IndyCar has momentum heading into biggest race of season

SAO PAULO (AP) — IndyCar heads to its signature event in Indianapolis with some momentum after James Hinchcliffe’s last-turn pass of Takuma Sato for victory in Brazil.

The thrilling final laps that led to James Hinchcliffe’s last-turn pass over Takuma Sato for the victory in Brazil were a fitting depiction of a competitive IndyCar season which heads to its biggest race of the year in Indianapolis.

Hinchcliffe squeezed past Sato just yards from the finish line after a long battle for the lead on the streets of Sao Paulo on Sunday, winning his second race in a season which has seen several different drivers running up front and contending for victories.

“That’s IndyCar racing,” said Michael Andretti, Hinchcliffe’s team owner. “That’s what it’s about. It seems that so many of these races go down the last turn of the last lap. That’s what makes this such a great sport.”

Hinchcliffe moved from third to second with three laps to go and attacked Sato until the end at the Anhembi track, chasing him back-and-forth on the mile-long back straight until finally making his move at the final hairpin. The battle had the Brazilian fans on their feet throughout the final laps.

“That shows how we are competitive, how our series is really fun watching the race. I think the fans really enjoy it,” said Sato, who two weeks ago in Long Beach became the first Japanese to win in IndyCar.

Eight different drivers have made the podium during the first four races of the year. Only Hinchcliffe, Sato, Marco Andretti and Helio Castroneves have repeated top-three finishes. Hinchcliffe had also won the season opener in St. Petersburg, while Ryan Hunter-Reay won in Alabama and Sato in Long Beach. Will Power had won three races by this time last year, but he has only one top-five finish to show in 2012.

“It has been incredibly tight,” Power said. “It has been like that in the past years, but this year even more so. There’s about 23 or 24 guys who can win each weekend. The competition has been unbelievably tight.”

Fifteen different drivers earned top-five finishes in four races.

“It’s incredibly competitive right now and even to be a tiny bit off your game on any given day you will be pretty far down,” Hinchcliffe said.

The close competition comes in the second year of a new IndyCar that had already been successful leveling the competition in 2012, when eight different drivers won races. Hunter-Reay won the title for the first time last year, and so far he is only sixth for the championship.

“This year has been interesting,” he said. “There’s been extremely close competition. This is by far the most competitive season, so it’s very tough to take an advantage and keep it. It’s very tough to score points.”

IndyCar officials were happy to see the Brazil race so competitive. Executive vice president Greg Gruning said the race was “second only to Indy” in reach.

And now comes the Indy 500. Nine drivers are heading to the May 26 race within 50 points of the standings lead. Sato, who last year gained a lot of fans with his last-lap effort to try to take the Indy victory, has a 13-point advantage over Marco Andretti, who heads to a track where he runs well boosted by one of the best starts of his career on street and road circuits.

The race will be a chance for some of the usual contenders to rebound this season, including Tony Kanaan (17th in points), Power (18th) and Dario Franchitti (15th).

“The time to peak is toward the end of this month, I would say, maybe the 26th of May,” Franchitti quipped. “That’s the time we all want to hit maximum form.”

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