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Dixon, Wickens experience different fortunes on way to INDYCAR GP podiums

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Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ Robert Wickens finished second and third on Saturday’s INDYCAR Grand Prix. But, both had very different outlooks given where their weekends started and where they finished.

For Dixon, finishing second might feel like a win of sorts. The four-time IndyCar champion was mired back in 18th on the starting grid after struggling in qualifying.

The Ganassi team elected to pit him early – on Lap 15 – in hopes of putting him in clean track so he could make better lap times.

To say the strategy paid off is putting it lightly. Dixon was sixth when the cycle of pit stops concluded, and he stayed in the Top 10 all day until the final set of pit stops on Lap 58, completed under caution after Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden spun in Turn 12.

Straight from the “Where did he come from?” files, Dixon emerged from the final pit stops in third behind leaders Will Power and Robert Wickens, and Dixon made his way around Wickens to take second on Lap 64.

He tried to keep Power close the rest of the way, but ultimately had to accept second, a strong result after the struggles in qualifying, and his first podium of the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season.

“Well, you know, the goal was to finish better than 18th, that’s for sure,” Dixon quipped in the post-race press conference.

Dixon added that, while he and the Ganassi team certainly played the strategy correctly, they also caught the right breaks along the way.

“You kind of have an understanding that you can definitely move up maybe five, six, seven spots, but it also depends on how the race plays,” he explained. “You can have a strategy call or a yellow that flips the race and you can go all the way back to what happened to us in Long Beach. You’re confident (you can get to the front). We actually won from last at Mid-Ohio a couple years back, from 22nd to 1st. That was the goal today. We stuck to our strategy that we had in the pre-race meeting with pitting early on the blacks, getting rid of them and then running as hard as possible for the reds for the three stints after. Today it worked out well. Maybe next race it won’t.”

Robert Wickens, meanwhile, might be somewhat disappointed in finishing third.

Robert Wickens saw another chance to win slip away, as he finished third at the INDYCAR Grand Prix. Photo: IndyCar

Wickens, who started second, stalked Power the entire first stint before both pitted together on Lap 21.

Both drivers started the race on the alternate compound – “red” – softer Firestone tires, and critically, SPM elected to keep Wickens on the reds. Team Penske, meanwhile, put Power on the primary “blacks,” choosing to get them out of the way early in the race, while SPM and Wickens would do so later on.

Wickens was able to pass Power on the outside entering Turn 7 on Lap 24, and assumed the lead when the cycle of stops concluded on Lap 27.

From there, the Canadian needed to lay down as many quick laps as possible to build a big gap over Power, knowing that the scripts would be flipped in the next stint – Wickens would have to go to the blacks, while Power could go back to the reds.

Indeed, Wickens was turning in some very quick laps and built the gap to over five seconds at one point before he pitted again on Lap 41. Power pitted one lap later, and they again emerged 1-2 when the cycle concluded.

But, Power, now on reds, quickly reeled Wickens back in and was all over his gearbox as they got into the second half of the race.

On Lap 51, Power made his move around the outside of Wickens in Turn 1, and while Wickens tried to battle back, it was to no avail.

Power pulled away from there, and while the aforementioned caution allowed them all to pit together and take on reds for the rest of the way, Wickens ultimately had nothing for Power or Dixon.

With Wickens in fuel-save mode for the final stint, he could do no better than third on a day when a victory looked to be beckoning again.

He explained afterward that saving fuel was especially problematic, as it’s something he’s never really experienced before.

“That was the first race where I kind of felt like a true rookie there in that final stint because I’ve never had to save fuel before,” he detailed. “We’ve kind of practiced it a little bit in warmup where you do like one lap of fuel save. But the amount of fuel that we were having to save to make that work was something that I didn’t even think was possible.”

Wickens added, “It was tough, and obviously running in P2, I was told the (fuel) number I needed to achieve, and then I was just like ‘Okay, well, Scott is on Push-to-Pass, so I don’t know if I should use it to keep him behind or if I should hit my number,’ and we were actually having an issue with my Push-to-Pass all day, so it wasn’t quite working to the best that it could. No, it was a tough day, an exhausting afternoon, but really happy to finish on the podium.”

With their results, Dixon now sits fourth in the IndyCar standings, 31 points behind Newgarden, while Wickens sits eighth, 11 points behind teammate James Hinchcliffe in fifth.

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IndyCar: Which drivers need to start or continue comebacks in 2019?

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With the 2018 IndyCar Series season already far back in our rearview mirror, it’s not too soon to start looking ahead to the 2019 campaign, which begins on March 10 at St. Petersburg, Florida.

When you look at how 2018 ended up, several drivers either didn’t have the season they had hoped for and are looking to make big comebacks in 2019, or perhaps began comebacks in 2018 after prior difficult seasons.

Let’s take a look at who is due – or in some cases, overdue – for an even stronger season in 2019:

RYAN HUNTER-REAY: RHR isn’t overdue by any stretch, having started his “comeback” of sorts in 2018. His fourth-place season finish was his best in the series since winning the championship in 2012.

He also earned two wins – Belle Isle II and the season finale at Sonoma – his first visits to victory lane since winning twice in 2015.

Had it not been for three DNFs in the second half of the season, Hunter-Reay likely could have finished in the top 3 at season’s end.

It was good to see him come back into prominence after frustration the last two seasons (12th in 2016 and 9th in 2017).

Hunter-Reay still has several more good years in him and it would not be surprising to see him finish even higher in 2019 – and potentially once again being a championship contender.

SIMON PAGENAUD: After winning the championship in 2016 and finishing second in 2017, Pagenaud definitely had an off-season by his usual standards in 2018, finishing sixth in the IndyCar standings.

The French-born driver failed to win a race for the first time since 2015 and had just two podium finishes (also the most since 2015).

One of the most telling stats from what was a frustrating campaign is Pagenaud and the No. 22 led a total of just 31 laps across the 17-race 2018 season, the fewest laps led in a single season in his entire IndyCar career.

He also had the second-worst average per-race finish of his career (8.6), after having average finishes of 6.1 in his championship season and 5.3 in 2017.

Of course, looking at things from a glass half-full viewpoint, Pagenaud went from a winless and disappointing 11th place finish in 2015 to become champion in 2016. Could history repeat itself in 2019?

By all measures, 2018 was definitely an off season for Pagenaud. Look for him to make a significant comeback in 2019.

Or, to borrow a line Pagenaud said to teammate Josef Newgarden during their early 2018 season “autograph battle,” it’s your move, bro, for 2019.

SEBASTIEN BOURDAIS: The French driver had perhaps the best comeback season of any driver in 2018.

When former CART champ Jimmy Vasser and James “Sulli” Sullivan joined forces with Dale Coyne Racing just prior to the start of the 2018 season, Bourdais was the hand-picked driver to carry the DCR with Vasser-Sullivan banner.

Bourdais did not disappoint. He started the season with a win at St. Petersburg and enjoyed his best overall season finish – seventh – in an Indy car since capturing the fourth of four straight CART/Champ Car World Series championships in 2007.

It was also Bourdais’ best career IndyCar finish, topping his previous best season finishes of 10th in both 2014 and 2015.|

Bourdais, who turns 40 in late February, finished the season strong with two top 5 and two other top 10 finishes in four of the last five races. That’s a good harbinger of even better things to come in 2019.

GRAHAM RAHAL: It was a tough season at times for Rahal, who turns 30 in early January.

Not only did he have his worst season finish – eighth – since 2014 (19th), he failed to win even one race (also for the first time since 2014) and had just one podium finish (2nd at St. Petersburg).

As if to add insult to injury, Rahal had two of his three season DNFs in his final two races (4th lap crash at Portland and a battery issue at Sonoma).

Rahal is overdue for the kind of season he had in 2015, when he won two races, had six podiums and finished a career-best fourth in the overall standings.

While Rahal has the equipment and personnel to do better, something just didn’t click in 2018. Will things turn around in 2019?

MARCO ANDRETTI: The grandson of Mario and son of Michael Andretti continues to be a work in progress – with emphasis on the word “progress” when it came to his 2018 performance.

Although he remains winless since 2011 and hasn’t had a podium finish since 2015, Marco Andretti still showed overall improvement in 2018, including earning his first pole (Belle Isle I) since 2013.

With a fifth-place finish in the season-ending race at Sonoma, Andretti jumped from 12th in the standings to finish the season tied for eighth place with Graham Rahal, Andretti’s best overall showing since finishing fifth in 2013.

Andretti had a strong second half of the 2018 season, with a top 5 in the season finale at Sonoma, as well as three top 11 finishes in five of the last eight races.

Don’t be surprised if he closes in on a top 5 finish in 2019. Andretti Autosport continues to improve overall as a team, particularly with Alexander Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay and now Andretti, as well.

JAMES HINCHCLIFFE: It was a strange season for the Mayor of Hinchtown.

He failed to qualify for the Indianapolis 500, had just one win and two podium finishes, yet ended up with a 10th place overall finish in the standings, his best performance since finishing 8th in both 2012 and 2013.

The Canadian driver went on a hot streak early in the second half of the season, winning at Iowa and finishing fourth in his hometown race in Toronto.

But DNFs at Pocono and Portland, as well as three other finishes of 14th (Mid-Ohio) and 15th (Gateway and Sonoma) likely cost him a chance of potentially finishing as high as eighth.

There was also the emotional, gut-wrenching crash involving Schmidt Peterson Motorsports teammate and longtime best friend, Robert Wickens, at Pocono. While Hinchcliffe tried to put on a happy face and showed support to his fallen mate, it wouldn’t be surprising if Wickens’ injury constantly dwelled on Hinchcliffe’s mind.

With the Indianapolis 500 heartbreak, the firing of engineer Lena Gade (who lasted just five races before her ouster), the injury to Wickens, and the overall second-half season struggles, Hinchcliffe is to be commended for finishing as high as he did in the final standings given the overall circumstances he had to endure.

At the same time, it’s likely a season he wants to wipe away from his memory bank and turn a forgettable season in 2018 into what Hinchcliffe and his team hope is an unforgettable season in 2019.

TONY KANAAN: A new team, new outlook and racing for legendary A.J. Foyt offered a great deal of promise for Tony Kanaan in 2018.

Unfortunately, the Brazilian native suffered through the worst season ever in his IndyCar career, finishing 16th in the overall standings.

Prior to 2018, Kanaan had experienced just one other season outside the top 10 (11th in 2013, the same year he won the Indianapolis 500).

Admittedly, TK, who turns 44 on December 31, is the oldest full-time driver on the circuit. But it doesn’t look like he’s lost much with age.

Rather, three DNFs and a career single-season low of having led just 20 laps over 17 races took its toll on Kanaan.

He will return for 2019, driving a second season for Foyt. But things need to dramatically improve for Kanaan, who hasn’t won a race since 2014.

Follow @JerryBonkowski