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.

Spencer Pigot ready for full-season IndyCar effort with ECR

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After spending the last two years in a part-time role with Ed Carpenter Racing, contesting the road and street course races in the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet, Spencer Pigot now gets a long-awaited chance at a full-season effort in 2018.

Moving over to the No. 21 entry, which has featured ECR’s full-season driver since 2016, Pigot has seen slight differences in his off-season prep ahead of the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season.

“We were one of the teams that got to a handful of days testing the aero kit, so I obviously did all the running on the road courses, but I was able to do a few laps on the ovals when Ed was testing. So, that wouldn’t have happened (if I was part-time still),” he told NBC Sports.

However, outside of that increase in testing and a little learning some new tracks – he has not raced at ISM Raceway, Gateway Motorsports Park, Pocono Raceway, or Iowa Speedway in an IndyCar – the changes to Pigot’s off-season program have not been dramatic.

“There’s definitely some things I’ll need to learn, but as far as off-season prep: nothing too dramatic, nothing too different.”

Pigot’s first full-season campaign saw its first official outing of the 2018 season last weekend during the open test at ISM Raceway. While he and the ECR team struggled to find speed much of the weekend – they languished outside of the top ten in the results of the first three sessions – things took a turn for the better during the final session of the weekend on Saturday night, when Pigot ended up ninth on the speed charts.

He ended up 14th in the combined results for the weekend, noting that he and the team still want to find more outright speed.

“I thought throughout the test that our average long run pace was okay, but we were still missing the outright pace to be where we need to be come qualifying time,” he revealed. “I think that we definitely made a step forward Saturday night and definitely have a much better idea of a direction we can head and go with when we go back.”

In terms of long-run practice, Pigot noted that tire degradation became much more prevalent, which made running with others cars around you somewhat of a challenge. Though, he emphasized that tire degradation could be beneficial for racing.

“Talking to some of the other guys, it seems a little bit harder to run behind people as the tires go off because the tires are degrading pretty quick with the lack of downforce as well,” he explained. “So, it’s going to be tricky, it’s going to be sliding around a little bit more than what guys have experienced in the past. But, I think everyone’s under the same kind of idea that it’s going to be better racing, and especially at (ISM Raceway) it should be exciting.”

Pigot did get some practice at overtaking at ISM and got a feel for what he may be able to expect when IndyCar returns in April for the Phoenix Grand Prix, and while he acknowledged it was difficult to judge during testing, he did feel like he could run around other cars without much of an issue.

“It’s not like a race when everyone comes in the pits at the same time and you’re all on similar tires, so it’s kind of hard to know exactly. But, I thought we were pretty good,” he detailed. “I thought I was able to run pretty close to guys in front of me and was able to make a few passes when other guys made mistakes or might have gone a little high.”

The test also served as Pigot’s first IndyCar venture on a short oval – he last ran on a short oval in 2015 during his Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires championship season.

“The corners definitely come up quick. There’s not much time to really relax or think about too much,” Pigot quipped when describing his first time on a short oval.

He continued, “You’ve got to concentrate pretty hard on being precise because the line there is very narrow so you have to make sure that you’re where the grip is at all points throughout the corner. And then, when everyone’s out there and you run in traffic, it’s just like you’re constantly in a corner, so it’s a little more difficult to get big runs and drafts off people. But I think it’ll definitely play into the hands of guys that have their cars set up well and can be easier on the tires.”

And in becoming the team’s full-time driver, Pigot is seeing a slight increase in his leadership role within the team, especially as it relates to testing and development, with Pigot doing the lion’s share of testing during the winter on road courses.

But, he also emphasized the oval prowess of teammate, and team owner, Ed Carpenter as something he will lean on when he ventures out on other ovals for the first time this year.

“Especially as we’re trying to learn this new aero kit, I was the one that pretty much did all the testing on the road and street courses. It was kind of me and the engineers trying to develop the car and work towards the setup that’s going to work for us. So, there’s definitely a little more responsibility in that. But, then on the ovals, obviously Ed’s there and he’s a great teammate to have and to learn from and bounce ideas off of. But, yeah, it’s definitely a more involved role within the team,” Pigot explained.

Pigot and ECR will test two more times, at Barber Motorsports Park and Sebring International Raceway, in the month of February prior to the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 11.

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