IndyCar’s defending champion, Dixon looks for a better start out of the gate

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The scariest part of Scott Dixon’s 2013 championship, his third of his what-is-becoming-legendary IndyCar Series career?

He was only really good for half the season.

It was the common thread in stories recapping his comeback tour de force. From 92 points down after the first 10 races to then overcoming that gap, Dixon’s dominance on the double-header weekends helped propel him back into contention.

He managed to come back even with the two-week double whammy that was the Sonoma and Baltimore races, where contact with Will Power in both races cost him win or podium potential.

Dixon may be better out of the gate in 2014, depending on how well he handles the changes coming to Target Chip Ganassi Racing this year.

For five years, Dixon and Dario Franchitti have been the tandem to beat in IndyCar, since Franchitti’s return from NASCAR in 2009.

Now, Franchitti, Dixon’s partner-in-crime, additional setup ace and great friend is retired following the injuries suffered at Houston. He’ll still be active in an advisory role with the team, but the driver-to-driver change is the biggest jolt to the TCGR system for the first time in years.

“Yeah, it is a big loss, not just for myself, but I think for the team and also for the series,” Dixon admitted during the IndyCar media day in Orlando.

“The positive side is that he’s still going to be involved with the team. He’s obviously very talented. He’s won a lot races, achieved many things. But when it comes down to the engineering side of it, his approach to a race weekend, I think it’s something that will be missed a little bit. Hopefully with his involvement we can keep that going.”

In Franchitti’s stead are actually two new additions. Tony Kanaan was originally signed up for Ganassi’s returning fourth full-time car, yet was shifted over to the No. 10 upon Franchitti’s retirement. Re-enter Ryan Briscoe, who was Dixon’s teammate as a rookie in 2005.

“It’s very different. Some is in Portuguese and then broken English,” Dixon joked.

“But, no, you know, for him there’s lots of change. New team members, new engineer, totally different car setup. The one constant for him was luckily the engine package with Chevrolet. Dario and I were very similar I think in debriefing and the way that we approached the weekend.

“It’s hard to tell with T.K. yet because we haven’t worked together that much. But obviously he’s a big personality. Fun to have him at the team. Just to see how we work on car setups is yet to be determined.”

Kanaan and Briscoe both bring in the expertise of working with Chevrolet, and a developed twin-turbo package, as the team makes the shift from Honda this year.

For Dixon, it’s his first change in engine manufacturer since 2006, when the IndyCar Series shifted to all-Hondas after Toyota and Chevrolet pulled out following the 2005 campaign. The 2006 season marked a team resurgence after two years struggling with Toyotas.

As the team works through the change, Dixon is focused on getting off to a better start. St. Petersburg and Long Beach have traditionally been bogey tracks for him.

Much was made of Dixon’s qualifying outings at those two races last year, the 20th at St. Pete and then 26th at Long Beach after a penalty was issued.

Beyond that, results at those two tracks have been hard to come by out of the gate.

At St. Pete since 2009: 16th (2009), 18th (2010), 16th (2011), second (2012) and fifth (2013). Long Beach? It’s been 15th (2009), fourth (2010), 18th (2011), 23rd (2012) and 11th (2013).

“Personally and for the team, the thing on the 9 car side we need to do a little bit better is start the season off a little bit stronger,” Dixon said. “We’re looking for strong results straightaway in St. Pete. Long Beach has been definitely not a great track for results for us in recent history. I think if we can start strong and carry the momentum through from last year that will be goal number one.”

Ganassi, relative to some of its rivals, hasn’t banked as much preseason testing either. But Dixon, Kanaan and Briscoe have all gotten laps in sports cars. All three have raced at the Daytona and Sebring endurance events of the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship. Only CGR’s fourth driver, Charlie Kimball, hasn’t gotten as much seat time this winter.

But for Dixon in particular, he’s hardly starting his title defense on the back foot. Just a different one, as he continues to add to his illustrious resume.

And he’s not concerned with being viewed as the driver “team leader,” even though on paper for 2014, he is.

“I’m not real interested in who is a one or a two or who is leading the team,” Dixon said. “I think we do it as a team effort. I think each driver on the team is like a quarterback to their own group of guys, and then Chip is the leader of the pack, I guess.”

‘Game-changing’ multi-year agreement will take INDYCAR, NBC Sports ‘to the next level’


NEW YORK – As the fourth Nor’easter in three weeks bore down on the Big Apple, it was tough to spot people that were clearly in a good mood.

But Jon Miller, president of programming for NBC Sports and NBCSN, was clearly in a good mood.

On Wednesday morning at 10 am ET, we all found out why: NBC will become the exclusive home of the IndyCar Series and the Indianapolis 500, starting in 2019.

The new three-year deal not only makes “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” part of the network’s “Championship Season” – its collection of high-profile championship events from May to July – but also reaffirms NBC’s status as the home of motorsports television in the United States.

That status is something Miller doesn’t take for granted.

“It’s important people know that storytelling is in our DNA, and motorsports lends itself very well to storytelling,” Miller said as he, INDYCAR CEO Mark Miles and driver James Hinchcliffe made a snowy trek to the New York Stock Exchange to promote the deal on CNBC’s “Squawk on the Street.”

“We’ve had great success with the second half of the entire NASCAR season, and then we’ve had half of the IndyCar package [since 2009] … But we never had the real meat of the series and that didn’t set anybody up for success.

“Having the entire package of IndyCar now – all 17 races, qualifying, practice, you name it – really sets IndyCar on a strong path and solidifies NBC’s position as the home of motorsports. I think it becomes a property much like the Premier League, the NHL, and even the Olympics and the Triple Crown. We have 100 percent of the media opportunity and we can put all those great assets behind it.”

With the storm no doubt keeping some traders home, the floor of the NYSE was relatively subdued. But that made it no less important to be at the heart of Wall Street. Miles and his team are pursuing a new title sponsor for the IndyCar Series to replace Verizon, which will fully focus its efforts in the series with the powerhouse Team Penske going forward in 2019.

The new deal – which includes 8 races per year on the NBC network (with the remaining races going to NBCSN), live streaming of all races, and a direct-to-consumer package with NBC Sports Gold – gave Miles plenty to push for any potential backers. As for Hinchcliffe, he held his own nicely in an interview that also explored IndyCar’s global ambitions, the impact of technology on the sport, and of course, his spin around the ballroom on “Dancing with the Stars.”

On the ride back to 30 Rock, Miles was confident that NBC can play a big role in attracting a sponsor that can help the series keep growing.

“With respect to our work in finding the best title sponsor, it’s really important – and this has not been talked about much – but we expect to work with hand in glove with NBC’s sales,” he explained. “We have the opportunity to create packages which are both broadcast sponsorship and series sponsorship, I think, in a way that doesn’t come along very often.

“Usually, the media deal and the sponsorship deal doesn’t align like this, so we’re really excited about the offering we’ll have and the approach to the market we can take.”

Should the partnership with NBC bear fruit on that front and others, it will only add to the upswing that the IndyCar Series has had in recent years.

Hinchcliffe has been a witness to that. He entered the series in 2011, when it was trying to find its footing after the sport’s reunification three years earlier. After 13 years of CART vs. the Indy Racing League, getting everything back under one roof was not a smooth process.

But fast-forward seven years, and things have changed for the better. TV ratings and digital viewers have gone up. Race scheduling has become more stable and enhanced with the return of traditional open-wheel markets. And this year’s debut of the universal aero kit aims to pump up the action on the track, while also giving the cars a cleaner, meaner look.

Now, with NBC all in, Hinchcliffe is bullish on his sport’s future.

“This is a game-changing thing for us,” he declared. “If you look at the last four or five years, we’ve seen a steady growth in pretty much every measureable metric that there is – in a time where, globally, motorsports is in a bit of a downturn.

“The fact that IndyCar was able to rally against a global dip in motorsports interest, attendance, sponsorship – it speaks volumes to what we have been doing and this is just gonna take us to that next level.”