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Scott Dixon: Lot of ground to make up — and not a lot of time to do it in

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With four races remaining on the schedule, Scott Dixon knows it’s go time if he hopes to repeat last year’s Verizon IndyCar Series championship.

Last year at this time, Dixon was closing in on Juan Pablo Montoya, who led the entire season until the finale at Sonoma, where Dixon doubled-up with both the race win and the series championship, his fourth.

But this year, things are a bit more formidable and challenging for the driver of the No. 9 Chip Ganassi Racing Target Chevrolet.

Dixon finds himself tied for fifth in the points with fellow series veteran Tony Kanaan, both drivers with 357 points each.

And way ahead of both of them is points leader Simon Pagenaud, who has amassed not only a series-leading four wins but also six poles and 484 points.

In other words, Dixon and Kanaan must make up a 127-point shortfall to just catch Pagenaud – and that doesn’t count how many more points the French driver will continue to amass in the final four races, starting with Sunday’s ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway.

Pocono has been a good track for Dixon. In the three years the IndyCar clan has raced on the 2.5-mile “tricky triangle,” Dixon won the inaugural event there in 2013, finished fifth in 2014 and ninth in last season’s race.

But Dixon has also struggled of late. In the last six races, he’s fallen from second place to a tie for fifth, with good finishes of fifth (Belle Isle 2), third (Iowa) and eighth (Toronto) offset by disappointing finishes of 19th (Belle Isle 1), and a pair of last-place finishes (22nd place at each) at Road America (engine) and the most recent race nearly two weeks ago at Mid-Ohio (mechanical problems)

Dixon, who has just one win and three podium finishes thus far this season — compared to three wins and four podium finishes last year — knows what he needs to do and what he’s up against Sunday.

“This is one of the toughest oval style tracks you’re ever going to encounter,” Dixon said. “It’s the ‘Tricky Triangle’ so that really sums it up.

“For us in 2013 it was a great moment to bring back open-wheel racing to Pocono with a win and a 1-2-3 finish (along with fellow teammates Charlie Kimball and Dario Franchitti, respectively).

“You have to put a lot of hard work into getting everything right on this track. Nothing is a given here. While we’ve kind of struggled there the past two races, we know what we need to do to be successful, so hopefully we can get it turned around for this time around.”

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F1: Sebastian Vettel incurs costly penalty during Friday’s U.S. Grand Prix practice

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Lewis Hamilton got a gift from F1 officials when Sebastian Vettel was penalized three places on the starting grid for Sunday’s U.S. Grand Prix for not slowing down enough for a red flag during Friday’s morning practice at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas.

Vettel insists he abided by the rules.

“I think I slowed down,” the Ferrari driver said. “I had a good look around at what was going on. The rules are clear so we know.

“They [the stewards] were very specific, saying I took 27.7 seconds to slow down. I saw the red flag, I slowed down, I had a look around where the car was potentially stuck in the wall or if there was one around Turn 9 or 10.

“Then I slowed down significantly to comply with the rules. … They found it too long. I think it was straightforward.

“On top of it there might have been an issue with the timing, the system. I don’t know. … I think it’s wrong.”

Vettel also said he was worried that “if there is a car right behind you, it might run into you. But it is more important you don’t get a penalty.”

Hamilton recorded the fastest lap in the morning session in his Mercedes. Vettel, meanwhile, is essentially in a win-or-else situation if he hopes to prevent Hamilton from clinching the 2018 F1 championship.

Being penalized makes Vettel’s chances all the more difficult. Short of winning Sunday, the only other way Vettel can keep Hamilton from winning his fifth F1 crown is if he finishes within seven points of Hamilton.

Hamilton currently leads Vettel by 67 points. If Hamilton doesn’t clinch the title this weekend, it’ll be on to Mexico City next weekend for another chance at sealing the championship deal.

Hamilton’s previous championships have come in three of the last four seasons (2014, 2015 and 2017), as well as his first in 2008.

Friday’s second practice was washed out, for all intents and purposes. Hamilton logged just eight minutes and couldn’t go faster than he did in the soggy conditions earlier in the morning, while Vettel managed just 12 minutes on-track in the second session.

Saturday’s forecast calls for more rain, but Sunday’s race day outlook calls for dry conditions.

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