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Takuma drove just a beautiful race,” Rahal said. “I have no problem with what he tried to do. It’s the last lap of the Indianapolis 500, and if you see an opportunity, you have to go for it.”

That was being a bit charitable.

While Sato is unlikely to be linked through the ages with JR Hildebrand, this was the second year in a row that someone had their first Indy 500 win in the bag _ and let it slip away.

Hildebrand’s error was more egregious, of course. He was running all alone at the front going into the last turn, just a few hundred yards from victory, when he slammed into the wall. Sato’s crash was more reminiscent of the 1989 race, when Emerson Fittipaldi won after touching wheels with Al Under Jr. on the next-to-last lap, sending Little Al into the wall.

But make no mistake, this was as much a blunder as good, hard racing.

“Tak is very aggressive,” Franchitti said. “He thought that was his chance. Why not? I think he did everything right up until he lost the rear end of the car. … Up until that point, I thought he had made a good move.”

Of course, that’s like saying the Titanic was an enjoyable cruise until that little collision with a block of ice.

Sato implied the three-time 500 winner pinched him off with a questionable blocking maneuver, but Rahal had no plans to protest. He must’ve looked at the replays, which clearly showed Franchitti did nothing wrong. He followed the letter of the law regarding how much room he should leave for an attempted pass _ essentially, the width of a car.

“I wanted to make sure I left him more than that,” Franchitti said. “I didn’t touch him. I didn’t squeeze him. He just lost the rear of the car.”

No matter who won, this was another thrilling ride for a sport that lost its way during the 1990s, wound up with two dueling series and turned off just about everyone who cared about American open-wheel racing.

On this day, there were a record 35 lead changes _ six more than the previous high _ and the quality of the racing over the closing laps was downright exhilarating. The best move was turned in by hard-luck Tony Kanaan, who made a zigzagging dash from fifth to first on a late restart, sending the crowd approaching 250,000 into a tizzy. But the popular Brazilian couldn’t hold on for his first Indy win, settling for third behind Franchitti and Dixon.

Throw in the poignant tributes to 2011 winner Dan Wheldon, who was killed in a crash at Las Vegas last October, and this was a memorable day all around. Maybe, just maybe, it will be another small step toward restoring IndyCar to a more worthy place in the sporting hierarchy.

Hey, folks, this was just as exciting as NASCAR on its best day.

For everyone but Sato, that is.

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