So Hunter-Reay was forced into a highly risky battle with Sato, perhaps not a driver known as one of the most level-headed and calm of competitors. He finally managed to pull clear of the Rahal Letterman Lanigan car - and then Sato spun, took up off the track and hit the wall with a big impact at the start of the final lap.
"The end of the race was a real shame," said Sato of his accident, perhaps thinking back to his similar last lap exit from the Indy 500 just a few months ago. "I was side-by-side with Ryan through Turns 1 and 2 and I suddenly lost the back end on the final lap. I feel sorry for the guys who have done a great job over the course of the weekend and also the whole year really. It was a fantastic season so it is a real shame to finish this way. It was an exciting race."
Once again, Hunter-Reay had escaped disaster by mere inches: he was still running and unscathed. The yellows were out, and he was - where? What position? Was it still good enough for the title or had too many cars come flying past him in the maelstrom?
Somewhere up ahead, Ed Carpenter was claiming the chequered flag, finishing the 2012 season as he had the previous one - with a brilliant oval win. For now, unfairly after such a brilliant drive, hardly anyone noticed.
Also up ahead, Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon claiming second and third, the best Ganassi result since May's Indianapolis 500. Again, this wasn't what gripped people's attention right now.
Also up ahead ... Wait. No one. That was it. Hunter-Reay was fourth, and wasn't fourth place good enough to clinch the title? Surely it was? That's
what everyone was looking at.
It took a few minutes to be sure, for it to really sink in, and even as the celebrations started and the presentation ceremony got underway, there was a look in the eyes of Ryan Hunter-Reay and Michael Andretti that asked: are we sure? Really? Is this actually happening?
Sadly, one look into the face of Will Power was enough to confirm the reality of defeat as seen from the Penske corner. They'd been cruelly deprived of the title once again, even failed to finish the last race of the season yet again. It was almost too much to bear, although Power did it with class and dignity that belied how much it was surely hurting inside.
"At the end of the day, Hunter-Reay is definitely a deserving champion. A real fighter. Probably as far as all around drivers go, he's probably the best in the series because he wins in each discipline," said Power of the new champion.
As for himself: "Three years winning the road course championship quite convincingly, so it's very obvious where I lack," he admitted. "Once again the ovals, three crashes on three of the ovals this year, that's a massive hit in the points."