FORT WORTH, Texas – Simon Pagenaud said it wouldn't have made a difference, and when you hear last year's Indy 500 winner and the 2016 series champion speak in such definite tones, it should be enough to close the book.
Scott Dixon won the Genesys 300 by more than four seconds Saturday night at Texas Motor Speedway — a race where the series' active leader in victories led 157 of the 200 laps and consistently maintained gaps of 14-plus seconds over every driver not named Felix Rosenqvist during the much of the final half. Dixon built a healthy gap over the final three laps when IndyCar's season-opener turned green for a closing sprint following Rosenqvist's spin into the wall with less than 10 laps to go.
But when the green flag rippled through the nighttime Texas air for the final time Saturday, several cars sat between Pagenaud and Dixon, all-but silencing any serious threat the Team Penske car might make while more than three seconds down.
Technically speaking, Saturday's runner-up could have picked a bone with the decision made during a sub-six-minute caution period with a race rolling dangerously close to the edge of its primetime network broadcast window and the possibility of a finish under caution.
Per rule 220.127.116.11. in the series rule book, "In event of a restart late in the race, all cars not on the lead lap will be moved to the rear of the restarting lineup per the following: (18.104.22.168.2.) superspeedway and road/street course events (excluding Circuit of the Americas and Road America) — 15 laps or less remaining."
By the book, it means cars that were sitting in between Dixon and Pagenaud should have been forced to run through pit lane ahead of the restart to help cycle them to the back of the field in order to give the Frenchman a clear path toward the front. But when you look deeper, things prove much more gray.
According to IndyCar, this rule "along with others in the section" are subject to a caveat that states, in laymen's terms, they may be suspended by the series' discretion at the end of the race in order to preserve a finish under green. Saturday night, they called upon that caveat in a decision that some series fans took issue with.
After the race, Pagenaud himself wasn't entirely clear how and why the rules were levied the way they were, but the IndyCar veteran made a quick — and correct — guess.
"I didn't understand the situation. I need to look at the rules. Maybe I'm the one that didn't understand it," he said. "Yeah, I was surprised that they didn't move the cars. I'm assuming it's because they wanted to go back to green, and quite frankly, I get that.
"You have to give a show. We're here for a show, at the end of the day. With everything that's going on, we couldn't finish under yellow. I think that's probably what race control would say. The only way they could go back green in time before the end was to do that. If they decided to do that, I totally get it."
On a track where even caution laps fly by in a minute's time, and following a crash with nine laps to go, IndyCar was forced to make a judgement call — the subjective enforcement of what's otherwise described as a black-and-white rule.
Fans clamoring after the race that "a rule isn't a rule if it has a caveat" forget that stick-and-ball sports are chock-full of subjectivity within their rule books. The mere existence of a human umpire calling balls and strikes or a referee determining what's pass interference or not is the definition of "judgement calls" — just ask the 2019 New Orleans Saints.
Saturday's decision by IndyCar ensured a somewhat lively finish. Enforcing that rule to the letter would have likely meant another lap under yellow — or worse, throwing a red flag to pause running altogether.
IndyCar said the decision wasn't made with the two-hour TV broadcast window in mind. Still, it would be misguided to not at least recognize the benefits that come with staying inside those parameters when you're running in a primetime network spot for the first time in seven years.
This week, IndyCar and NBC Sports officials were open about the fact that the NBCSN executive tandem of Jon Miller and Sam Flood had to lobby the network's entertainment division — which holds weekly rights to that time slot that leads into Saturday Night Live — in order to slide the Genesys 300 over from NBC Sports.
The programming placement provided an opportune moment for IndyCar's lone TV partner to market a product to a sports-starved audience that has been living on rations of NASCAR, UFC and Michael Jordan's 10-part documentary.
And when Dixon proved to be head-and-shoulders the best driver all night and at the front, race officials had to make a gut call. It would be callous to say NBC had "done the series a favor" when they have their own money invested in IndyCar's success, but it's fair to say the relationship is — and should be — give-and-take.
- Scott Dixon starts the delayed 2020 season with his fourth career win at Texas
In order to allow Dixon to get his proper due in the post-race ceremony in Victory Lane after he crossed the finish line at 9:51 p.m., the series managed to give a little back in a decision that, in reality, affected only Pagenaud, along with any fans hoping for some last-second fireworks.
"I think Dixon was too good anyways, quite frankly. I'm pretty realistic about my chances, and I think he was the car to beat tonight," Pagenaud said.
You can always hope for a race to come to down to fractions of a second, but Saturday's wasn't about to end that way. And the last thing IndyCar needed was the perception Roger Penske's regime in some way made a questionable ruling to benefit a Team Penske car, while also avoiding a situation that might anger NBC, perhaps the most important relationship in aiding IndyCar's growth this next decade.
Email IndyStar motor sports reporter Nathan Brown at @By_NathanBrown.