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Takuma Sato becomes first Japanese to win Indianapolis 500

AP

At the end of 500 miles (805 km) around Indianapolis Motor Speedway Takuma Sato became the first Japanese winner of the Indianapolis 500 when he denied Helio Castroneves a record-tying fourth victory as the two traded the lead in the closing laps on Sunday.

“I know Helio is always going to charge,” Sato said. “But he’s just such a gentleman and such a fair player.”

The Andretti family has struggled for decades to win this race, but as a car owner, Michael Andretti certainly knows the way to victory lane.

Sato’s victory gave Andretti a second consecutive win in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” An Andretti driver has now won the 500 three times in the last four years, and five times overall dating to 2005 with the late Dan Wheldon.

Last year, it was with rookie Alexander Rossi. This time it is with Sato, who joined the team just 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 to its team, and the two-time F1 champion 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 — third most in the race — but he was sent to the paddock when his engine blew with 20 laps remaining.

Alonso had a spectacular race and simply fell victim to his engine late. The crowd gave the Spaniard a standing ovation as he climbed from his car.

“I felt the noise, the engine friction, I backed off and I saw the smoke and, yeah, it’s a shame,” Alonso said. “It’s a very nice surprise to come here with big names, big guys, the best in open-wheel racing and be competitive.”

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 Honda and so did Charlie Kimball. Hunter-Reay led 28 laps and was a strong contender late.

“I’m really happy for Honda. They worked really hard to get us here,” said Andretti. “I know how big this news is going to be tomorrow 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.”

Added Sato about the popularity of his victory in Japan: “This is going to be mega big. 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.”

In a Chevrolet for Team Penske, Castroneves briefly took the lead but couldn’t make it stick 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.”

The margin of victory was 0.2011 seconds and the win was redemption for Sato, who crashed while trying to beat Dario Franchitti on the final lap of the 2012 race.

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. Michael Andretti ran down pit lane to reach Sato’s crew, then rushed to hug his driver.

As for the difference between 2012, when Sato crashed in the first turn of the final lap racing Franchitti, Sato said his strategy this year was perfect.

“I was pointing in the right direction into (Turn) One,” said Sato, who was congratulated in victory lane by Franchitti.

It was only the second IndyCar victory for Sato, who won driving for A.J. Foyt in Long Beach in 2013 — a span of 74 races.