Dixon’s latest title a story of consistency, comeback, typical “Ice Man” cool

1 Comment

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.

Newgarden, Rossi ready for a red-white-and-blue INDYCAR finale

1 Comment

MONTEREY, California – In an international series that personifies diversity from all over the globe, the two main combatants in the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series championship are from the United States.

Josef Newgarden of Tennessee takes a 41-point lead over Alexander Rossi of Northern California into Sunday’s double-points season finale at WeatherTech Raceway at Laguna Seca. This year’s Indianapolis 500 winner, Simon Pagenaud of France, is just 42 points out of the lead.

It’s been quite a while since the two drivers entering the final race of the season were both Americans. Four of the top 10 drivers in the series are from the United States. Last year, five of the top 10 were from the USA.

All but one race in the 17-race NTT IndyCar Series schedule is contested in the United States.

Patriotism still matters in IndyCar.

“I think so,” said Andretti Autosport driver Rossi, who is the last American driver to win the Indianapolis 500 in 2016. “I know I’ve read a lot of things from other drivers saying, ‘It doesn’t matter, it’s not important, no one cares.’

“I can’t really get onboard with that.

“I think me as an American, growing up, being a fan of the Olympics and everything, like you cheer for Americans, right? That’s what you do as a patriotic person. Canadians cheer for James. We see the Swedish contingent that comes to the races for Marcus Ericsson and Felix Rosenqvist.

Getty Images“I think Americans will cheer for Americans. I would love to see an American to win the championship. I think it’s important for the young kids watching hoping to be IndyCar drivers one day, that they see someone who grew up in Tennessee or California or wherever. It’s like, there’s a lot of relate-ability to that for a young kid with aspirations of being a racecar driver.”

Since Sam Hornish, Jr. won the final of his three IndyCar Series championships in 2006, just two American drivers have won the title – Ryan Hunter-Reay in 2012 and Newgarden in 2017. During that span, Scott Dixon of New Zealand won four of his five NTT IndyCar Series championships and Dario Franchitti of Scotland won all four of his IndyCar titles.

The last time two Americans had a chance to win the championship in the final race of the season came in 2001 when Hornish won the championship over Colorado’s Buddy Lazier. Connecticut’s Scott Sharp was third and Arizona’s Billy Boat was fourth in the final standings that year.

That was a much different time and place for IndyCar. At that time, many of the top drivers were in CART while the old Indy Racing League featured a predominantly American lineup. Once unification brought the two sides together in 2008, the championships have been fought on American soil, but international drivers were victorious.

The last time two American drivers finished 1-2 in CART was 1996 when Jimmy Vasser of California defeated Pennsylvania’s Michael Andretti for the crown. In 1992, Bobby Rahal of Illinois defeated Andretti and Al Unser, Jr. of New Mexico for the CART title.

Prior to that, the IndyCar “National Championship” was dominated by drivers from the United States.

 

While Rossi openly choose to wrap himself in the American flag, it’s not as important to Newgarden.

“For me, it’s never been something I put a lot of emphasis on,” said the Team Penske driver. “I’m proud to have grown up in such a wonderful country as the United States, but what I’ve always loved about the IndyCar Series is that they bring the best of the best from around the world. That’s always been important to me.

“It means more I think when you have the best from all over the place coming to compete at the Indianapolis 500, during the whole championship. You really feel like you have that in the IndyCar Series. You get the best drivers from around the world.

“To pair with that, I think we need strong Americans running, as well. So for sure, having guys like Alex and Graham Rahal, some young guys coming up like Colton Herta, myself, it’s really great to have young American competition representing as well and running so strongly.

“What I’ve always loved is the great mix of talent from around the world. To me that’s just so important. If it was all Americans running in the championship, I don’t think it would mean as much. I like that we have that great diversity and that great mix from around the world.”

Although these two drivers are both from the USA, they are fierce rivals. They have mutual respect for each other, but they sure aren’t considered close friends.

“Josef and I honestly aren’t that close,” Rossi admitted. “He never lived in Indy when I moved here, or he was just moving. I actually never really hung out with Josef.

“We obviously have a lot of respect for each other. We raced together for a short period of time in Europe. We have a lot of mutual friends.

“Josef and I don’t talk or socialize really. So, it doesn’t have any impact.”

Newgarden agrees that these two men choose to embrace the rivalry.

“I think it’s just really business,” Newgarden said. “He lives in Indianapolis. I live in Nashville. I don’t see him too often outside of the racetrack. We go and we compete. He’s a great competitor. He’s definitely a tremendous talent, has done a great job in his career.

“It’s been a good, competitive relationship I would say.”

With the return of American drivers capable of winning races, championships and Indianapolis 500s, it has sparked a rejuvenation in IndyCar racing. With drivers from all over the world fighting it out for glory, this series that was born and bred in the United States can take pride in featuring some of the best racing in the world as the series continues to grow in popularity.

“I think we just need to continue a focus on our product,” Rossi said. “I think we have the best race product on the planet in terms of entertainment, the variance of winners that we have throughout a season, how many guys are capable, teams are capable of winning races.

“But that’s an ever-moving target. I think IndyCar has done a good job of placing the priority on that. I just think we need to continue doing that and everything will be moving in the right direction.”