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IndyCar 2017 driver review: Scott Dixon

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MotorSportsTalk continues its annual review of the Verizon IndyCar Series drivers that raced in 2017 with the four-time champion, Scott Dixon. Eternally consistent as usual, but a couple missed opportunities stood out to cost Dixon a fifth title, in a year where he was Honda’s firmest title contender after a big switch preseason.

Scott Dixon, No. 9 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda

  • 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
  • 2017: 3rd Place, 1 Win, 1 Pole, 7 Podiums, 10 Top-5, 16 Top-10, 131 Laps Led, 5.5 Avg. Start, 6.3 Avg. Finish

Such is the brilliance of Scott Dixon that when stats such as “one win, one pole” are announced you’re shocked the numbers are that low, because it’s so abnormal. And indeed, 2017 marked the first time since 2005 Dixon didn’t win multiple races in a year. Order was restored in the galaxy otherwise with Dixon back in the top three in points after a rare “off year” in 2016 when he finished sixth, and finished in the top-10 in every race but one.

That Dixon was as excellent as he was spoke almost entirely to his No. 9 Ganassi team, working in tandem with longtime strategist Mike Hull and in particular engineers Chris Simmons and Kate Gundlach, the latter of whom was moved over from Charlie Kimball’s No. 83 car at the start of the year. They extrapolated the most out of the Honda kit in a year when aero kits were frozen, and Dixon put the car in the best possible position by making all nine Firestone Fast Six sessions and averaging an even better grid position this year with arguably a worse kit. That was phenomenal.

Of course, Dixon would point to a handful of key lost opportunities that cost him key points. The most obvious and glaring came when Jay Howard hit him in the Indianapolis 500. The contact launched him into a scary, airborne accident that he was lucky to escape from with only minor injuries. That meant he’d only score 11 race points in a double points race. Qualifying on pole netted him 42 points. On the whole, Dixon lost the title by just 21 points.

There were other moments of lost chances. St. Petersburg saw Dixon among others caught out by a caution, and he finished third there behind Sebastien Bourdais and Simon Pagenaud on off-sequence strategies. Texas saw a likely top-five erased after contact with Takuma Sato, which saw Dixon more frustrated there than he was after the bizarre Taco Bell robbery and his aerial accident in Indianapolis. Additionally, the post-Road America stretch from Iowa to Pocono saw four finishes in the top-10 but outside the top-five, and Dixon lost points to Team Penske’s four drivers there.

His one win, at Road America, came in dramatic and spectacular fashion following an outside overtake of Josef Newgarden at Turn 1 – albeit on the right Firestone tires – and toppled Team Penske’s quartet at the knees when they had the measure of him on pace all weekend. It was his first win at the iconic road course in central Wisconsin.

While Team Penske had four title contenders all year, Dixon was Ganassi’s – and Honda’s – best bet throughout. That he achieved what he did in a big year of change for the team was the latest chapter written in his legendary career, even if it came up marginally short of a fifth championship.

James Hinchcliffe on Andretti: ‘It’s certainly the place I want to be’

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Since before the start of the 2020 NTT IndyCar Series season, James Hinchcliffe tirelessly has worked to ensure the future would include a full-time return in 2021.

And with an opportunity to run the final three races this season with Andretti Autosport, there seems a surefire (albeit unlikely) path.

“If I go out and win all three,” Hinchcliffe joked with IndyCar on NBC announcer Leigh Diffey in an interview Friday (watch the video above), “it would be hard for them to say no, right?”

Regardless of whether he can go unbeaten at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course next weekend or the Oct. 25 season finale at St. Petersburg, Florida (where he earned his first career win in 2013), Hinchcliffe will have the chance to improve his stock with the team that he knows well and now has an opening among its five cars for 2021.

All three of Hinchcliffe’s starts this season — the June 6 season opener at Texas Motor Speedway, July 4 at the IMS road course and the Indianapolis 500 — were with Andretti, where he ran full time in IndyCar from 2012-14.

“Obviously, the plan from January 2020 was already working on ’21 and trying to be in a full-time program,” he said. “I’ve really enjoyed being reunited with Andretti Autosport, and everybody there has been so supportive. It’s been a very fun year for me on track. It’s been kind of a breath of fresh air in a lot of ways.

“It’s certainly the place I want to be moving forward. We’ve been working on that, working on those conversations. Genesys has been an incredible partner in my three races. We’ll be representing Gainbridge primarily, but Genesys will still have a position on our car in the last three.”

Gainbridge is the primary sponsor of the No. 26 Dallara-Honda that was vacated by Zach Veach, who left the team after it was determined he wouldn’t return in 2021. Hinchcliffe can empathize having lost his ride with Arrow McLaren SP after last season with a year left on his deal.

“You never want to earn a ride at the expense of somebody else in the sense that has happened here with Zach,” Hinchcliffe said. “I feel bad that he’s not able to see out the last three races of his season. I’ve got a lot of respect for him off track. He’s been a teammate this year, a colleague for years before that and honestly a friend for years before that. I’ve got a lot of time for him and his family. I understand a little bit of what it’s like in that position and what he’s going through.”

Hinchcliffe is ready to seize the moment, though, starting with the Oct. 2-3 doubleheader race weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He had been hoping to add the Harvest Indy Grand Prix to his schedule and had been working out for the possibility.

“Then last week I had given up hope (and) was resigned that wasn’t happening,” he said. “I told my trainer, ‘I think we’re done for this year.’ Three days later, this call comes. I’m glad we didn’t make that decision too early. I feel great physically.

“I look at it as a great opportunity to continue to show I’ve still got what it takes and should be there hopefully full time next year on the grid.”

Watch Hinchliffe’s video with Leigh Diffey above or by clicking here.