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Dixon’s championship reign may be over, but still wants to go out with a win

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For Scott Dixon, Saturday was a bittersweet day of sorts at Sonoma Raceway.

It officially marked the end of his one-year reign as 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series champ. A new driver – either Simon Pagenaud or Will Power – will ascend to the IndyCar champion’s throne in Sunday’s season-ending GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma (6:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

Dixon came into Saturday’s qualifying round with high hopes and expectations that he could make the Firestone Fast Six. And things were looking that way until a mechanical issue cost him a top qualifying spot by a mere .003 of a second.

“We had some major vibration,” Dixon told NBCSN. “I thought I felt it on the black (tire) run and when we switched to the reds, it was really bad. I was really surprised we managed to scrape through there.

“All in all, I think in Q2 the car felt good, we’ve just been struggling with our grip all weekend.”

Sunday ends Scott Dixon’s reign as 2015 IndyCar champ, as well as his last race for Target, which is ending its IndyCar sponsorship after 27 seasons.

As if the vibration wasn’t bad enough, the competition made things worse. Still, Dixon managed to qualify seventh for Sunday’s race.

“The times were just so close,” he said. “The Verizon IndyCar Series right now, the competition is just so cutthroat. We missed by a little bit: .003 of a second, which would have gotten us into the Fast Six.

“But I think in a lot of ways, I’m fairly happy where we qualified considering where we started the weekend.”

Even though disappointed he didn’t make it into the top 6, Dixon in a way has history on his side for yet another potential win Sunday: his three previous wins at Sonoma have come from qualifying efforts of third, fifth and ninth (last year).

Plus he also has another bit of significant incentive: Sunday will mark his final day of racing with Target sponsorship. The company announced in late July that it was ending its IndyCar sponsorship, which began in 1990, after 27 seasons.

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Coyne transitioning from underdog to Indy 500 threat

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For most of the team’s existence, Dale Coyne Racing has been the Chicago Cubs of American Open Wheel Racing – a team whose history was more defined by failures, at times comically so, than success.

The last decade, however, has seen the tide completely change. In 2007, they scored three podium finishes with Bruno Junqueira. In 2009, they won at Watkins Glen with the late Justin Wilson.

The combination won again at Texas Motor Speedway in 2012, and finished sixth in the 2013 Verizon IndyCar Series championship. That same year, Mike Conway took a shock win for them in Race 1 at the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit.

Carlos Huertas scored an upset win for them in Race 1 at the Houston double-header in 2014, and while 2015 and 2016 yielded no wins, Tristan Vautier and Conor Daly gave them several strong runs – Vautier’s best finish was fourth in Race 2 at Detroit, while Daly finished second in Race 1 at Detroit, finished fourth at Watkins Glen, and scored a trio of sixth-place finishes at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course, Race 2 at Detroit, and the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

And 2017 was set to possibly be the best year the team has ever had. Sebastien Bourdais gave the team a popular win in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, and then rookie Ed Jones scored back-to-back top tens – 10th and sixth – at St. Pete and the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach to start his career.

But, things started unraveling at the Indianapolis 500. Bourdais appeared set to be in the Fast Nine Pole Shootout during his first qualifying run – both of his first two laps were above 231 mph –  before his horrifying crash in Turn 2.

While Jones qualified an impressive 11th and finished an even more impressive third, results for the rest of the season became hard to come by – Jones only scored two more Top 10s, with a best result of seventh at Road America.

But, retooled for 2018, the Coyne team is a legitimate threat at the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500.

Bourdais, whose No. 18 Honda features new sponsorship from SealMaster and now ownership partners in Jimmy Vasser and James “Sulli” Sullivan, has a win already, again at St. Pete, and sits third in the championship.

And Bourdais may also be Honda’s best hope, given that he was the fastest Honda in qualifying – he’ll start fifth behind Ed Carpenter, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power, and Josef Newgarden.

“I think it speaks volumes about their work, their passion and their dedication to this program, Dale (Coyne), Jimmy (Vasser) and Sulli (James Sullivan) and everybody from top to bottom. I can’t thank them enough for the opportunity, for the support,” Bourdais said of the team’s effort.

Rookie Zachary Claman De Melo has been progressing nicely, and his Month of May has been very solid – he finished 12th at the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the IMS Road Course and qualified a strong 13th for the “500.”

“It’s been surreal to be here as rookie. I’m a bit at a loss for words,” Claman De Melo revealed after qualifying. “The fans, driving around this place, being with the team, everything is amazing. I have a great engineer, a great group of experienced mechanics at Dale Coyne Racing.”

While Conor Daly and Pippa Mann struggled in one-off entries, with Mann getting bumped out of the field in Saturday qualifying, Daly’s entry essentially puts three Coyne cars in the race – Daly’s No. 17 United States Air Force Honda is a Dale Coyne car that has been leased to Thom Burns Racing.

Rest assured, the days of Coyne being an “also ran” are long gone, and a Coyne car ending up in Victory Lane at the biggest race of the year would complete the Chicago Cubs analogy – the Cubs won a World Series title in 2016, and an Indy 500 triumph would be the crowning achievement in Coyne’s career.

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