Scott Dixon sprays champagne on Takuma Sato

BIRMINGHAM, Alabama – During the waning laps of Sunday’s race, Takuma Sato’s car slid completely off the Barber Motorsports Park pavement in Turn 8, kicking up grass and dust that his closest pursuer noticed immediately.

“Yeah, I saw it,” Scott Dixon said with a grin. “And I was hoping he went a little further off.”

But Sato wasn’t about to make a serious miscue. His 2.3874-second victory over Dixon in the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama presented by AmFirst reiterated what the top pros have been saying about Sato for 10 years: Given the right equipment and the lead, he’s among the toughest to beat.

But that moment late in the race? It caught Sato’s attention as much as Dixon’s.

“It looked like it, but it wasn't that much,” he said. “In that moment, I decided to go straight. … It was not necessary to give the little bit sort of heart attack to Bobby Rahal.”

Any undue stress placed on Rahal, Sato’s team co-owner, was unwarranted as he recovered nicely and without issue in the No. 30 Mi-Jack/Panasonic Honda. The victory was the fourth in Sato’s 10 seasons in the NTT IndyCar Series but also his second in the last five races. He ran a similar, nearly flawless route to win in September at Portland International Raceway, then followed it Sunday with a performance for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing that left little doubt about his ability.

“It was his race today,” said Dixon, shown above spraying champagne on Sato during the postrace podium celebration. “He deserved it. That was the only thing he did wrong, and he caught it.”

Starting from the pole position and leading 74 laps of a 90-lap race might sound easy, but it was hardly relaxing.

“It's never relaxed,” Sato said. “Outside, (it) probably looked easy, cruising from the pole position, but it wasn't really cruising. I was really pushing hard, using push-to-pass on everything except the last 10 laps.”

After the race’s only caution period from Laps 58 to 65, Sato restarted in the lead, with Dixon and Sebastien Bourdais trailing. Despite the fact he had a pair of drivers who have totaled nine Indy car championships hot on his trail, Sato didn’t waver. As hard as he tried, Dixon couldn’t get Sato’s margin under 1.5 seconds. By the final two laps, with Dixon’s tires fading, Sato was able to pull away.

“We tried to put pressure on him,” said Dixon, the reigning and five-time NTT IndyCar Series champion driving the No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda. “It was actually quite tough to get close this year, and I think that's … because the grip level was quite low, so it was really hard to get close. And in that situation when I pressured him, my tires went off.”

Another point about Sato? He’s getting better with age. After seven years in Formula One, he moved to INDYCAR in 2010. Before he started winning – first for AJ Foyt Racing at Long Beach in 2013, then famously for Andretti Autosport at the Indianapolis 500 in 2017 – Sato was best known for spinning on the final lap while trying to pass Dario Franchitti for the lead at Indy in 2012.

Now, seven years later and at 42 years of age, Sato is known as one of the best on the grid – a fierce, precise competitor who knows how to get to the lead and maintain it once there.

“It's probably the cleanest race that I ever won,” he said. “Big thank you to the team. Without their support, we wouldn't able to push this hard, and I think the engineers did a fantastic job. … All the conditions and whatever you call it, I think all the environment was really, really helping for us. … Showing such a domination, that was a superb feeling.”

NBCSN airs an encore presentation of the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at noon ET Monday. The race telecast is also available on demand on INDYCAR Pass on NBC Sports Gold.