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Dream weekend at Watkins Glen defeats Dixon’s 2016 run of bad luck

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WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. – Scott Dixon had himself a weekend at Watkins Glen International.

He led every session (three practice, qualifying, warmup and the race). He won the pole. He led 50 of 60 laps. He scored his 40th career win, which broke a tie with Bobby Unser and puts him into fourth on North American open-wheel racing’s all-time wins list.

And because Dixon isn’t just a superhuman behind the wheel, but also bordering on superhuman as a human status, he’s donating his winnings to the Justin Wilson Children’s Fund.

So about the only thing that went wrong this weekend was that Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Tony Kanaan pipped him for fastest lap of the race.

“I think TK actually got fast lap in the race, which is one thing I didn’t get. I’ll talk to him about that later,” Dixon deadpanned in the post-race press conference.

But it was a weekend in a rare year for the four-time and defending Verizon IndyCar Series champion that’s been off song, where everything else finally went right.

The driver of the No. 9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet looked poised for another title run with a better-than-usual start at a couple of his traditional “bogey” tracks, at St. Petersburg and Long Beach. He won at Phoenix in the series’ return there, owing to phenomenal pit stops from his crew.

Since that win, however, way back on April 2, it’s been the lost opportunities that have stuck out and gnawed at the usually unflappable Kiwi for the rest of the year.

That runner-up finish at Long Beach?  It was controversial at the time. Simon Pagenaud won his first race for Team Penske and did so by way of beating Dixon out of the pits, having driven the wheels off his No. 22 car and then having his strategist, Kyle Moyer, outsmart Dixon and Mike Hull at their own game.

At Barber, he finished off the podium for the first time ever, after getting hit by his Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT sports car teammate, Sebastien Bourdais, only a month before the two of them would head to Le Mans together.

Seventh and eighth place finishes at the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis and Indianapolis 500 were the definition of nondescript. The latter result particularly hurt owing to double points.

A DNF, then a race driven with an apparent broken suspension followed at the doubleheader in Detroit.

We then got the sense of Dixon’s near time-traveling abilities in the month of June. After Detroit, Dixon went from Texas’ false start a week later through to his incredible debut at Le Mans, setting fastest race lap in his second ever start in the car and first at Circuit de la Sarthe, then flying back to test at Watkins Glen the next day, before Road America the following week.

But as the IndyCar season restarted at Road America, Dixon’s poor run of luck restarted along with it.

At Road America, there was the component failure that left him 22nd and last. Third at Iowa was then followed by that brutal day in Toronto, a sure win gone missing after Dixon – who with Hull was covering Pagenaud to atone for the Long Beach miss – got caught out by a yellow. And Power, who usually’s caught the short end of the stick, won it.

There was the contact, a rare unforced error, with Helio Castroneves at Mid-Ohio. A decent but still tough drive to sixth in Pocono.

Then, there was last week, in Texas, when all the emotions of this unplanned – so un-Dixon – type of year erupted in full force after contact with Ed Carpenter.

When the two collided and Dixon went into the wall, Dixon’s emulation of Power dropping the infamous “double birds” followed.

“I guess sometimes, you get pretty fired up. I was disappointed in the situation,” he told me on Saturday. “What most people sometimes don’t see is the high levels of emotion that any sport has. Sometimes the camera catches it, sometimes it doesn’t.

“Sometimes you’re at the breaking point; with the circumstances we had, sometimes, it boils over.”

If anything, the problem we have with Dixon is that we expect perfection, because this is what we’ve been lucky enough to have been treated to for the 16 years he’s been in IndyCar.

Since debuting as that awkward, quiet, bleach-blonde-haired 20-year-old with Bruce McCaw in 2001, a year before he got the call-up to Chip Ganassi’s team thanks to a combination of McCaw’s PacWest (then PWR Championship Racing) team going under and Toyota saving his career, Dixon’s become the gold standard for an IndyCar driver in the modern era.

We don’t appreciate him fully because we’re so well-conditioned to his greatness, and we’re only stupefied when he’s not.

Since that first of three straight wins at Watkins Glen in 2005 – which he achieved in a less-than-competitive Panoz-Toyota in what had been a nightmarish season for driver and team, at the time – Dixon’s won multiple races, three more championships, and finished in the top three in points every single season since, from 2006.

And until Sunday, when he entered the day sixth in points with only that singleton win at Phoenix to his scorecard this year, both those streaks were on the line.

It’s no small stroke of form that today’s win punctuated a typically perfect, super cool, Dixon weekend… that was his second win of the year and vaulted him to third in the championship.

Sadly, the only downside for him comes with the fact he was all but mathematically eliminated from defending his title. At 104 points, he and Helio Castroneves will be out once Simon Pagenaud and Will Power take the green flag at Sonoma.

But points were not the story of the weekend. The story was that Dixon and the No. 9 team around him exuded their usual greatness, and for once in 2016, didn’t have any negative thing ruin it.

“I wish it happened a lot more often,” he said. “You know, that’s the hard part, right, is that these are the weekends that you definitely don’t forget, just in the sheer fact of we had such a smooth one, which made it hard also going into the race.

“We had been fast in practice, fast in qualifying, obviously got the pole. You just think of the problems and maybe strategy not going your way or maybe having a mechanical and taking you out of it.”

The only request Dixon had post-race was that INDYCAR, which just added Watkins Glen for two more years beyond 2016, can find a way to race here more than once per season.

“I just love being back here, and I think we should have a double points race here and probably race two or three times at the Glen,” he laughed.

Helio Castroneves ‘hustling’ for IndyCar, IMSA rides; talking with four to five teams

Helio Castroneves IMSA IndyCar
IMSA
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As his season gathers steam, Helio Castroneves said his prospects for finding new rides for 2021 in IMSA and IndyCar also are gaining momentum.

The three-time Indianapolis 500 winner said Monday he is optimistic about landing in either or perhaps a combination of both series when Team Penske and Acura end their DPi partnership after this season.

“A lot of people I spoke with, four to five teams, are interested,” Castroneves said. “Whether it’s doing Indy 500 only, whether it’s pushing to do full time or do the sports cars as well. It’s been a very nice conversation.

LOOKING AHEADTeam Penske drivers seeking new rides for 2021

“I have a lot of respect for all the teams that have been talking, and I feel the same feedback. We just have to wait for their (sponsor) connections, and I’m also looking for some connections on my side as well, so hopefully we’ll be able to put this together and get something very soon.”

Given two decades of success with Penske in IndyCar and IMSA, Castroneves’ resume hardly needs burnishing. But the Brazilian has combined with co-driver Ricky Taylor in the No. 7 Acura DPi to win the past two overall victories at Road America and Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta.

But Castroneves, who doesn’t have a manager, said he has been working the phones hard rather than wait for the strong results to bring in the calls.

“At this point, I feel like I’m the one who needs to be talking to them because people need to know I want to continue racing and understand my desire,” Castroneves, 45, said. “There is opportunity, no question, in both (IndyCar and IMSA), which I’m really happy about it. However, because of the COVID-19, a lot of things sometimes have to be a little delayed. But I’m excited. Whatever the opportunity and whatever destiny guides me, whether IndyCar or sports cars, trust me I’ll be as happy as it could be and doing my 100 percent like I always did.

“It’s like politics, you need to be out there, good news or bad news. People have to make notice of your presence. I’m hustling. I want to continue to keep it going. Hopefully, we’ll have good news very soon.”

The news has been all good lately on track for Castroneves and Taylor, who hope to continue their run Sunday at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

The No. 6 duo has surged to sixth in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship standings, 10 points out of the lead with four races remaining. After thinking there was “no hope” to be competitive after opening the season with three consecutive poor finishes, Taylor now sees an opportunity for a happy ending.

“With the program going away, Helio has won all the big races and given so much back to the team and left such a mark, he’s really part of Penske history,” Taylor said. “For me, it’s been an opportunity of a lifetime to be a part of it. I’d like to leave my little mark as well. Helio has won everything except for a championship.

“Obviously, we’ve won races already together, but we can win a championship now. I think if both of us can do that together and both win our first championship for ‘The Captain,’ that would be an absolute dream come true, and we can tie a bow on it and be happy.”