Takuma Sato drove flawlessly - almost - to win the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama presented by AmFirst and throw his name firmly into the NTT IndyCar Series championship conversation.
The Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing driver made Scott Dixon a Barber Motorsports Park bridesmaid for a record sixth time, beating the reigning series champion to the finish line by 2.3874 seconds. It was the fourth win of Sato's 10-year NTT IndyCar Series career, with the 42-year-old from Tokyo becoming the third different driver - each from a different team - to pull into victory lane in three races this season.
"This is because of the team, they did a fantastic effort," Sato said. "My car was superb! (On alternate) red tires, (primary) black tires, I didn't have to worry about it.
It's probably the cleanest race I ever won. ... I think we come here with the hopes, always do, but honestly never really, really expected to be this much of a domination."
Starting from pole position after winning the NTT P1 Award the day before, Sato led 74 of 90 laps on the 17-turn, 2.3-mile permanent road course that hosted the NTT IndyCar Series for a 10th straight year. Track officials announced a healthy three-day weekend attendance of 82,889.
About the only time Sato turned a wheel wrong came with five laps to go, when his No. 30 Mi-Jack/Panasonic Honda went wide in Turn 8, going airborne briefly as it rattled through the grass. His car undamaged from the off-track excursion, Sato gathered himself and kept Dixon at bay to the checkered flag.
"Outside, (it) probably looked easy winning from the cruising and the pole position, but it wasn't really cruising," said Sato, the 2017 Indianapolis 500 winner. "So I was really pushing hard using push-to-pass on everything the last 10 laps. So it was tough, and I had a little moment into Turn 8.
Anyway, it was not necessary to give the little bit sort of heart attack to the body."
The win was the 27th for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing in its 27th year as an Indy car team. Co-owners Bobby Rahal, the three-time Indy car champion and 1986 Indy 500 winner, and David Letterman, the iconic late-night talk-show host, were on hand and overjoyed with the result.
"I'm really pleased for Takuma, he drove beautifully," Rahal said. "The team did a fabulous job, pit stops were great, strategy was great. But I honestly think Takuma was in a league of his own."
Dixon was thwarted again in his effort to win at Barber, finishing on the podium at the track for the eighth time. Still, the result was the 42nd second-place finish of his 19-year career, moving Dixon ahead of Helio Castroneves and alone behind only Mario Andretti's 56 career runner-up finishes.
"We've got to be happy with that," Dixon said. "It's always tough competition. We come here to win, but second place (was) great for points. ... Hopefully, we can try and get a win here one day."
Sebastien Bourdais successfully employed a two-pit-stop strategy to finish third in the No. 18 SealMaster Honda for Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser-Sullivan. It was the 57th podium finish for the four-time Indy car champion and his best showing in nine Barber races.
"Hats off to that Team SealMaster Honda crew, they really gave me a great car," Bourdais said. "I guess we were one of the rare teams to stick to the two-stop strategy. It means that Dale (Coyne, team co-owner) has a heck of a lot more faith in me than I have in myself, that's for sure.
"On Lap 18, I said, 'I don't think I can hang onto the car for another 10 laps,' and he was like, 'Well, you're committed now.' So, I wasn't quite sure about it, but it worked out and I finished third."
Sato had never finished better than eighth in nine previous races at Barber, but became the fifth driver to convert a pole position at the track into victory. He leapt 10 spots in the season standings into third place, 34 points behind leader Josef Newgarden. Dixon is second, 27 points behind Newgarden.
A three-time Barber winner, Newgarden struggled all weekend until the race. The 2017 NTT IndyCar Series champion drove his No. 2 Fitzgerald USA Team Penske Chevrolet from 16th starting position to finish fourth.
"We had a good car today, we just started too far back," Newgarden said. "That was kind of our story this weekend, couldn't really get going really enough ... so nice to get a fourth today and Chevy did a nice job getting us what we needed."
There was just one full-course caution to tie the track record for fewest in a race. Graham Rahal, Sato's teammate who started second in the No. 15 One Cure Honda, stopped on course on Lap 57 and Carlin's Max Chilton slid into a tire barrier shortly after while avoiding Tony Kanaan of AJ Foyt Racing as both attempted to enter pit lane.
Sato joins Newgarden (Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg) and rookie Colton Herta (INDYCAR Classic at Circuit of The Americas) as race winners in 2019. Sunday's race will receive an encore telecast at noon ET Monday on NBCSN.
The next NTT IndyCar Series race is the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach on Sunday, April 14. Race coverage begins at 4 p.m. ET on NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.
Results Sunday of the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama NTT IndyCar Series event on the 2.3-mile Barber Motorsports Park, with order of finish, starting position in parentheses, driver, engine, laps completed and reason out (if any):
1. (1) Takuma Sato, Honda, 90, Running
2. (3) Scott Dixon, Honda, 90, Running
3. (5) Sebastien Bourdais, Honda, 90, Running
4. (16) Josef Newgarden, Chevrolet, 90, Running
5. (8) Alexander Rossi, Honda, 90, Running
6. (4) James Hinchcliffe, Honda, 90, Running
7. (20) Marcus Ericsson, Honda, 90, Running
8. (11) Ryan Hunter-Reay, Honda, 90, Running
9. (14) Simon Pagenaud, Chevrolet, 90, Running
10. (17) Felix Rosenqvist, Honda, 90, Running
11. (7) Will Power, Chevrolet, 90, Running
12. (23) Zach Veach, Honda, 90, Running
13. (12) Jack Harvey, Honda, 90, Running
14. (13) Marco Andretti, Honda, 90, Running
15. (10) Santino Ferrucci, Honda, 90, Running
16. (18) Patricio O'Ward, Chevrolet, 90, Running
17. (6) Spencer Pigot, Chevrolet, 90, Running
18. (19) Tony Kanaan, Chevrolet, 89, Running
19. (21) Ed Jones, Chevrolet, 89, Running
20. (15) Matheus Leist, Chevrolet, 89, Running
21. (24) Ben Hanley, Chevrolet, 88, Running
22. (22) Max Chilton, Chevrolet, 88, Running
23. (2) Graham Rahal, Honda, 55, Off Course
24. (9) Colton Herta, Honda, 51, Running
Winner's average speed: 107.272 mph
Time of Race: 1:55:46.8076
Margin of victory: 2.3874 seconds
Cautions: 1 for 7 laps
Lead changes: 11 among six drivers
Sato, Takuma 1 - 16
Rahal, Graham 17
Hinchcliffe, James 18
Rossi, Alexander 19
Bourdais, Sebastien 20 - 27
Sato, Takuma 28 - 36
Dixon, Scott 37
Hinchcliffe, James 38
Rossi, Alexander 39 - 40
Sato, Takuma 41 - 56
Dixon, Scott 57
Sato, Takuma 58 - 90
NTT IndyCar Series point standings: Newgarden 125, Dixon 98, Sato 91, Rossi 84, Herta 81, Bourdais 72, Hinchcliffe 71, Hunter-Reay 66, Power 66, Andretti 61.