Dixon’s latest title a story of consistency, comeback, typical “Ice Man” cool

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SONOMA, Calif. – The story all year was about the legend seeking his second title in 16 years, and the son of a legend having his career year.

The story ended with the latest chapter written in the book of the legend of our generation.

“I think he’s arguably the driver of our generation,” Chip Ganassi said of Scott Dixon Sunday at Sonoma. “The IndyCar driver of our generation for sure.”

It’s been written time and time again to never count out Scott Dixon, to always appreciate whatever he does, and how even in the moment of greatness, Dixon is always so cool, so collected, and so reserved in acknowledging what he’s done.

So true to form, after Dixon secured his fourth and latest Verizon IndyCar Series title – arguably the most unlikely one after entering the double points season finale down 47 to Juan Pablo Montoya and also 13 back of Graham Rahal – the reaction again wasn’t immediately one of his greatness.

The reaction was shock that Dixon, along with longtime strategist Mike Hull and longtime team principal Ganassi, had actually pulled it off after a win in the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma and with Montoya ending sixth, one spot short of the result he needed to clinch the title.

“It still feels a bit strange,” Dixon said in the post-race press conference. “You know, obviously it was a day where we needed a lot of things to go our way, and I think for the first part we just… we had to win. It was going to make our only real shot at it, and it was a bit of a longshot.

“But none of this happens with one person, and from Chip leading this team to Mike leading the Indianapolis part and every crew member and teammates – my teammates this year have been phenomenal.

“Obviously we would have liked to have gone into this last race leading the championship and having a few more points, but you know, as Chip said, this is definitely one of [if not] the most sweetest championships we’ve had.”

Championships for the Dixon/Hull/Ganassi trio aren’t a new thing.

This is their fourth together as a collective unit, and for Ganassi, his and the team’s sixth in the last eight years dating to 2008, and 11th overall dating to 1996.

But in terms of last race come-from-behind Ganassi title wins, it’s a rare thing.

Dixon’s previous three titles were a second-half comeback in 2013, a season-long dominance in 2008, and emerging from a five-way battle to win in 2003.

Ganassi’s other recent titles saw the team seize the moment against Roger Penske’s squad, who managed to lose the title for the seventh time in eight years.

Whether it’s been Helio Castroneves, Will Power, Ryan Briscoe or now Montoya, the “Penske Perfect” moniker hasn’t applied when it’s come time to close.

Still, Ganassi and Hull both took the opportunity to tip their caps to Penske for a fair fight, even if the double points at play in the race helped Dixon to his latest title.

The field knew what they had to do given the rules, and on Sunday, Dixon and Ganassi closed again. They did so by way of executing perfect strategy in what wound up being another strategy-centric race.

“We knew we had to win the race. We knew that before we arrived here,” said Hull, the managing director of Chip Ganassi Racing.

“Pit on Lap 61, that’s what – well, we came in on 62, so even we make a mistake,” Hull joked.

“We wanted it to be a three stop race, so what we did was we worked really hard from the very beginning of the weekend to create a three-stop event for us this weekend, and we knew we had to get to 61.

“If we could get to 61 as everybody thinned out on the racetrack with the track position gained throughout the stops, we thought we had a chance to win the race.”

The Lap 39 contact between Montoya and Power didn’t help either of them, obviously, but neither was completely out of it by that stage. Still, resigned to 23rd and 24th in the 25-car field, they needed a comeback and a bit of luck to make it back.

Dixon was in the process of completing his usual “take notice, he’s coming forward” routine in the No. 9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet after starting ninth, having moved ahead of Power and Josef Newgarden on the most recent pit stop sequence a few laps earlier, thanks in large part to great work from the Ganassi pit crew.

It may have only been for 13th at the time but with the 12 cars in front of him on a different strategy, Dixon was net leader, and well-positioned for the lead once teammates Tony Kanaan and Sebastian Saavedra in front of him pulled off.

Dixon took the lead on Lap 51 and relinquished it for only one of the final 35 laps – when he pitted, as mentioned, on Lap 62.

It was those 34 laps led that netted him the two crucial bonus points for leading the most laps, and thus allowed him to finish level with Montoya on points, and win the title on a three-to-two win tiebreaker.

At race’s end, Dixon noted how he’d now won a title he’d lost before – the 2007 season finale at Chicagoland to Franchitti – in a way reminiscent of his longtime friend and teammate.

“It was very Dario-esque, I think, which was quite nice to slip through there and take it so maybe he’s been rubbing off on me, which is a very positive thing,” Dixon said.

It was a weird year for Dixon. Prior to his Sonoma win, he hadn’t even had a podium finish since his win at Texas in June, a race he credited his team for making the right call on downforce.

He finally won at Long Beach, his traditional house of horrors. He scored the pole for the Indianapolis 500, but was the George Harrison to the Penske pair’s John Lennon and Paul McCartney (Power and Montoya) in the three-way fight for the win – underrated yet overshadowed.

Yet there were plenty of races all year where the results didn’t match the performance.

As ever, Dixon shied away from the spotlight. He extended so much credit to his team, and it’s worth noting this title is his first with Chris Simmons, Franchitti’s former engineer, who moved across from the No. 10 to the No. 9 team when Eric Bretzman moved to Ganassi’s NASCAR program this offseason.

He also made sure to express thoughts and prayers for the Wilson family, following Justin Wilson’s passing last week.

“I know Stefan, his little brother was here today and Julia is back home in Colorado with Jane and Jess and Keith and Lynne. It’s been a very tough week. It’s such a small community, and they’re such great people and such a loving family, it’s been very tough.

“But as Justin would have wanted, he would have wanted us to go out and race, and today I gave it my all from when the green flag dropped, I was giving it the most I could, and had some good, clean racing out there to enable us to move up quickly at the start as definitely key, but heavy hearts, but much love to the Wilson family.”

What started as a week of heartache though ended with jubilation and joy.

If you had Dixon and Ganassi going crowd surfing on Sunday… of course you didn’t. No one did.

“I mean, just all of our supporters, those were all the Team Target people out there, and they were just screaming,” Ganassi said. “There were just so many of them down there.

“They were just screaming, and I went over and I gave my high thing, and I just kind of gave them the two hand, like that, in jubilation, and then they all came over and they started saying, jump, jump or whatever, like oh, my, I lined myself up for that. I couldn’t say no then.

“I can tell you I’ve never done that before, body surfed like that. That was really something, I’ve got to tell you. What a better place and a better way to do that for the first time. Yeah, that was something.”

Also something: Dixon finding another new way to amaze us, as he wrote the next chapter of his legend.

John Force has a job for soon-to-be retired Dale Earnhardt Jr.

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The battle for Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s post-retirement services has begun.

And leave it to none other than 16-time NHRA Funny Car champ John Force to be the first to offer Junior a job.

As a Funny Car driver, of course.

Look at the plusses: they both drive for Chevrolet, they both like beer, Junior wouldn’t have to worry about turning left or right (on road courses) any more, he’d be able to stay on the straight and narrow (drag strip, that is) and …

Perhaps the best thing of all, he could ultimately become Force’s replacement as the most popular driver in NHRA drag racing when (or if) Force ever decides to retire himself.

Check out Force’s job offer:

Several current or former Verizon IndyCar Series drivers also took to social media to pay homage to Junior — including another member of the Force family, son-in-law Graham Rahal, who is married to drag racer Courtney Force.

 

 

 

Loftus Robinson Rejoin Dreyer and Reinbold Racing for Indy 500

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Indianapolis-based real estate developer Loftus Robinson will rejoin Dreyer and Reinbold Racing for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil. The relationship between Loftus Robinson and DRR goes back to 2015, when they first partnered for the “500.” The partnership continues for 2017, with Sage Karam piloting the effort for the second consecutive year.

“Being an Indianapolis-based company, we felt it has been important to partner with another local company, Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, in the famed Indy 500,” said Drew Loftus, co-principal of Loftus Robinson. “The Indianapolis Motor Speedway has served as a great backdrop for our business’ growth. We have enjoyed our relationship with Dennis and his racing team. They have built a tremendous infrastructure to assist us and our partners through the event. We’re anxious to see Sage back on track in the No. 24 DRR Chevrolet this May.”

Team co-owner Dennis Reinbold echoed Loftus’ enthusiam. “Loftus Robinson has been one of the Indianapolis area’s top young commercial real estate companies in recent years and we are very pleased to have them back in 2017 with our Indy 500 entry,” he explained. “Loftus Robinson has utilized our racing team’s participation in the world’s greatest auto race to formulate strong relationships with their business partners as well as developing new clients right at the track. We hope to put them in victory lane on May 28 with Sage at the wheel.”

Practice for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil begins on May 15.

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JR Hildebrand cleared to return for Phoenix

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After sitting out the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama last weekend, JR Hildebrand will be able to return to action for this weekend’s Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix (Saturday, 9 p.m. ET, NBCSN), after being cleared Tuesday to drive.

The primary driver of the No. 21 Fuzzy’s Ultra Premium Vodka Chevrolet for Ed Carpenter Racing sustained a broken bone in his left hand in a final lap accident at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on April 9, after a collision with Mikhail Aleshin. He was re-evaluated upon returning to Indianapolis and was not cleared to drive for the Barber Motorsports Park race.

Hildebrand was on site in Birmingham, Ala. in a driver coach role for Zach Veach, who filled in for his Verizon IndyCar Series debut. Veach started and finished 19th in his first start.

For Hildebrand, the return to Phoenix comes after he paced the series official preseason open test there in February, and comes as a great opportunity to come back from a challenging start to the year. Hildebrand had nondescript runs of 13th and 11th in the first two races but was 11th in points after Long Beach, although he fell to 21st when he missed Barber.

“It’s been a tricky couple of weeks working through this injury, I’m certainly anxious to get back in the car!” he said in a release. “I feel like I’m far enough along to be able to go for it this weekend in Phoenix. I know we’ve got a good program; I want to be able to come through for the team at an event where we should be strong. The competition there is tough, I expect we will really have to be on our game over the course of the weekend. I’m looking forward to getting back in the Fuzzy’s Vodka car! Everyone has been super helpful and I appreciate the hard work that everyone has put in to be able to get me back in.”

Meanwhile team owner Carpenter makes his first start of the season in the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Ultra Premium Vodka Chevrolet as part of his oval-only program.

Spencer Pigot will be back in the No. 20 car at the INDYCAR Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course on May 13, before Carpenter’s back in for the rest of the month of May leading up to and into the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

IMSA: Henzler, Bonanomi called up for drives at COTA

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Two fill-in drivers have been confirmed for the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship’s next race at Circuit of The Americas, on May 6.

Wolf Henzler will deputize for Kevin Estre in the No. 912 Porsche GT Team Porsche 911 RSR, while Marco Bonanomi will make his IMSA Prototype class debut as a fill-in driver for Tom Kimber-Smith in the No. 52 PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports Ligier JS P217 Gibson.

Henzler will be in the No. 912 car alongside Laurens Vanthoor in GT Le Mans in the first “standard” two-hour, 40-minute race of the season, the Advance Auto Parts Showdown, as Estre will be on FIA World Endurance Championship duty the same day in the WEC 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps with Porsche’s GT Team there.

Henzler’s absence means if TRG runs its Porsche 911 GT3 R at COTA in the GT Daytona class, Kevin Buckler would need a replacement for him.

There’s another potential fill-in-for-WEC driver scenario needed if Alegra Motorsports, the Rolex 24 at Daytona winners, were to run in GTD as well. Thus far Carlos de Quesada’s team has run Daniel Morad and Porsche factory driver Michael Christensen in its No. 28 Porsche in GTD through three races, but with Christensen and Estre set to share the No. 92 car at Spa, a replacement would need to be sourced there.

Bonanomi is the second replacement that is confirmed though. The Italian, who made one prior IMSA start since the 2014 merger with Fall-Line Motorsports in an Audi R8 LMS Ultra, will fill-in for “TKS,” who returns to England to take care of his mother, who is battling cancer.

“Tom will unfortunately miss the next race at Circuit of the Americas. He needs to be able to spend time back in the UK with his mother who is presently undergoing treatment for cancer,” said team principal Bobby Oergel.

“As all the drivers who have driven with PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports know, once you’re a part of our team, you’re family, and Tom is a big part of this family. It’s unfortunate that he will miss a round of the championship, but we know that family comes before racing, and we’re happy that he is able to take the time he needs to be with his family during this time.”

“Our thoughts and prayers are with Tom and his mother, and we are praying that she will be cancer free in the near future.”

Bonanomi has tested with the car and will share the car with Jose Gutierrez, who missed Long Beach as Will Owen filled in for him there.

“I was very happy to receive the call from PR1 to drive at their test at COTA. It was my first time driving the Ligier, but I think the test was very positive,” said Bonanomi.

“We tested some set up changes for the race that I think will be very good. The track itself is very demanding on the car and tires, especially with the extreme temperatures that can be present. The first practices during race week will be very critical to get everything just right in terms of set up, but after the test, I think we should be pretty close.”