KRAVITZ: A wild, weird, wonderful Indy 500 produces a grateful and unlikely champion

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SPEEDWAY, Ind. - What didn’t happen at the 101st Indianapolis 500? From Jim Cornelison’s stirring rendition of “Back Home Again In Indiana’’ to 11 caution flags, from five-wide racing to stirring passes in the final laps, from a horrific crash involving Scott Dixon to multiple blown Honda engines, it all came down to this: Takuma Sato, the utterly fearless Japanese driver, passed three-time Indy 500 champion Helio Castroneves on the outside and then, powered by the strong but unreliable Honda engine, held off Castroneves to win the 101st Indianapolis 500.

In the end, Sato succeeded where he gallantly and bravely failed in 2012, when he went for the victory on the final lap and then spun out attempting to catch front-runner and eventual winner Dario Franchitti. Sato is known more for his fearlessness than his record; the Japanese driver, the first man from his country to win the Indy 500, has now won just twice in 124 IndyCar starts. But this is the one that matters. This is the one that makes you a hero back home and proffers immortality on a man.

“It’s beautiful,’’ Sato yelled as he drank the milk and then bathed in it.

Team owner Michael Andretti’s team, Andretti Autosport, has now won two straight Indy 500’s and three of the last four.

“He (Sato) drove a superb race,’’ Andretti said at the end of a feast-or-famine day for his team and Honda engines. “There’s many times where he was in a difficult situation and he would get out of the situation. He showed a lot of patience. But when he had to go, he went.

“There was one move where he passed two cars on the outside in (Turn) One, which was a very important move… That was one of the moves of the race, in my opinion. When I saw that, I’m like, `Whoa, I think we’re going to win this thing.’ He didn’t let us down. He drove very, very well.’’

There were so many story lines that emerged from this race, it’s hard to know where to start.

There was Castroneves, the second-place finisher who was vying for his record-tying fourth Indianapolis 500 victory. He has come so close so many times, but once Sato passed him, there was no way of catching Sato and that super-charged Honda engine. For all its problems Sunday, the Honda engine that failed so spectacularly for other drivers held strong down the stretch. Sato and his car were too quick, and ultimately, Castroneves had nothing for his competitor in the final laps.

The crowd would have loved to have seen the popular Castroneves win for a fourth time, tying A.J. Foyt, Rick Mears and Al Unser. They would have loved to have seen the ebullient Brazilian climb the fence, as is his custom, near the start-finish line. But they couldn’t will any more horsepower into Castroneves’ car as Sato slowly, inexorably pulled away in the final few laps.

“I tried everything with three laps to go, two laps to go,’’ Castroneves said. “I went outside. Unfortunately my tires were overshot a little bit. I would have ended up in the wall…Man, he just took off and that was it. That was my last chance. I’m really disappointed for the fans, for my team. They gave me a great car. I did everything I could – trust me – everything I could. Unfortunately, second place is the best for us today.’’

There was Fernando Alonso, the remarkably talented two-time Formula One champion, who took on the Indianapolis 500 as a personal bucket-list wish. When his Honda engine finally blew late in the race when he was running near the top of the pack, the IMS crowd rose and applauded the Spaniard, offering its appreciation not only for his effort Sunday, but for the way he’s handled the entire month of May. Alonso gracefully handled every request, whether it was from the track or from the media. He never big-timed anybody, never diminished IndyCar the way F1 driver Lewis Hamilton recently did in an interview with France’s L’Equipe, never acted like he was doing the motorsports world a favor by coming to Indianapolis.

And when it was over, he raised a small carton of milk, drank from it and thanked everybody, including the media, for a wonderful and eye-opening couple of weeks.

There was only one wrong move from Alonso, who might have won this race if not for the blown engine: After speaking to the media after the race, he walked off, only to be chased down by Zak Brown, the executive director of McLaren Technology Group, who had such a big hand in bringing Alonso over.

“Here,’’ Brown said, handing Alonso his cell phone.

“Oh,’’ Alonso said. “Thanks.’’

Alonso left the door open for a return engagement in Indianapolis, and it’s safe to say, he’s very welcome to come back and grace this place with his massive talent and his charismatic personality.

There was Scott Dixon, who had the oddest month of May ever, winning the pole, then getting held up at gunpoint at a Taco Bell drive-through, followed Sunday by a horrifying accident when he went airborne and left a huge hole in the fence above the safety barrier. Who would have thought that getting a gun pointed at your head might be just the second most frightening moment of the week?

And yet…he stepped out of the car, walked away, got checked by the medical people and was cleared. That is a true testament to the improved safety of today’s cars and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Think about the two big crashes this month, the ones involving Sebastien Bourdais and the one Sunday involving Dixon. Years ago, those crashes would have resulted in life-altering injuries or even death. Bourdais ended up with a fractured pelvis and injured hips. Dixon walked away unhurt.

“It was a wild ride, for sure,’’ the even-tempered Dixon said on the TV broadcast.

Understatement much? No wonder they call him The Iceman.

A full two hours after the race, my WTHR colleagues and I were finishing up our TV duties when Sato took a seat nearby and did yet another in an endless line of interviews. He looked exhausted but happy, so happy, and even if the victory won’t resonate locally like an American winner or Helio or someone with a higher profile, it will be front-page news in Japan. In the paddock, it’s surely a popular victory for a popular and utterly fearless driver who went for it, and fell short, just five years ago.

“This will be mega big (in Japan),’’ Sato said. “I cannot imagine how it’s going to be.’’

Get ready, Takuma. Your life has just changed forever.

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