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Scott Dixon: Lot of ground to make up — and not a lot of time to do it in

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With four races remaining on the schedule, Scott Dixon knows it’s go time if he hopes to repeat last year’s Verizon IndyCar Series championship.

Last year at this time, Dixon was closing in on Juan Pablo Montoya, who led the entire season until the finale at Sonoma, where Dixon doubled-up with both the race win and the series championship, his fourth.

But this year, things are a bit more formidable and challenging for the driver of the No. 9 Chip Ganassi Racing Target Chevrolet.

Dixon finds himself tied for fifth in the points with fellow series veteran Tony Kanaan, both drivers with 357 points each.

And way ahead of both of them is points leader Simon Pagenaud, who has amassed not only a series-leading four wins but also six poles and 484 points.

In other words, Dixon and Kanaan must make up a 127-point shortfall to just catch Pagenaud – and that doesn’t count how many more points the French driver will continue to amass in the final four races, starting with Sunday’s ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway.

Pocono has been a good track for Dixon. In the three years the IndyCar clan has raced on the 2.5-mile “tricky triangle,” Dixon won the inaugural event there in 2013, finished fifth in 2014 and ninth in last season’s race.

But Dixon has also struggled of late. In the last six races, he’s fallen from second place to a tie for fifth, with good finishes of fifth (Belle Isle 2), third (Iowa) and eighth (Toronto) offset by disappointing finishes of 19th (Belle Isle 1), and a pair of last-place finishes (22nd place at each) at Road America (engine) and the most recent race nearly two weeks ago at Mid-Ohio (mechanical problems)

Dixon, who has just one win and three podium finishes thus far this season — compared to three wins and four podium finishes last year — knows what he needs to do and what he’s up against Sunday.

“This is one of the toughest oval style tracks you’re ever going to encounter,” Dixon said. “It’s the ‘Tricky Triangle’ so that really sums it up.

“For us in 2013 it was a great moment to bring back open-wheel racing to Pocono with a win and a 1-2-3 finish (along with fellow teammates Charlie Kimball and Dario Franchitti, respectively).

“You have to put a lot of hard work into getting everything right on this track. Nothing is a given here. While we’ve kind of struggled there the past two races, we know what we need to do to be successful, so hopefully we can get it turned around for this time around.”

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Teammates James Hinchcliffe and Robert Wickens earn top-fives at Barber

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For the first time this season, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports teammates James Hinchcilffe and Robert Wickens earned top-five finishes in the same race at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Ala.

Hinchcliffe finished third in the Grand Prix of Alabama; Wickens was one spot behind in fourth.

Wickens had one previous podium at Phoenix with his second-place finish. Hinchcliffe’s best result was a fourth in the season-opener in St Petersburg, Fla., so this marked his first podium of the year.

Both drivers needed a little help from the rain.

As precipitation began to fall in the closing stages of the race, Hinchliffe asked his team on a couple of occasions if it was wet enough to pit for rain tires. He was told twice to stay out and was then called into to the pits at the optimal time.

“Solid weekend for us after coming here before – not a great test,” Hinchcliffe said. “Two cars in the top 10 qualifying; two cars, top five in the race. Pretty proud of these boys, everybody on the Arrow car.”

The rain helped Wickens’ race strategy come together.

“I was having to save a lot of fuel in that second stint,” Wickens said. “So once (Scott) Dixon starting getting close to me I was thinking ‘Oh God, I’m going to actually have to give this one up.’ And then the rain came, so the fuel mileage happened naturally. So, yeah, it saved us a bit.”

And while both were pleased with their top-five finishes, drivers are rarely satisfied unless they are standing on the top step of the podium.

Wickens’ top-five finish was hard-fought. After winning the pole at St Petersburg and starting sixth at Phoenix, he failed to advance to the Fast 6 in back-to-back races at Long Beach and Barber – qualifying 10th both times.

“I was a little gutted that we came out in a big bunch of traffic,” Wickens continued. “It made the race fun, but a little frustrating as well because of people off sequence and whatnot. We lost a lot of track position there. Both of us could have been fighting for higher steps on the podium, but we need to do a little better job in qualifying. “