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IndyCar 2016 driver review: Scott Dixon

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MotorSportsTalk continues its look through the Verizon IndyCar Series field driver-by-driver, following on the season finale at Sonoma Raceway.

Defending champion Scott Dixon had an “off year” in 2016 by his illustrious standards, finishing outside the top three in points for the first time since 2005.

Scott Dixon, No. 9 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet

  • 2015: Champion, 3 Wins, 2 Poles, 4 Podiums, 7 Top-5, 12 Top-10, 306 Laps Led, 6.1 Avg. Start, 7.7 Avg. Finish
  • 2016: 6th Place, 2 Wins, 2 Poles, 4 Podiums, 5 Top-5, 11 Top-10, 268 Laps Led, 6.2 Avg. Start, 9.8 Avg. Finish

The biggest breaking news of the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series wasn’t the Boston cancellation, or the various track extensions, or the silly season rumors. It was that we have definitive proof that Scott Dixon is, in fact, human.

Dixon, the four-time and defending series champion, had a nightmarish year by his illustrious standards. He was sixth in points and won two races. And by the Dixon goal post, that is nowhere near enough to be considered a successful year. This marked the first time since 2005 the Kiwi finished outside the top three in points, and saw him in the rare position of being mathematically eliminated from the championship going into the final race of the year. Funny thing was, he didn’t drive any worse – he just had appalling luck.

Dixon’s year did have its high points. His crew delivered a perfect series of pit stops to secure his first win at Phoenix, and his weekend of domination at Watkins Glen was nothing short of spectacular. And then there was that Le Mans debut, in the Ford GT, promptly setting the fastest race lap. He hadn’t had a weekend like that in some time and that was worth cherishing after the litany of missed opportunities … that you can read below in the following paragraph.

Starting with Long Beach, there was the hard-luck second where he thought Simon Pagenaud should have been penalized for crossing the blend line onto the circuit. There was getting punted on the opening lap in Barber by his Ford GT teammate, Sebastien Bourdais. The anonymous Indianapolis 500, which featured the only highlight of how fast his crew, changed his engine before qualifying. Then a DNF in Detroit one, a suspension break in race two, the mechanical at Road America, the untimely yellow in Toronto, the the collision with Helio Castroneves at Mid-Ohio and the “double birds” issued to Ed Carpenter at Texas.

It was a year defined by frustration for the usually unflappable Dixon and the missed opportunities he endured through, as you see, roughly half the races, was enough to take him out of title contention. Yet the thing was, had it not been for Pagenaud’s control of the points lead all season, Dixon still well could have been in with a shout at sustaining his title.

He’s not won back-to-back titles of his four, which have been spread over 15 years (2003, 2008, 2013, 2015). Next year will mark a turning point for Dixon at Ganassi from a corporate standpoint; he’ll have his first new primary sponsor following Target’s departure. He’ll also have a new engine and aero kit package, with Honda back with Ganassi. But the target will be firmly placed on Pagenaud’s back as Dixon will look to rebound from a rare “off year.”

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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