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The final third of the race was all Unser. Johncock and Andretti battled for second place—a duel that ended only when Johncock lost power in Turn 3 with just six laps to go, leaving second place to Andretti. Unser, meanwhile, was extending his lead almost at will. At one point it stood at 14 seconds, but Unser, who had consistently turned laps near 190 mph throughout, coasted through the final laps at 170 and thus finished only 5.3 seconds in front.
Andretti had admitted privately two days before the race that he couldn't hope to run as fast as Unser. "But if I just motor patiently and take my best shots as they open up—maybe I can do it," he had said. The maybe did pan out, although not in a way Andretti would have wanted. He crossed the line second, just ahead of Vern Schuppan in a four-year-old McLaren. But at the race's three-quarter mark, under one of the 11 yellow caution lights that made this the slowest 500 since 1960 (a 139.029-mph average), an incident occurred that may have snatched victory from what was the fastest, best-prepared car in the race.
Emerging from the pits after a quick fuel stop for fuel and tires, Bobby Unser stayed down on the apron, below the yellow line that defines the limits of racing surface, and sped at 100 mph past seven cruising cars (following the pace car at about 85 mph) before he came up onto the track. Visually at least, it was a clear violation of the rules, which don't permit passing under the yellow. Andretti, who had also made a pit stop, followed Unser's car down pit lane, but whereas the Penske driver roared by the slow-moving cars on the track. Andretti ducked into the lineup toward the rear. United States Auto Club stewards huddled late into the night to consider the informal protest lodged by Andretti, Johncock and Foyt. When the official results were posted at 8 a.m. Monday, the stewards had Andretti in first place; he had evidently won his second Indy, the first coming in 1969. Penske promptly lodged counterprotests with Chief Steward Tom Binford, arguing in part that Unser "was unfairly penalized at the end of competition for allegedly passing under the yellow flag." At 5 p.m. the stewards denied the counterprotests.
If Andretti survives Penske's expected appeal, Mario's victory will be tainted. As Pat Patrick, owner of what now apparently is the winning car, put it, "We are pleased, but yet disappointed, with the manner in which Mario's victory was recognized. The violation in question was reported promptly—on Lap 149—and we feel the penalty should have been levied at that time. If it had been imposed at that time, the final results would have been more fairly determined."
First place at Indy pays more than $300,000, small potatoes in a sport where campaigning a single car in the 500 can cost upwards of $150,000. The real payoff, of course, is in corporate publicity, but publicity curdled by controversy is the worst of news.
Andretti himself was well aware of that truth. At a press conference Monday morning, he was gracious, almost subdued. "I know how Bobby feels," he said. "At the Italian Grand Prix in 1978—my world championship year—I had the race taken away from me after I'd won. My teammate, Ronnie Peterson, was killed in that race. I wanted it if only to dedicate the victory to him. I know that doesn't make Bobby feel any better. Nobody's doing headstands about this." Andretti smiled wryly. "Now I'm going to have to forever explain and apologize for winning the race."
Penske, weary and blistered from the previous day's pit blazes, was stunned by the reversal—the first ever to a race winner in Indy history. "We weren't cheating," he said early Monday morning. "We had the fast car, no matter what the decision."
No one—not even Andretti—could seriously deny that fact.