. Photo by USA Today.
INDIANAPOLIS- “The One That Got Away” is a catchy title that works for a fish, a cute girl, or a country song.
In the 101st Indianapolis 500 it described two men trying to overcome personal hurdles in the legendary race.
Helio Castroneves was the quickest driver to record three ‘500’ victories as he took his third checkered flag in only his ninth start. Coming into 2017, he was attempting to tie four-timers A.J. Foyt, Al Unser Sr., and Rick Mears for his eighth try.
Takuma Sato came oh-so-close to winning in 2012, looking to be in the catbird seat that year but executed a potentially winning, last-lap pass on Dario Franchitti a little too late and wound up spinning and crashing in turn one with the lead in sight and the white flag in the rear view mirror.
This year, the final five laps came down to a shootout between Sato and his Honda engine and Castroneves with his Chevy power.
Sato drank the milk and kissed the bricks while Castroneves has to look ahead to 2018.
“Whether it was the first attempt or eighth attempt or you had a drama in the past, it doesn’t really matter,” said Sato.
Castroneves said, “Yes, finishing second again sucks. So close to get the fourth. I really am trying. I will not give up this dream. I know it’s going to happen.”
Polesitter Scott Dixon led the field to the green flag and paced the first five laps. Tony Kanaan, 2013 race winner, went out front on lap six and showed the way until the first round of green flag pit stop cycles began on lap 28.
Two-time winner Juan Pablo Montoya ran out of fuel and cost him time as he coasted into the pits and his crew needed to restart his car.
Defending champ Alexander Rossi led following the cycle and then the attention-grabbing rookie, two-time World Champion Fernando Alonso jumped to first place on lap 37. The Andretti Autosport teammates swapped the lead until the first caution flag waved for a severe crash.
Jay Howard entered turn one high up out of the racing line. His right side hit the safer barrier and the damaged car then slid to the left across the track. Kanaan narrowly missed the disabled Howard car and then Dixon brutally impacted Howard. Dixon was launched into the air in a terrifying looking flip where he landed on top of the inside wall in the south chute between turns one and two. Thankfully, both Howard and Dixon climbed from their cars.
The crash brought out the red flag for repairs to the fencing that Dixon impacted.
Howard blamed Ryan Hunter-Reay for getting him up out of the groove.
Howard said, “(Ryan) Hunter-Reay gets a run on me, and I lift, let him go trying to be the nice guy, and he moves over on me, puts me in the gray, all of the marbles and he causes a massive accident. To say I am unhappy is an understatement.”
Dixon said, “I think when you’re making those decisions, which way to go, I was hoping that Jay was going to stay against the wall, but with the impact he turned down, but I already picked that lane to go and there was nowhere else to try to avoid him.”
Castroneves drove under Dixon’s car as the latter’s was in the air and Castroneves lost a winglet on his rear wing and broke a front wing from flying debris and shooting through the infield grass. The crew did not make repairs on the rear wing, and only changed the car’s front wing balance to compensate.
Castroneves said, “Unfortunately with the accident with Dixon and 77, broke a winglet and broke the front wing because it went off the track.”
Conor Daly brought out the second yellow on lap 66 when he slapped the turn three wall. Jack Harvey driving for IMSA team owner Michael Shank hit some of Daly’s debris and spun in the inside wall, eliminating both drivers.
Nineteenth-starting Castroneves made his presence known in the front of the field by taking third on lap 93, second on lap 95, and the lead on lap 96.
Another round of green-flag stops just past halfway shuffled Ryan Hunter-Reay to the point by 3.5 seconds in the largest lead anyone had in the race. Rossi, Alonso, Castroneves, and Will Power held the top-five positions.
The fourth caution period was brought out by Buddy Lazier’s spin and crash in the second corner on lap 122.
Sage Karem coasted to a halt during this caution period with a dead battery.
Hunter-Reay blew his engine after completing 136 laps and raised the first concern of the day with Honda’s powerplants. There was talk during the week of Honda’s lack of reliability, something Chevy drivers like Castroneves were counting on.
Ed Carpenter had to decelerate in heavy traffic on a lap 142 restart in turn number one, got sideways, and his left front hit Mikhail Aleshin’s right side. Carpenter’s left wing and nosecone shrapnel brought out the caution while the contact punched a hole in Aleshin’s bodywork.
Several teams were deploying various fuel mileage strategies in order to win the race but forthcoming yellow flags negated the efforts.
Max Chilton, James Davison, and Charlie Kimball took turns leading prior to Kimball blowing up Honda’s second engine of the day after 167 laps.
At this point, the stealth riding, fourth-starting Sato appeared back into the top-five.
Chilton paced the field on the restart and Sato flexed his muscle by going around Castroneves and impressive rookie Ed Jones and into second.
The headline-driver of the week, Alonso, lost Honda’s third engine after 180 laps ending the popular run and raising Honda’s concerns for the finish.
With 185 complete Oriol Servia’s right front made contact with James Davison’s left rear and spun both cars into the outside wall. Will Power, James Hinchcliffe, and Josef Newgarden crashed into the pair while trying to slow down and avoid the wreck, turning it into a five-car pileup.
Chilton led Sato and Castroneves on the last restart to complete begin lap 189.
Castroneves passed both to lead lap 194. Sato looked his strongest in the race with an outside pass of Castroneves to complete lap 195.
Sato held the lead with Castroneves stalking until the end. Castroneves attempted to pass with three laps to go but came up short. Sato led their battle to the double checkered flags across the iconic yard of bricks.
Sato said, “I know Helio is coming, coming, coming. I speed up. He tried to attempt.”
“Helio is the guy. He can go for really hard, with respect. I can trust him as well,” said Sato.
Castroneves said, “I try everything I could with three laps to go, two laps to go. I went outside. Unfortunately my tires were overshot a little bit. I would have ended up in the wall. I thought it was good timing because I would try to make a move again. Man, he just took off and that’s it. That was my last chance.”
“As soon as I start turning, the car start pushing,” said Castroneves. “The car was really strong even with the winglet broken.”
Sato said, “After 20 laps our degradation must be one of the best. We didn’t have a super, super, fast car down the straight, but I think we had such a consistent car. Give me confidence. Give me when you need it. You can really commit it. That’s how we win today.”
Third finisher Ed Jones said, “I actually damaged my front wing, had a big hole in it. My legs got pretty cold, to be honest. I had wind blowing into them like crazy. Also created a lot of drag.
“I was really good in the corners catching up to other cars, but it was difficult in the straights. I could pull up to them. We lacked that straight line speed for I’d say the last 40 laps.”
A Honda won the race after facing the concerns of making it the full 500 miles.
Castroneves said, “When I was seeing each Honda going away, I’m like, ‘Here we go.’ That’s what I said. But they gave the good engine to Alonso but they gave the mean engine to Takuma Sato.”
Winning team owner Michael Andretti said, “I don’t blame Honda at all. I think, if anything, I blame all of us pushing Honda so hard. They had come to us and said ‘we can give you a little less reliable engine, but it will have more power. We all of course said, ‘let’s go for the power.’”
Andretti said, “We had the right guy doing it for sure. He just drove a superb race”
Chilton was fourth and Kanaan was fifth. Montoya recovered for sixth, Rossi was seventh after having pit road fuel connection troubles, Marco Andretti, Gabby Chaves, and Carlos Munoz rounded out the top ten.
Sato and Castroneves both had goals to make up for past losses- Indy 500s that got away. Both men believed but only one can be immortalized each May. Sato’s turn was 2017 and he wasn’t going to let it get away.
“I just got to believe in myself, believe what the car is capable of,” Sato said.
Patrick Reynolds is a former professional NASCAR mechanic who hosts Speedway Report Mondays 7:30 pm ET/ 4:30 pm PT on http://racersreunion.com/podcast-library . Follow on Twitter @SpeedwayPat.