Takuma Sato outduels Scott Dixon for his second Indy 500 victory

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INDIANAPOLIS — Takuma Sato became a two-time winner of the Indy 500, outdueling five-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon for the victory Sunday as the race ended under caution at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Sato, who also won the 2017 Indianapolis 500, took the lead from Dixon on Lap 157 just before both made their final pit stops under green.

The Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing driver then cycled back into the lead (after passing Dixon again) and fended off several challenges while darting through traffic. Sato led 27 laps, including the final 16, in his No. 30 Dallara-Honda after starting third.

RESULTS: Full boxscore for the 104th Indy 500

“This is unbelievable,” Sato told NBC Sports’ Marty Snider in the winner’s circle. “Obviously, we pitted (a lap) short from Dixie. We knew in terms of the fuel strategy it was a little tight. I saw Scott coming right through out of Turn 4, and he was screaming coming at me, and I just held him off. Thank you so much.

“This was the entire Rahal Letterman Lanigan team. HPD and Honda gave us a lot of power, a lot of fuel mileage, and my boys. They sacrifice a lot. I can’t thank all of the people.”

It’s the second Indy 500 victory for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, which also won in 2004 with Buddy Rice. Among those joining in the celebration with Sato was longtime renowned TV personality David Letterman, the co-owner of his car.

“God bless you, my friend, thank you very much,” Letterman said. “Hell of a job.”

More than a quarter of the race was run under yellow as the race was slowed by seven cautions for 51 laps — including the final four. Spencer Pigot, Sato’s teammate, spun off Turn 4 on Lap 196 and sustained a heavy impact with the tire barrier at the entry to the pits.

Pigot was able to climb out of his destroyed car after the heavy impact but then was helped onto a stretcher by safety workers. Pigot was transported to nearby Methodist Hospital for further evaluation and was released Sunday night.

Dixon, who led a race-high 111 of 200 laps in his No. 9 Dallara-Honda, finished second for the third time in the Indy 500, followed by Graham Rahal, Santino Ferrucci and Josef Newgarden.

Dixon had pitted from the lead a lap after Sato on Lap 169, and he thought he had the race winner covered.

“It’s definitely a hard one to swallow,” Dixon told NBC Sports’ Kelli Stavast. “We had such a great day. On fuel mileage, I really can’t see how (Sato was) going to make it.

“We pitted a lap later, and the numbers they had to get, it was going to be very difficult. I thought they were going to throw a red flag (to finish under green), which would have been interesting for the last four or five laps. Huge congrats to Sato. He drove his pants off today. Proud to be powered by HPD and Honda, and it’s nice to get some points. But it’s hard when it slips away like that.”

Rookie Pato O’Ward, James Hinchcliffe, Colton Herta, Jack Harvey and Ryan Hunter-Reay rounded out the top 10.

It was the first Indy 500 run outside of May and also took place without a crowd because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

Sato said there’d been “no energy” each morning in Gasoline Alley but didn’t let that diminish the victory.

“It was a little sad,” he said. “But we all understood. Also this wasn’t the first race we had no spectators. We have been no spectators entire season, which we never want to get used to, but something that we have to do. There is no question.

“I love the atmosphere with 300,000 people, the energy, how can I say, the power, the voice, that’s amazing, which we don’t have today. But we still head down, do our job, know millions of people watching on TV.”

Said Bobby Rahal, the co-owner of Sato’s car and the 1986 Indy 500 winner: “It may sound odd, but frankly, I didn’t notice there weren’t people in the grandstands the last few laps. I was pretty intent on the racing.

“In all seriousness, we’ve said this time and time again, it’s eerie, it’s weird. Nobody likes it. Feel bad. I hope our fans that watched it on TV really enjoyed the race. Yeah, I know it’s not the same thing as being there, but I think everybody understands the situation that exists. We all have to make the best of it. I hope everybody enjoyed the race.”

It was more enjoyable for Rahal’s team than many other prerace contenders.

After putting four of its six entries in the first three starting rows, a promising day for Andretti Autosport went awry as Hinchcliffe was its highest finisher in seventh.

Pole-sitter Marco Andretti never led a lap as he yielded first to Dixon in the first turn and ran outside the top five for much of the day to finish 13th.

Teammate Alexander Rossi, the 2016 winner and last year’s runner-up, led 17 laps and seemed to have a car capable of challenging Dixon. But he fell from fourth to 21st after being penalized for an unsafe release from the pit box on a Lap 124 pit stop under yellow when he made contact with Sato.

Rossi slammed the wall in Turn 2 while running 18th 20 laps later.

“We were never planning on being that far back,” Rossi told NBC Sports pit reporter Kevin Lee. “Yeah, we just lost it. It’s a lot of dirty air back there. It was tough in Turn 2 all day, but up front where we should have been, the 27 Andretti Honda was awesome.

“I thought we had a car to win. I don’t even want to talk about the penalty right now. I’m going to have to have a long conversation with someone about that. I can’t see anything. I just go on what I’m told, but still, Takuma’s moving in reaction on restarts and doesn’t get a penalty. Just consistency … we’ll talk about it. I don’t have an opinion right now. It’s obviously frustrating. There’s two sides to every story.”

Aside from O’Ward, it also was a difficult race for the five rookies in the field.

Rinus VeeKay, the youngest driver in the field at 19, served a stop and go penalty for hitting a pit crew member during a stop under green on Lap 64 in which he also stalled the car after running as high as third in the first 50 laps.

Oliver Askew was competitive in his first Indy 500 start before a heavy impact on a restart crash on Lap 92. The Arrow McLaren SP driver was OK after being “shaken up” by the impact.

Alex Palou also crashed in Turn 1 on Lap 122 after running well in his Indy debut.

The yellow flag flew twice in the first 30 laps, allowing for some strategy plays that jumbled the running order.

The first caution was on Lap 5 when James Davison (in a Dale Coyne Racing entry that was partnered with NASCAR team owner Rick Ware) stopped on the backstretch with an apparent brake fire on his No. 51 Dallara-Honda.

That allowed several cars that started toward the back to make early pit stops, including past Indy 500 winners Will Power, Simon Pagenaud and Helio Castroneves.

When the yellow appeared again for Marcus Ericsson’s crash in Turn 1, Dixon pitted and brought a host of lead-lap cars to the pits.

That lifted Askew into the lead, but the rookie quickly was passed by Pagenaud on the Lap 32 restart. Pagenaud and Askew pitted under green on Lap 47, putting Dixon back into the lead with Rossi in second.