Perspective, overcoming adversity fuels Dixon’s third IndyCar title

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For Scott Dixon, a third IndyCar championship was always a question of “when,” not “if.”

The obvious storyline for the driver of the No. 9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Honda is that it follows his “rule of fives,” having taken his first crown in 2003 and his second in 2008.

“I hope (Chip) doesn’t lay me off for four years then I’ll come back on the fifth,” Dixon deadpanned in the media center after the race.

But this one comes after fighting through adversity all season, compared to a five-car shootout in 2003 and a dominant 2008 season where nearly everything that could go right for Dixon did.

In 2003, Dixon beat Team Penske teammates Helio Castroneves and Gil de Ferran, Andretti Green Racing’s Tony Kanaan and Panther Racing’s Sam Hornish Jr. in a crapshoot at Texas, a race marred by a last-lap accident where Kenny Brack’s car got airborne and went into the backstraight catch fencing there. It muted the celebrations even though Brack recovered from his injuries.

Meanwhile in 2008, Dixon won six races, including his thus far only Indianapolis 500, and beat Castroneves again for the title. He also tied the knot to his lovely wife, Emma.

“My perspective is different now,” said Dixon, who’s driven with Ganassi since midway through 2002. “When I was 22 or 23 to what I understand now is totally different. The competitiveness of this series has gone through the roof since the ’08 merger (of INDYCAR and Champ Car).

“But ’08 was a dream year. I got married. We won the Indy 500 and championship. It’s a hard year to beat. Midseason this year, we didn’t think we had a shot.”

Indeed various setup pitfalls and a struggle to adapt the car to this year’s Firestone tires at the outset made things a bit more difficult. A midseason surge of three straight wins in eight days (Pocono and Toronto twice) followed, but then back-to-back disasters at Sonoma and Baltimore left him 49 points back of Castroneves heading into Houston.

“The changes were a bit sporadic I think,” Dixon explained at championship media day on Thursday. “The 2012 tire was better for myself and Will (Power), where we like a loose car, but I think (Firestone) compensated for the rear of the car this year. The Sebring test was huge. We identified some issues from St. Pete … it was mostly the street and bumpy circuits. But to turn that development program around, with only one of our six test days, it took a while to get the real world stuff going to where we needed to go. That and the engine spec change at Pocono was huge.”

Now as champion, Dixon will have to carry the IndyCar banner. It’s not a burden, per se, but Dixon’s more known as something of a silent assassin – not overly vocal but absolutely dynamic on a race track.

Still, the Dixon now compared to the Dixon of either 2003 or 2008 is a better individual. He’s a father now, with Tilly and Poppy growing up and beginning to appreciate their father’s achievements. He’s got a great heart, for all his and his family’s support and care for the Wheldons since Las Vegas, 2011. And at the track, he has a great penchant for dry wit and humor and rarely misses the chance for a good one-liner.

Whether that translates to the public sphere beyond the borders of the IndyCar paddock remains to be seen.

“I’ve spoken out a bit more recently now than I used to … but not about stats or results,” he joked last night, paying tribute to his $30,000 fine for comments after Baltimore.

“I think when it’s said and done, and I can look back and say we achieved this, that’s the time for that,” he added. “I love racing. I love waking up and training for it.

“I think I think I have evolved as a person from the 2003 championship. And right now, it’s very important for the sport especially. First and foremost, it’s about being a competitor, best I can. Very important that IndyCar gets the recognition it deserves. It is at the elite level.”

And Dixon’s performance in 2013 – through trials and tribulations – was indeed an elite effort.

With 200 IndyCar wins in the books, Penske looks for No. 201 at Indy

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The history of Team Penske at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is a storied one that features 16 Indy 500 wins, including a pair of four-time winners in Al Unser and Rick Mears, and number of utterly dominant performances.

Yet, they’ll head to this year’s 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500 looking to avenge a pair of relatively subpar performances in each of the last two years.

Power was the only Penske driver to finish in the Top 10 in 2016, with Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud finishing 11th and 19th after fuel strategy intervened late in the race. And last year, all the Penske cars were somewhat down on pace compared to other teams, notably the Honda cars.

Power was the only Penske driver to qualify for the Fast Nine Pole Shootout last year – he qualified ninth. Juan Pablo Montoya and Helio Castroneves were 18th and 19th in the grid, while Josef Newgarden and Simon Pagenaud were 22nd and 23rd.

And only Castroneves was in winning contention in the final laps as he battled eventual winner Takuma Sato – Montoya was sixth, while Pagenaud was 14th and the only other Penske running at the end. Both Newgarden and Power crashed out on Lap 183.

This year, however, could see a return to the dominant form we’re used to seeing from the Penske outfit. All four cars entered – Pagenaud, Power, Newgarden, and Castroneves – qualified inside the top nine, with Pagenaud and Power on the front row.

They have all been near the front of the time sheets, especially in laps without a tow from another car, and the indication is that the Penske cars may be the fastest ones in the field.

All told, it leads to very high expectations for a team that already expects highly of itself.

Leading the way for Penske is current points leader and defending IndyCar champion Josef Newgarden. Newgarden’s best Indy 500 finish is third in 2016, but he only has one other Top 10 there – ninth in 2015.

But, with an IndyCar title now under his belt, Newgarden has his eyes set on an Indy 500 win.

Josef Newgarden looks to add an Indy 500 crown to his 2017 championship. Photo: IndyCar

“I think Indianapolis…is certainly next on the list for me,” he detailed in a press conference ahead of qualifying. “It’s not next on the list for the team, they’ve won it many times. The good thing is we have four great opportunities, especially having Helio back. I think we have one of the best opportunities in the entire field to win this race.”

Pagenaud, like Newgarden, is also looking for his first Indy triumph, though his record there isn’t quite as good. He has been fast at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but only has two Top 10s to show for it – eighth in 2013 with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and tenth in 2015 in his first year with Penske.

And a Pagenaud win would be somewhat historic – it would be only the fourth time a French driver has won the “500,” and the first since 1920 (Gaston Chevrolet).

Pagenaud explained that this race always holds a place as a top priority, and that success at Indy is all about preparation.

Simon Pagenaud looks to become only the first French driver to win an Indy 500 since Gaston Chevrolet in 1920. Photo: IndyCar

“It really is our number one goal. In Roger and Tim’s heart, it’s the most important one,” Pagenaud declared. “We prepare really hard. The team does a fantastic job at just understanding every bit and component of this new aero kit, trying to extract the best out of the equipment.”

Pagenaud added, “On the driver side, there’s a lot you can do obviously to review the past races, try to focus yourself, try to put yourself into the race before it happens, try to just improve. That’s what we try to do every day. That’s the goal. That’s why this group is so good. We push each other so hard that you always try to push the limits away.”

Power, the man who delivered Penske his 200th IndyCar win, is no stranger to success at IMS, having won the Grand Prix on the IMS Road Course three times. But, he is yet to find Victory Lane on the oval, and that leaves a void in an otherwise stellar career.

Will Power has won the INDYCAR Grand Prix three times, and looks for his first win at the “500” this weekend. Photo: IndyCar

Power spotlighted the opportunity in front of him, and detailed that running in traffic has been a strength thus far through practice.

“It’s fantastic to have that opportunity. Obviously very focused on (trying to win),” he revealed. “I feel like we have a really good opportunity to win this year. I mean, I think Chevrolet has brought a really good engine. I feel like we’re really fast. Running in traffic and such, I felt like we’ve been pretty strong, especially when you get to the front.”

Castroneves is the only Penske driver with Indy 500 wins on his resume. But, with three wins to his name, Castroneves is more than familiar with IMS glory.

Now a part-time IndyCar driver who races full-time in the IMSA WeatherTech Sports Car Championship with the Acura Team Penske outfit, Castroneves’ sole focus is on getting that elusive fourth win.

Helio Castroneves looks to join the four-time winners club at the Indy 500. Photo: IndyCar

And he has momentum on his side too, coming off a debut IMSA win for the Acura Penske outfit at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. A fourth Indy 500 win would put an exclamation point on the month for Castroneves.

“I think about it every day,” he said when asked about how often he ponders getting that fourth win. “It was one of those incredible ones, I have phenomenal car, the Pennzoil car was really strong last year. Obviously coming back here, first of all, I want to thank Roger and (team president Tim Cindric) for giving me the opportunity to be back at the Indy 500. It’s such a special place for so many people. Just to be back and able to continue our goal and pursue for the number four, it’s incredible.”

Pagenaud and Power will flank pole sitter Ed Carpenter on the front, starting second and third respectively. Newgarden starts fourth, while Castroneves will start eighth.

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