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.

Why it’s important for Fernando Alonso to be in the Indianapolis 500

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It seemed so natural, so logical that Fernando Alonso would be part of McLaren in the 104thIndianapolis 500, it likely could have been announced last August.

NBCSports.com gave all the reasons why an Alonso reunion with McLaren at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway made the most sense last week.

Tuesday afternoon, it became official.

Arrow McLaren SP announced the two-time Formula One World Champion as its third driver for the Indy 500. He joins full-time NTT IndyCar Series drivers, rookies Oliver Askew and Pato O’Ward, on the Chevrolet team.

In a world where social media allows everyone to voice an opinion, there have been some who have asked, “Why is it so important that Fernando Alonso compete in the Indianapolis 500?”

To back up their point, the 33-driver starting lineup already includes the legendary names of the NTT IndyCar Series. From five-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon to three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves, to Indy 500 winners Alexander Rossi, Will Power, Simon Pagenaud and Ryan Hunter-Reay to two-time champion IndyCar champion Josef Newgarden, the lineup is full of big names.

On the grand scale of international motorsports, however, Alonso has the charisma and star power that transcends into the mainstream of popularity.

“Having Fernando in the Indy 500 is going to be great for IndyCar, for the Indy 500 and for the fans,” said Arrow McLaren SP co-owner Sam Schmidt. “I can’t wait to see that get started.

“On behalf of Ric (Peterson, another co-owner of the team) and myself, Fernando needs to be in the 500, he needs to have an opportunity to win and that would be mega for IndyCar. For all of those reasons, we kept our foot on the gas and tried to position our team as the team of choice. Although we haven’t won, we have shown pace there and ran at the front. Now that we are with Chevrolet, we feel that we can get it done.

“Our team of guys is fantastic. We have been preparing for this for a long time and we are poised to get it done. Ric and I are very excited about this.”

McLaren CEO Zak Brown has a long and close relationship with Alonso. Brown was in charge of Alonso’s Formula One program. Last year when Alonso did not compete in F1, he remained under contract as a McLaren “Ambassador.”

His contract with McLaren ended on December 31, 2019. He officially rejoined the team with Tuesday’s Indy 500 announcement.

“He creates a tremendous amount of attention wherever he goes,” Brown said of Alonso. “When we did the first test at Indy in 2017, the live digital feed got over a couple million followers. Fernando will draw a lot of global attention to Indianapolis, to IndyCar, to our partners and to the sport as a whole.

“He is a great addition. He is an ambassador to the sport. He very much enjoys the way he is embraced in Indianapolis.”

HOW THEY GOT BACK TOGETHER

With so many obstacles in the way between Alonso competing for any other team at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it just made sense that his best situation, and only situation, would come with the McLaren-backed operation.

But it was certainly a long, strange trip to get there.

“Clearly, Fernando was deep in conversations with Michael Andretti,” McLaren CEO Zak Brown responded to a question from NBC Sports.com in a private teleconference Tuesday. “Short of Roger Penske’s team, he believes Michael’s team is the most successful team at Indianapolis, certainly in most recent times.

“If you are Fernando Alonso and you want to win Indianapolis, then Andretti is clearly on your short list.

“We had a strong desire to run him. Fernando didn’t want to take a decision until after Paris-Dakar because he wanted to be very focused on that event. He was in no rush. He had two good opportunities. We kept him informed of some of the offseason moves we made. We secured Craig Hampson (as technical director after a successful term as Sebastien Bourdais’ engineer). When he was ready to make his decision, we had all of our pieces in place.

“He chose to move forward with us.”

Alonso’s best days at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway came in an Andretti Autosport-prepared Honda. That was in 2017 when the McLaren Honda Andretti team got the Formula One Ace up to speed quickly. Alonso qualified fifth on the grid off 33, led 27 laps and was in contention for the victory before his Honda engine blew up with 21 laps remaining.

Alonso came, he saw, and he nearly conquered the Indianapolis 500.

Alonso’s worst days at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway came in a McLaren-prepared Chevrolet. That was last year when one mistake after another showed how unprepared the McLaren operation was to take on the Indy 500 on its own. The list of faux paus was so long and legendary, there is no reason to recount them.

It all added up to one of the biggest names in international motorsports getting bumped out of the 33-car starting lineup by unheralded Kyle Kaiser of Juncos Racing.

McLaren officials knew the best way to succeed at Indianapolis was to join forces with a full-time IndyCar Series team. The main obstacle in that was Honda teams were ordered by corporate headquarters in Japan that the company’s days of doing business with McLaren were over. This came after disparaging and critical comments were made about the Honda Formula One engine McLaren used during a horrendous 2017 Formula One season.

Under no circumstances would American Honda and Honda Performance Development be allowed to make a deal with McLaren.

Brown found a partner at what was then known as Arrow Schmidt Peterson, but that was a Honda team. In order to make the deal work, Arrow Schmidt Peterson would have to break the final year of its contract with Honda and switch to Chevrolet.

Arrow McLaren SP was announced on August 9, 2019. Alonso was not part of that announcement.

He was attempting to negotiate a deal with Andretti Autosport and the team was willing to make it happen. Sponsors were signed and decisions were made leading to an expected announcement of an Alonso-Andretti combination for the Indy 500.

Honda Japan said no. They were held firm with Alonso for the same reasons they didn’t want to do business with McLaren.

That meant Alonso would have to find a Chevrolet team for the Indy 500. Team Penske wasn’t interested in increasing to five cars at Indy. Ed Carpenter Racing also said no to expanding to four entries.

All paths led back to Arrow McLaren SP.

“It’s a great day in the history of our team,” co-owner Sam Schmidt said. “We’ve had a lot of changes recently. Arrow McLaren SP is a fantastic cooperation of the future of our company. This just raises the bar. Everyone on our team is a true racer, wants to win and wants to win the Indy 500 and the championship. Every move we have made over the last two years has been geared towards achieving those dreams. This is one step further.

“Fernando Alonso, two world championships, two WEC’s, Le Mans and the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona. He has made it perfectly clear the Indy 500 is the missing link there. We all know how competitive he was previously.

“For our team, we want to tap into his experience. We have two exciting rookies with Oliver Askew and Pato O’Ward. We really think being around him for the month of May will help them raise their game and understand what it takes to be a true, top-level, world-renowned driver. For all of those reasons, we have been working very hard on this for quite some time and we are very excited to announce Fernando Alonso as part of our team for the Indy 500.”

THE TWO SIDES CONTINUED TO NEGOTIATE, EVEN WHEN IT APPEARED ALONSO WOULD GO TO ANDRETTI

Although it appears this deal was put together quickly, Brown and Schmidt emphasized that was not the case.

“Actually, it’s been in the works for quite some time,” Brown said. “Fernando is quite a thoughtful individual when he takes a decision on what he wants to race. Paris-Dakar, from the moment he decided he was interested in it, he wanted to test, he wanted to get to know the car, he wanted to get to know the team and ultimately made his decision. This is something we’ve been speaking to Alonso about for a while.

“The new recruits, specifically Craig Hampson, we had a good test at COTA. These were things as Fernando made his final decision helped get him over the hump. There was speculation he would go elsewhere with parallel conversations that were going on.”

Schmidt was even more decisive in the team’s negotiations with Alonso.

“It seems like a bit of a whirlwind announcement, but we have been talking since November,” Schmidt said. “We’ve always run a third car at Indy. This will be a very, very well-prepared, thought-out deal. Craig Hampson will be the engineer and will be staffed by full-time, quality personnel.

“There has been some talk about the Grand Prix in a preparatory fashion for the Indy 500, but so far, we don’t have that in consideration.”

ALONSO’S THOUGHTS ON HIS RETURN

In a separate interview with Leigh Diffey of NBC Sports, Alonso admitted he had several teams to consider and McLaren was always in that group.

“We had some conversations,” Alonso said. “I already said last year I wanted to explore more options. I’d been talking with Andretti as well and some other teams. Andretti and McLaren are the ones I feel in my heart are like family. At the end, it was the natural choice to go with McLaren, especially after last year and give the fans something back after the disappointment of last year.

“I think McLaren is one of those teams that are part of motorsports. Being in F1 and IndyCar doing all the races. That shows and proves how McLaren is committed to the sport. The fans will love that commitment.”

Alonso has long dreamed of winning the international “Triple Crown” of motorsports. That includes victories in the Grand Prix of Monaco, the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Indianapolis 500.

Alonso behind the wheel of the famed Marmon Wasp, the first winning car in the 1911 Indianapolis 500 — INDYCAR Photo

Alonso has already conquered Monaco and Le Mans. Indy remains the final event to master for the driver from Spain.

“The Indy 500 completes the big three races in motorsports, and three completely different disciplines,” Alonso explained. “It makes you quite a complete driver. That’s what I’m looking for in this stage of my career. The Indy 500 is probably the biggest priority for me now.

“Oval racing is unique, but the Indianapolis Motor Speedway even more. It’s a huge place. All the facilities are quite big. The circuit, there are four corners, but all very different. The traffic, the slipstream, the strategy, the tire degradation. The downforce you run differently from practice. The race, you are adjusting downforce. Even if it seems a simple way to drive, over 200 laps, you never repeat the same line or speed in any laps. It’s quite difficult to adjust the minimum settings in the car.”

THE IMPORTANCE OF RUOFF AS THE SPONSOR

The key to completing the deal was allowing mortgage firm Ruoff to join Arrow McLaren SP after agreeing to back Alonso with Andretti.

“Ruoff is a partner of Michael’s, he’s a good friend of mine and a partner in Australia,” Brown explained, referring to the Virgin Australia SuperCar team. “As he was having his conversations with Fernando, Ruoff was looking for something with big impact and exposure. When Michael and Fernando were unable to get their deal together, Ruoff asked Michael if he would mind going where Fernando goes because they know he will draw a tremendous amount of attention and Michael has all of his title deals done. Michael gave his blessing, he cut a deal with Ruoff, and we are excited to have them with us for the month of May.

“Right now, Fernando is going to be laser focused on the Indianapolis 500. I think he would enjoy IndyCar racing, but he is unsure of what he wants to do in 2021. The door is open, but there are no plans or discussions about racing beyond Indy at this point.”

KEEP THE MILK COLD

Alonso said it feels good to be back at Indy; to have another chance to win the Indianapolis 500. Despite last year’s major disappointment, Alonso is ready to recapture the glory he experienced in 2017.

“Definitely once you experience the Indy 500, it’ll remain always in your heart,” Alonso said. “I think the Indy 500 is on top of all the events I’ve ever participated. The atmosphere, the adrenaline, the traditions all the celebrations before the race. Even the milk! It arrives in a fridge Sunday morning and goes to the Pagoda.

“There are things as a driver you understand the importance of the moment and how big that race is worldwide.”

And that is why it is important that drivers such as Alonso compete in the Indianapolis 500. It’s an event that is bigger than the sport itself.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500