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.”

Justin Grant prevails over Kyle Larson in the Turkey Night Grand Prix

Grant Larson Turkey Night
USACRacing.com / DB3 Inc.
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On the heels of his Hangtown 100 victory, Justin Grant worked his way from 13th in the Turkey Night Grand Prix to beat three-time event winner Kyle Larson by 1.367 seconds. The 81st annual event was run at Ventura (Calif.) Raceway for the sixth time.

“My dad used to take me to Irwindale Speedway, and we’d watch Turkey Night there every year,” Grant said in a series press release. “This is one of the races I fell in love with. I didn’t think I’d ever get a chance to run in it, never thought I’d make a show and certainly never thought I’d be able to win one.”

With its genesis in 1934 at Gilmore Stadium, a quarter-mile dirt track in Los Angeles, the race is steeped in history with winners that include AJ Foyt, Parnelli Jones, Gary Bettenhausen and Johnnie Parsons. Tony Stewart won it in 2000. Kyle Larson won his first of three Turkey Night Grands Prix in 2012. Christopher Bell earned his first of three in 2014, so Grant’s enthusiasm was well deserved.

So was the skepticism that he would win. He failed to crack the top five in three previous attempts, although he came close last year with a sixth-place result. When he lined up for the feature 13th in the crowded 28-car field, winning seemed like a longshot.

Grant watched as serious challengers fell by the wayside. Mitchel Moles flipped on Lap 10 of the feature. Michael “Buddy” Kofoid took a tumble on Lap 68 and World of Outlaws Sprint car driver Carson Macedo flipped on Lap 79. Grant saw the carnage ahead of him and held a steady wheel as he passed Tanner Thorson for the lead with 15 laps remaining and stayed out of trouble for the remainder of the event.

“It’s a dream come true to win the Turkey Night Grand Prix,” Grant said.


Kyle Larson follows Justin Grant to the front on Turkey Night

The 2012, 2016 and 2019 winner, Larson was not scheduled to run the event. His wife Katelyn is expecting their third child shortly, but after a couple of glasses of wine with Thanksgiving dinner and while watching some replays of the event, Larson texted car owner Chad Boat to see if he had a spare car lying around. He did.

“We weren’t great but just hung around and it seemed like anybody who got to the lead crashed and collected some people,” Larson said. “We made some passes throughout; in the mid-portion, we weren’t very good but then we got better at the end.

“I just ran really, really hard there, and knew I was running out of time, so I had to go. I made some pretty crazy and dumb moves, but I got to second and was hoping we could get a caution to get racing with Justin there. He was sliding himself at both ends and thought that maybe we could get a run and just out-angle him into [Turn] 1 and get clear off [Turn] 2 if we got a caution, but it just didn’t work out.”

Larson padded one of the most impressive stats in the history of this race, however. In 10 starts, he’s won three times, finished second four times, was third once and fourth twice.

Bryant Wiedeman took the final spot on the podium.

As Grant and Larson began to pick their way through the field, Kofoid took the lead early from the outside of the front row and led the first 44 laps of the race before handing it over to Cannon McIntosh, who bicycled on Lap 71 before landing on all fours. While Macedo and Thorson tussled for the lead with McIntosh, Grant closed in.

Thorson finished 19th with McIntosh 20th. Macedo recovered from his incident to finish ninth. Kofoid’s hard tumble relegated him to 23rd.

Jake Andreotti in fourth and Kevin Thomas, Jr. rounded out the top five.

1. Justin Grant (started 13)
2. Kyle Larson (22)
3. Bryant Wiedeman (4)
4. Jake Andreotti (9)
5. Kevin Thomas Jr. (1)
6. Logan Seavey (8)
7. Alex Bright (27)
8. Emerson Axsom (24)
9. Carson Macedo (7)
10. Jason McDougal (18)
11. Jake Swanson (16)
12. Chase Johnson (6)
13. Jacob Denney (26)
14. Ryan Timms (23)
15. Chance Crum (28)
16. Brenham Crouch (17)
17. Jonathan Beason (19)
18. Cade Lewis (14)
19. Tanner Thorson (11)
20. Cannon McIntosh (3)
21. Thomas Meseraull (15)
22. Tyler Courtney (21)
23. Buddy Kofoid (2)
24. Brody Fuson (5)
25. Mitchel Moles (20)
26. Daniel Whitley (10)
27. Kaylee Bryson (12)
28. Spencer Bayston (25)