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.”

IndyCar 2015 Driver Review: Gabby Chaves

Gabby Chaves
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MotorSportsTalk continues its run through the driver-by-driver field in the Verizon IndyCar Series. In 15th and the rookie-of-the-year for 2015, was Gabby Chaves.

Gabby Chaves, No. 98 Bryan Herta Autosport Honda

  • 2014: Indy Lights champion
  • 2015: 15th Place, Best Finish 9th, Best Start 12th, 0 Top-5, 2 Top-10, 31 Laps Led, 19.3 Avg. Start, 14.4 Avg. Finish

Some drivers finish better than their performances show. Some drivers have performances better than their results show. The latter statement applied to Gabby Chaves in his rookie year, in what was an impressive first season after making the step up from Indy Lights, which deservedly earned him rookie-of-the-year honors.

The best comparison I’d make for Gabby is of Josef Newgarden in 2012 with Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing, a first-year driver on a single-car, newish team to the series.

Chaves rarely dazzled in qualifying but that wasn’t his fault; he and engineer John Dick worked well together and Chaves recounted multiple times this year that a tweak here or tweak there, the wrong way, on the aero kit would send them down the wrong setup path.

Results in races didn’t measure up either but again that was through almost no fault of his own. The only time Chaves looked truly like a rookie was at St. Pete, when he had several collisions. Otherwise he was ahead of eventual winner James Hinchcliffe at NOLA before getting punted off, reliable through the month of May in Indianapolis, finally able to break through for a ninth place in Detroit race two, overachieving in Texas, 11th at Milwaukee after some great wheel-to-wheel racing with series winners and champions, and then phenomenal at Pocono as he was on course for a first career win or podium before late-race engine issues – his first DNF of the season.

For both Chaves and Herta, you’d love to see them together for another season, and the results and confidence for both parties will grow as a result. Those who’ve seen Newgarden’s rise over four years with Fisher and now CFH will note the long-term stability, and that’s what Chaves could do if he gets the time.

He planted the seed of being a great IndyCar driver, and he became pretty versatile during the year too with additional appearances in the DeltaWing prototype, a short-track midget and one of Herta’s Red Bull Global Rallycross cars. To boot, he’s a smart, great kid who is mature beyond his years, and someone you should be buying stock in now. Anyone who saw Chaves in the Mazda Road to Indy should not have been surprised by his rookie season in the big cars.

Off The Grid: Monza preview (premieres Saturday 10/10 on NBCSN)

F1 Grand Prix of Italy
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Having already taken you behind the scenes in Barcelona, Budapest, Singapore, Melbourne and Silverstone, Will Buxton and Jason Swales now head to one of Formula 1’s most iconic venues for the latest episode of Off The Grid.

Monza has appeared in all but one F1 season since the formation of the world championship in 1950, and is a firm favorite among drivers, teams and fans alike.

However, there is far more to the Italian Grand Prix than meets the eye, as we find out in Saturday’s premiere of Off The Grid: Monza at 9:30am ET (follows Russian GP qualifying).

Having honed his talents in go-karts as a kid, Red Bull driver Daniel Ricciardo is now trying to pass on his knowledge to the next generation of racers. But can he teach Will or Jason a thing or two?

We also catch up with Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg and get a feel for life on the road as he takes us for a tour of his lavish bus in which he travels in for the European F1 races.

Have you ever wondered just how the suits F1 drivers wear are made? We go behind the scenes at Alpine Stars’ factory in Italy and find out.

Off The Grid: Monza premieres on Saturday at 9:30am ET on NBCSN following Russian GP qualifying.