Dixon, Chilton confident Ganassi will find success with Honda

Kanaan and Dixon. Getty Images
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Simply put, Chevrolet has dominated Honda during the aero kit era of the Verizon IndyCar Series. In the 32 races contested since aero kits were first introduced, Honda teams have only amassed eight victories, and won only twice during the 2016 season.

However, one of those victories came at the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 and Honda appeared to have the superior super speedway package at Indianapolis, Pocono, and Texas. With that in mind, it may not be a complete surprise that Chip Ganassi Racing rejoined Honda after racing under the Chevrolet banner since 2014.

And while Chevrolet may have held an edge in aerodynamics, Chip Ganassi driver Max Chilton indicated that Honda may have an edge with its powerplant.

“I think with the Honda, I’ve only driven it once, but the lower end, bottom-end torque is definitely a lot stronger than what I was used to last year,” he said of Honda’s IndyCar engine. “And I think that on a street course, that’s important. So, that should help us.”

Still, one cannot ignore the fact that, outside of the three big ovals, Chevrolet has had Honda covered. What’s more, strict testing rules have placed limitations on the amount of development teams can do at the track.

Outside of four series-wide open tests, teams are allowed one additional test between April 11th and September 17th. Running a rookie or an Indy Lights driver will allow for extra test days, but the testing limitations have the potential to hamstring development efforts as the Ganassi organization adjusts to the Honda platform.

As past champion and Indy 500 winner Scott Dixon detailed, this goes beyond the nuts and bolts of the engine and aero kit.

“Chevrolet was more of a turn-key operation and they offered quite a bit of support,” Dixon explained. “Honda’s a little more raw, but can be tailored quite a lot. So, I think that’s definitely a big change from what we’ve had for the last three years.”

However, Dixon also described that changing manufacturers can be a motivating factor (Dario Franchitti thought so), particularly after a down 2016 season. Most organizations would look at Chip Ganassi Racing’s 2016 season and call it a success. Dixon won twice (at Phoenix and Watkins Glen) and the organization placed three drivers in the top ten in the championship (Dixon was sixth, Tony Kanaan seventh, and Charlie Kimball ninth). However, Dixon’s sixth was his worst championship finish since 2006, when he finished fourth, and he was the only Chip Ganassi IndyCar driver to win during the season.

With that in mind, Dixon described the change in manufacturers as a chance to hit the reset button. “With such a bad season for us (in 2016), it was definitely a good year for us to sit down, look back, and understand a lot of areas where we were not as efficient, making a lot more mistakes than we should as a team. So, I think the two of those factor into a lot more focus and hopefully getting back to the basics and doing them better.”

Despite Honda’s struggles, some of its teams ran well and challenged for race wins and podiums on a consistent basis, chiefly in the hands of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports.

Given that they both begin their third years with Honda’s aero package and engine, Dixon understands he and the Ganassi team have some catching up to do, made all the more difficult by the aforementioned testing restrictions.

“It’s going to be a steep learning curve (for Chip Ganassi Racing and A.J. Foyt Racing, who also switched manufacturers), and now with how the rules are right now with the limited track testing, it makes it even more difficult,” said the four-time champion. “I think we get four off-season days, which is not much when you get six months of the year off.”

However, while there are technical differences between the packages, Dixon asserted that the baseline setups may not be all that different. “You always think you know a bit about the competition, but when reality strikes, there’s always areas where maybe you didn’t understand as well. But, there’s things we know through the years through using other manufacturers that may help the current program we’re on now. So you can’t throw anything out.”

Undoubtedly, because of the variables in play, the changeover to Honda presents a unique set of challenges to Dixon and the entire Chip Ganassi Racing team. However, they are not running from them, and Dixon is confident that engineering staff will get their heads around it. “Our engineering group and the advanced engineering group: it’s definitely a solid package. I think for them it’s probably quite exciting that they have something new and different to work on.”

And, while Dixon expects things to be difficult, he is not afraid of the challenge. “It’s going to be challenging, there’s no question about it. But, challenges are fun…hopefully!”

The road to the 2023 Daytona 500 is not paved for Travis Pastrana, he’ll attempt the DIRTcar Nationals

Pastrana DIRTcar Nationals
Jacy Norgaard / World of Outlaws
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Travis Pastrana will attempt to make his first NASCAR Cup series race on February 19 with the grandaddy of them all, the Daytona 500, but his road to get there will not be paved and his car will have only two fenders as he tackles Florida Speedweeks and the DIRTcar Nationals.

In mid-January, it was announced Pastrana will attempt to qualify a third car from 23XI Racing that fields fulltime entries for Bubba Wallace and Tyler Reddick. Sponsorship will come from Black Rifle Coffee, who approached him during the offseason to ask what kind of “really cool stuff” he would like to do. Pastrana replied, “the Daytona 500” with a characteristic laugh in his voice.

“It’s good,” Pastrana said in a press release. “We’re going to go down, we’re going to go hangout with [NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series champion] Matt Crafton, one of [Black Rifle’s] drivers, we’ll go to Modified races and watch all the Late Models. We’ll watch the racing, and we’ll bring [United States military] veterans down and hangout with [Steve] Arpin.”

But there is a saying among dirt track fans that goes, ‘asphalt is for getting to the track; dirt is for racing’ – and Pastrana is taking that to heart.

After racing on the snow in Nitro Rallycross February 4-5 in Calgary, Alberta, the original plan was to head to Volusia Speedway Park in Barberville, Florida to watch the modified and late model races. Until Crafton called him out for not racing.

Pastrana relayed the conversation: “I told Crafton [I was coming to watch] and he goes, ‘Ah, too much of a sissy to drive?’ I called Arpin, and said, ‘So, Longhorn, I heard you guys have vehicles that can kick the crap out of Crafton’s vehicle.’ [Arpin] said, ‘Yeah, if you don’t suck, you can beat him.’ I said, ‘Alright, I’m in.’”

The DIRTcar Nationals run from February 6-18. The first week features six UMP Modified Mains each night they run, on Monday (Feb. 6), Friday (Feb. 10), and then the prestigious Gator Championship race on Saturday (Feb. 11). Pastrana hopes to run every night in one of Arpin’s cars, also with sponsorship from Black Riffle Coffee.

And this is not just for bragging rights; there is money on the line. Pastrana and Crafton have a $1 bet on who has the best finish.

While Pastrana is accustomed pitching his car sideways on a combination of left and right turns in a rally car – he won the Nitro Rallycross race at ERX Motorsports Park in Minneapolis, Minnesota last October and became the first two-time winner in the 2022/23 season at Wild Horse Pass in Phoenix, Arizona in November – the DIRTcar Nationals will be an entirely different proposition.

It took a day for Pastrana to get comfortable in the modified. And it took a little coaching from Arpin, who has experience in both dirt modifieds and rally cars to make him fast.

“[Arpin] showed up the second day after hearing how bad the first day was,” Pastrana said, which is confirmed in the Instagram post embedded above. “But he just told me, until you commit, it’s not going to work. Once I committed, it started making a lot of sense. But coming in, if you’re lifting off the gas while trying to turn, it just doesn’t turn and all your natural instincts say, ‘Don’t get on the gas.’ So, yeah, I feel like it should suit my driving style because I’m more of an aggressive sideways type of driver, but it was very difficult. Turning and sliding, I’m fine. Getting it there is not the easiest.”

Pastrana has one previous start in a dirt late model that came in the 2010 Prelude to the Dream. He finished 23rd in the 27-car field and was three laps off the pace. He wasn’t the only driver having difficulty getting a feel for the car that night; Jeff Gordon finished on the same lap, only one position ahead of him.

Travis Pastrana will race one of Steve Arpin’s dirt modifieds during Florida Speedweeks as he prepares for the 2023 Daytona 500. – Jacy Norgaard, World Racing Group

The price of the weekend could well exceed the dollar he may lose to Crafton.

“It’s going to be an expensive weekend,” Pastrana said. “Not everything is covered. If I crash anything, it is going to be all on me. This is one of those things where I want to come down and have fun. I want to hang out with the crowd, I want to sign autographs and give high fives. Especially for the Modified crew, that’s the grassroots racing that I love and some of my friends are involved with. We’ll be camping down there with Arpin and all the Longhorn guys, just hanging out. I feel like that’s a great opportunity for us to bring a lot of [US] veterans and bring people that are into racing and aren’t into racing, friends and family, and just have an awesome time.”

And it’s not out of the question that Pastrana could add another top-10 to his record book in the DIRTcar Nationals. After the rocky first day, Pastrana gained speed. Enough so that Arpin’s confidence was raised.

“We’re pretty confident Crafton is going to have to run hard to keep his dollar,” Arpin said.