Scott Dixon, Bobby Unser two legends in different ways, now equal on wins

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One was – and still is – known for being one of the most candid, outspoken but iconic voices and drivers in North American open-wheel history.

The other is the “Iceman” – a guy who’s got it done, week-on-week, for 12 straight years, who’s a quiet, cerebral soul most of the time with a wicked and underrated sense of humor off-camera.

Now, they’re tied on career wins.

Sunday’s Sonoma triumph was Scott Dixon’s 35th of his career, dating to his first in the 2001 CART race at Nazareth. That ties him for fifth all-time with Bobby Unser, the three-time Indianapolis 500 champion and renowned commentator after his retirement from driving.

Unser, from his vacation home in Pagosa Springs, Colorado, had this to say about Dixon:

“Scott Dixon is a very, very good driver and records are made to be broken,” he said. “I’ve been watching Scott race for years. I’ve been watching Scott since he started racing Indy cars when he was real young and he was successful almost immediately. He’s truly a great driver and drives with a lot of vigor.

“I am happy for Scott and at his young age I am sure he’ll get another win or lots to pass our 35 Indy car wins we now share together. Scott’s a racer, he truly knows how to drive a car, for sure. I just wish Chip would give him a stock car, sprinter or midget to race in, I am sure he’d win in those too. I am betting he’d win in anything he runs, if given the chance.”

Dixon, who’s told me in the past he’d be interested to try something on dirt, took an opportunity to reflect on being in the company of open-wheel’s Mount Rushmore of families: Foyt, Andretti, Unser and Mears.

“You know, as I’ve said before, I think stats are something you look back on when you are maybe leaving the car,” he said during the post-race press conference. “As I’ve said, hopefully you’re happy with them. To me it’s very eye-opening, pretty crazy to think that we’re on the short list last year with Unser, Andretti and Foyt ahead of us.

“But a lot of credit goes to the team I’ve been with. I’ve been with Ganassi for 13 years. To get all those victories, all but one of them have been with that team. With the longevity that I’ve had, it’s going to amount to hopefully something. Obviously respect those drivers from the past.  It’s something that I think I’ll reflect on probably when I’ve retired.”

Dixon’s deflecting the accolades for now, but we’re watching an all-time great who still has at least another four or five years in his prime.

Consider Unser was 34 when he won his first Indianapolis 500 in 1968… and that’s Dixon’s age now.

The difference in eras is that Unser raced until he was 47; today’s stars rarely race much past 38 or 40.

But Dixon has a realistic shot to climb to at least third on the all-time win list, a mark currently held by Michael Andretti with 42 wins. Dixon needs seven wins to achieve that mark.

His next win will be his 36th, and move him into the middle of an Unser sandwich. Al Unser ranks fourth on the all-time wins list with 39, and a 40th win for Dixon would move him into fourth.

AJ Foyt’s 67 wins and Mario Andretti’s 52 are, very likely, out of reach.

The only question about seven is that the level of domination by any one driver in IndyCar has gone down in recent years.

No single driver has won more than four races this season since the introduction of the Dallara DW12 chassis in 2012; both times, that’s been the champion (Ryan Hunter-Reay in 2012, Dixon last year).

So Dixon could well get those wins, but it may take him some time. Either way, it’s hard not to appreciate what we’re seeing.

Podcast: James Hinchcliffe might find a silver lining in disguise at Indy after ‘an emotional roller coaster’

Richard W. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway
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INDIANAPOLIS – No one could blame James Hinchcliffe for going incognito at Indianapolis Motor Speedway this weekend, and he might do exactly that on the eve of the Indianapolis 500.

But it won’t be because the SPM driver is bummed about missing the biggest race of the IndyCar season. Actually, it’s because the crushing disappointment of getting bumped from the field a week ago might have a silver lining.

“I’ve heard all these stories from way back when to the present day of what it’s like just outside the speedway on Saturday night before the race,” Hinchcliffe said during a new episode of the NASCAR on NBC Podcast that was recorded and released Saturday. “Up Georgetown (Road), in the Coke Lot, you hear all these crazy stories about all these crazy parties and the rest of it.

“And honestly, we’re always isolated in our little bubble inside the speedway in the drivers lot. Part of me is tempted to dress up in disguise and just venture out there and see what it’s all about. I’m very tempted to do that and maybe document some of the exploits out there.”

And if Hinchcliffe lingers well into the night? Well, it’s not as if he has a 500-mile race to worry about Sunday.

“I know the (track’s) cannon is going to go off at 6 a.m. (Sunday) and wake us up, but I have fewer responsibilities tomorrow than most of my colleagues,” the Canadian said with a laugh.

Of course, it still has been one of the longer weeks in the life of a 31-year-old who is ranked fifth in the points standing and seemed on track for a career season. Before Indy, Hinchcliffe’s average finish in the first five races was 5.8, including a third at Barber Motorsports Park.

But the momentum screeched to a halt when his No. 5 Dallara-Honda was knocked out of the field in the closing hour of the opening day of qualifying at the Brickyard last Saturday.

Hinchcliffe gamely accepted the outcome with a series of graceful interviews shortly afterward and has maintained a brave face during a week of promotional appearances

“It’s been an up and down week,” he said. “It’s been an emotional roller coaster. The term good days and bad days doesn’t even apply. You have good hours and bad hours.

“The busier I’m keeping myself, the better I’m feeling. There were times you have that little driver tantrum in your head like, ‘I don’t want to do any of this stuff because I’m in a bad mood! And blah, blah blah.’ But talking about it helps you get over it, and staying busy takes your mind off it a little bit.”

Still, there is no escaping the reality of when the green flag falls on the 102nd running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

“Sunday is probably going to suck,” he said. “There’s no way around that. The start of the race is really going to suck. Then when I see how hard it is out there, I might think it sucks a little less.”

It has been easier to swallow because of “fan support that has just been completely overwhelming,” and Hinchcliffe of course has a perspective about Indianapolis that few have after a near-fatal practice crash in 2015 (“(Missing the race) actually wasn’t the worst day I’ve ever had at Indianapolis Motor Speedway”).

His comeback from the brush with death brought his team closer together, and he’s hoping the latest spate of adversity will do the same.

“One of the hardest parts was just being back with the crew right afterward, getting back to the garage and seeing a group of like 10 grown men literally brought to tears over what just happened,” said Hinchcliffe, whose team misjudged the amount of time left in the session after a tire vibration problem quickly ended what would be his final attempt. “It shows you how much this race means. If we had a really bad crash at Detroit on Saturday morning and couldn’t get the car fixed in time for Sunday. We’d all be like, ‘Man that really sucks. We’ll fix the car and come back next week.’

“But not getting to start Indy, man, is just such a gut punch for these guys and for all of us. But at the same time, it brought us closer as a group. There were mistakes made that we’re going to learn from. There’s no doubt that we come back as a stronger unit because of this. Emotionally, from a preparation point of view, from an execution point of view.”

There was a jolt of positivity from a second-place finish in a pit stop competition Friday. Hinchcliffe’s team, which has posted the fastest pit stop in two races this season, fell to Scott Dixon’s team in the final after pulling out a surprise victory over Will Power’s crew from the non-preferred right lane in the semifinals.

“Even if we beat Dixon in the finals, it wouldn’t have felt as good as that win did,” Hinchcliffe said. “It was such an awesome performance. The guys have been killing it in the pits. It’s definitely a point of pride for us.

“It was fun to get back in the car and do something for the fans and do something for the boys. We won a check at the end of the day. Add it to the beer fund and go have a fun Sunday night.”

Other topics discussed in the podcast:

–How and why he became a popular star by learning how to showcase his affable personality early in his career;

–Why the IndyCar Series needs a driver to play the villain role;

–An expanded explanation of why he believes the Indianapolis 500 should be separate from the championship;

To listen to the podcast, click here for Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play or play the Art19 embed below: