Scott Dixon ponders the ‘what ifs’ of red flag and fuel mileage at Indy 500

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INDIANAPOLIS –After his third second place in the Indy 500, Scott Dixon was left second-guessing both IndyCar officials for holstering a red flag for the finish and himself for being left in position to be affected by the decision.

Dixon led a race-high 111 laps at Indianapolis Motor Speedway but lost control of the race over the final green-flag stint when he couldn’t match the pace of race winner Takuma Sato while trying to conserve fuel.

But when Spencer Pigot spun off Turn 4 with four laps and slammed into the attenuator at the entrance to the pit lane, Dixon thought he would get at least one more shot at winning his second Indy 500.

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“I definitely thought with five to go they were going to immediately because, one, the size of the crash, and two, where it was,” Dixon said. “It wasn’t going to be a quick cleanup. I was kind of surprised they didn’t. I kind of heard they said, ‘Normally we don’t do that.’ History would tell you that’s not true either.”

This was the ninth time in the past 18 years that the Indy 500 has ended with a caution flag, most recently in 2013 when the last five laps were run under yellow

The following year, IndyCar (under the leadership of a different race director than Sunday) elected to red-flag the race for more than 10 minutes to ensure the final seven laps were green – a decision that earned the ire of some in the series.

In a statement Sunday, IndyCar said the series “makes every effort to end races under green, but in this case following the assessment of the incident, there were too few laps remaining to gather the field behind the pace car, issue a red flag and then restart for a green-flag finish.”

If he’d been afforded the opportunity, Dixon – who took the lead from pole-sitter Marco Andretti with a pass on the first corner of the race – believed he could have beaten Sato.

Takuma Sato and Scott Dixon go by Spencer Pigot’s wrecked car, which brought out a yellow flag that effectively ended the 104th Indy 500 (Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports).

“For us it would have been really good because I think the leader would have been a sitting duck,” Dixon said. “That’s kind of harsh on Sato. If they got out there and had a dash with three laps to go, I think all is fair in a situation like that.

“I can’t change that. It is what it is. I think it would have been interesting to see how that played out. It would have been much better for us rather than Sato.”

Bobby Rahal, the co-owner of Sato’s car, wasn’t as sure and said it “it’s silly to sit there and try to predict what might have happened.

“You can prognosticate all you want about what if they red flagged it and you had a restart,” he said. “Maybe the guy in third would have been the guy in the upper hand, big tow, went by both of them. Who knows?

“All I know is we won the Indy 500 today and that’s what counts.”

Dixon, who won the Indy 500 in 2008, was left pondering why Sato became the 20th multiple winner of the race instead of him.

“It’s a bit funky like this sometimes,” he said. “You can’t rely on being strong all day. You can’t rely on past races or anything like that. It is what it is. It’s definitely tough when you come up short in a situation like that.

“Everything we did, strategy, was on point. We definitely had a pretty fast car. We knew it was always going to get tricky at this point of the day. We thought we kind of made the right call.”

The race’s turning point was the final restart on Lap 154. Unable to hit the fuel mileage needed to make the finish on one more stop, Dixon’s team gave up power for efficiency by switching to a leaner fuel mixture.

The five-time series champion gave up the lead to Sato on Lap 158 but still thought he’d be in good shape. But though he got within striking distance of Sato a few times in traffic during the final 15 laps, the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing driver kept pulling away (Rahal later said Sato had “plenty” of fuel despite pitting a lap earlier than Dixon).

“We didn’t think they were going to make it on fuel,” Dixon said. “Seemed like there was a hesitation maybe about 15 to go or 12 to go where I got beside him on the straight. It’s like they started to go to a lean mixture, then they decided it was just too slow, so they kind of went back at it.

“I probably should have been a little more aggressive on that high side there. I think he would have just run me up anyway, which maybe would have put both of us in the fence, or maybe just me.

“Maybe we should have gone harder. Maybe we would have run out of fuel and been in the same position. I don’t know what was the right call. Just shows you, when I was asked if I wanted to be leading with five laps to go yesterday, absolutely, especially with a scenario like this.

“Definitely hard to swallow for the team. Massive thank you to the 9 car crew. They did a tremendous job on pit road today, strategy, everything we could. Got to say congrats to Sato, too. He drove a hell of a race. They were victorious. He’s drinking the milk, and that’s what counts.”