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Takuma Sato holds off Ryan Hunter-Reay to win Portland Grand Prix

AFP-JIJI, AP

Takuma Sato held off Ryan Hunter-Reay over the last 19 laps to win the IndyCar Portland Grand Prix on Sunday, while Scott Dixon rallied to increase his lead at the top of the points standings.

The 41-year-old Tokyo native used fuel strategy and timed his pit stops just right to earn the third win of his IndyCar career. Sato won at Long Beach in 2013 and also won last season’s Indianapolis 500.

“This weekend has really paid off,” Sato said. “We carefully calculated. The strategy worked well. The car worked extremely well.”

A caution flag for rookie Santino Ferrucci set up a restart with 23 laps remaining and when the pit stops evened up, Sato seized the lead with 19 laps to go.

It set up a thrilling finish as Sato held off Hunter-Reay.

“I knew he was coming but I kept really cool,” Sato said. “Ryan really raced me hard, in and out, but (I was) brilliant.”

Dixon finished fifth, but salvaged his championship run with an improbable comeback that made the title his to lose.

Dixon finished far behind Sato, but put together the kind of drive that may define his season. He started 11th, was collected in an opening-lap crash, penalized for speeding on pit road and twice drove through the field from 20th. His Chip Ganassi Racing team was forced to change its strategy several times, and caution flags helped Dixon cycle ahead of the other championship contenders. He goes to the Sept. 16 season finale with a 29-point lead over Alexander Rossi.

“Huge day for the team, feels like a win for us,” said Dixon. “The points, whatever it is, is not a huge amount.”

Rossi had a decent race Sunday but was cycled out of the lead because of cautions. He finished eighth and lost three points to Dixon.

“It’s one of those days. We had a fast car,” Rossi said. “Our tire strategy was going to plan and everything was good until the yellow came on Lap 56. It hurts a lot, and hopefully, it’s not something that costs us the championship.”

Team Penske drivers Will Power and Josef Newgarden started on the front row and are the only other drivers mathematically eligible to win the championship. Newgarden, the defending series champion, finished 10th and is 87 points behind Dixon.

Sebastien Bourdais, the last winner of an open-wheel race at Portland in 2007, was third.

Portland had hosted 24 consecutive open-wheel events but none during the last 11 years. The return of IndyCar was met by enthusiastic fans and a Pacific Northwest crowd craving to see a major racing event. The fans got a show when the race began with a multicar accident that sent Marco Andretti through the air, over two cars and upside down into the dirt.

It was the same crash that collected Dixon and should have ruined his race and perhaps his championship chances. Stuck in the dirt, he put his car in reverse and drove away with minimal damage. Then, his improbable finish made the title his to lose.

“I couldn’t see anything once I got off the in the dirt, it was just dust everywhere,” Dixon said. “Then I kept getting hit and hit and thought, ‘Oh, this isn’t going to be good.’ “