Scott Dixon’s title defenses begin in Daytona

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In two months, Scott Dixon’s “day job” will resume, as he starts off what he’ll hope will be a pursuit of a fifth Verizon IndyCar Series championship and third in a four-year period dating to 2013.

In three weeks, however, he’s got another target to defend: his win along with Chip Ganassi Racing IndyCar teammate Tony Kanaan and CGR NASCAR aces Jamie McMurray and Kyle Larson in the Rolex 24 at Daytona, in the team’s No. 02 Riley-Ford Daytona Prototype.

It’s the first race of what’s usually three or four cameo appearances by Dixon in a Ganassi sports car over the course of the season. The difference this year is that Daytona will mark the sendoff for the team’s successful DP program, and Dixon wants to give it one last hurrah.

“I think the goal is obviously to go back and defend the overall, which could be the last hurrah for the DP car or I think it is, or whatever iteration they bring next,” Dixon told MotorSportsTalk during the Chevrolet Champions’ event in Sterling Heights, Mich. last month.

“That’s the main goal, we go there obviously to win.”

Dixon joined Ganassi’s IndyCar operation in mid-2002 and has been a part of the team’s sports car program off-and-on since 2004. He’s been part of Rolex 24 overall wins in 2006 and 2015, both times with his IndyCar and NASCAR teammates (the 2006 win was with the late Dan Wheldon and Casey Mears).

“I’ve been doing it for a long time now. I think ’04 was my first season with Ganassi at Daytona and I’m hoping that we can continue,” he said. “The 01 has had quite a streak there and the 02, we’ve only had a couple, so it’d be nice to add to that.”

Rumors abound Dixon could be part of the new Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT program as the year progresses, at perhaps any or all of the endurance classics in Sebring, Le Mans and Petit Le Mans.

It’s not to say those opportunities run secondary to his IndyCar commitments, but Dixon is of course firmly focused on the task at hand there too.

Some comments he said in the last week or so about aero kits hurting the quality of the racing made the rounds in the press (via FOX Sports’ Bruce Martin here).

That aside, he’s waiting and seeing how the latest new INDYCAR managerial structure will take shape – Jay Frye replaces the departed Derrick Walker as INDYCAR president of competition and operations, having moved up from his role as chief revenue officer.

“A lot of them are hard to know until you give it time,” Dixon explained. “Jay Frye has obviously been there for a little while and understands the sport. He’s seen many things throughout his career. As long as he works well with Mark and everybody else on board, I think it’s a great fit.”

Dixon also continues to push INDYCAR to further enhance its safety program; safety updates from the sanctioning body were announced in late December, as well as an increase of additional horsepower for road and street courses on the push-to-pass option.

“Safety updates are something we always welcome,” he said. “Push-to-pass, I think, will help some. I don’t know if it needs to go to other areas where if someone pushes from behind and locks out the guy in front or something.

“We’ll have to see where that goes. But obviously adding another 30 percent of power, I guess, is going to be a good gain, I think.”

Dixon, wife Emma and their two daughters Poppy and Tilly enjoyed a relaxing winter holiday… once Scott’s hectic post-Sonoma travel schedule wound down.

He competed in Petit Le Mans in Ganassi’s DP, tested at Road America in his IndyCar and also completed a triathlon with Kanaan in Miami. And then he started banking even more frequent flier miles.

“I had a little bit of a drive with the GT car, which was fun, but mostly travel – a trip to New Zealand and a little bit of stuff for Leadfoot Festival going on down in New Zealand, which I’m going to go back for in February for that event,” Dixon said.

“I’ve had some dinners, lunch here today (Detroit), dinner tonight in Houston and then I leave for England tomorrow, seeing the family for Christmas and then hopefully Edinburgh for New Year, maybe with Dario (Franchitti).”

Dixon, who has a sharp, wicked sense of humor that comes out at times but really comes out the more you get to know him, said he and Franchitti are still enjoying life when they get the opportunity to hang out outside the track.

“We’re kind of bouncing around a little bit,” he said. “But we’re a little more mature these days, I’d like to think.”

Cadillac, Acura battle for top speed as cars back on track for Rolex 24 at Daytona practice

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The new hybrid prototypes of Cadillac and Acura battled atop the speed chart as practice resumed Thursday for the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Chip Ganassi Racing driver Richard Westbrook was fastest Thursday afternoon in the No. 02 Cadillac V-LMDh with a 1-minute, 35.185-second lap around the 12-turn, 3.56-mile road course at Daytona International Speedway.

That pace topped Ricky Taylor’s 1:35.366 lap that topped the Thursday morning session that marked the first time the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship was back on track since qualifying Sunday afternoon that concluded the four-day Roar Before The Rolex 24 test.

In a final session Thursday night, Matt Campbell was fastest (1:35.802) in the No. 7 Porsche Penske Motorsports Porsche 963 but still was off the times set by Westbrook and Taylor.

Punctuated by Tom Blomqvist’s pole position for defending race winner Meyer Shank Racing, the Acura ARX-06s had been fastest for much of the Roar and led four consecutive practice sessions.

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But the times have been extremely tight in the new Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) category that has brought hybrid engines to IMSA’s premier class. Only 0.9 seconds separated the nine LMDh cars in GTP in qualifying, and though the spread slightly widened to 1.378 seconds in Thursday’s practices with teams on varying strategies and preparation, Westbrook still pooh-poohed the importance of speeds.

“It’s always nice to be at the top, but I don’t think it means too much or read too much into it” Westbrook said. “Big fuel tanks in the GTP class this year, so you have no idea what fuel levels people are running. We had a good run, and the car is really enjoyable to drive now. I definitely wasn’t saying that a month ago.

“It really does feel good now. We are working on performance and definitely unlocking some potential, and it just gives us more confidence going into the race. It’s going to be super tight. Everyone’s got the same power, everyone has the same downforce, everyone has the same drag levels and let’s just go race.”

Because teams have put such a premium on reliability, handling mostly has suffered in the GTPs, but Westbrook said the tide had turned Thursday.

“These cars are so competitive, and you were just running it for the sake of running it in the beginning, and there’s so much going on, you don’t really have time to work on performance,” he said. “A lot of emphasis was on durability in the beginning, and rightly so, but now finally we can work on performance, and that’s the same for other manufacturers as well. But we’re worrying about ourselves and improving every run, and I think everybody’s pretty happy with their Cadillac right now.”

Mike Shank, co-owner of Blomqvist’s No. 60 on the pole, said his team still was facing reliability problems despite its speed.

“We address them literally every hour,” Shank said. “We’re addressing some little thing we’re doing better to try to make it last. And also we’re talking about how we race the race, which will be different from years past.

“Just think about every system in the car, I’m not going to say which ones we’re working on, but there are systems in the car that ORECA and HPD are continually trying to improve. By the way, sometimes we put them on the car and take them off before it even goes out on the track because something didn’t work with electronics. There’s so much programming. So many departments have to talk to each other. That bridge gets broken from a code not being totally correct, and the car won’t run. Or the power steering turns off.”

Former Rolex 24 winner Renger van der Zande of Ganassi said it still is a waiting game until the 24-hour race begins Saturday shortly after 1:30 p.m.

“I think the performance of the car is good,” van der Zande said. “No drama. We’re chipping away on setup step by step and the team is in control. It’s crazy out there what people do on the track at the moment. It’s about staying cool and peak at the right moment, and it’s not the right moment yet for that. We’ll keep digging.”


PRACTICE RESULTS:

Click here for Session I (by class)

Click here for Session II (by class)

Click here for Session III (by class)

Combined speeds