It was one of the best battles seen thus far this season in the Verizon IndyCar Series.
In a classic matchup in the closing laps of Sunday’s Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, Juan Pablo Montoya was fighting tooth-and-nail, protecting every inch of ground on the street course in an attempt to keep Takuma Sato from passing him.
While they weren’t going for the win, their duel for fourth place was as compelling a match as Scott Dixon trying to run down Simon Pagenaud for the win.
“The last few laps, obviously, all the way we tried to save fuel and use the push to pass,” Sato said. “We never gave up.”
Sato earned his first top-five and second top-10 of the season. It was his best showing since finishing runner-up in the second Belle Isle race last season.
“It was nearly side-by-side crossing the finish line and we needed a little bit more. I thought we had a good time for this one. (Montoya) was also strong. What an amazing job for this A.J. Foyt team, to come back strongly under difficult circumstances. I think we had a difficult practice session but we kept cool, saved fuel and it was a good battle all the way through.”
By finishing fourth, Montoya earned his second top-five and third overall top-10 of the season in the first three races of 2016.
“We had a very fast Verizon Chevy, but we just had a hard time getting to the front,” he said. “Track position is pretty important here and we lost some early when I made a mistake and we fell behind Will (Power).
“They just had more top end speed. We did a good job and battled back but it wasn’t enough. Congratulations to Simon and the No. 22 team. That’s a great win for him and Team Penske.”
Pagenaud opened his lead in the standings over Scott Dixon to 14 points, while Montoya is ranked third in the Verizon IndyCar Series, 28 points behind his teammate.
“I want to beat him,” Montoya said of Pagenaud. “He did a great job. He’s got two seconds and a win; it’s really good. The hard thing is we all keep finishing there.
“… It was kind of a short race. It was funny because most street courses are three stops, this one you can barely make it in two. So you’ve got to be stretching your fuel all day, but that was okay.”
Going back to Sato, his fifth-place finish in Sunday’s race boosts him to sixth place in the standings, 61 points behind Pagenaud.
Sato received a somewhat painful remembrance of his joust with Montoya, but it was a pain he didn’t mind.
“My hand is still shaking and has a big blister on it,” Sato told NBCSN. “With the steering wheel shaking, it’s difficult and it was high downforce and reliable, which is nice and we like to be fast.
“I’m not complaining about it, I like it,” he added about the blister. “… Obviously, fifth is not the best or what we wanted, but with the way we were today, it was a great finish from the team.”