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

Photo: IndyCar
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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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Heather Lyne, Dennis Erb Jr. make history in the World of Outlaws Late Model Series

Lyne Erb Outlaws Late
Jacy Norgaard / World of Outlaws
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More than two decades in the making, the pairing of Heather Lyne and Dennis Erb Jr. produced a historical milestone in Dirt Late Model.

Last month, Erb and his long-time crew chief Lyne won their first World of Outlaws Late Model Championship and with this achievement, Lyne became the first female crew chief to win in a national late model series. Their journey together goes back 21 years and tells the story of hard work, persistence and belief in oneself.

After a career-best season with the World of Outlaws, Erb and Lyne secured the points championship at US 36 Raceway in Osborn, Mo. with three races remaining in the season. The consistency and success of their season came down to pinpoint focus. Lyne and Erb are a team of two living out a David vs. Goliath tale. In order to be as successful as possible this year the duo knew they had to do as much as possible with the resources they had.

“It’s always a challenge when you only have two people, both at the racetrack and at the shop,” Lyne told NBC Sports. “I also work full time, so during the day, Dennis has to do a significant amount of work so that when I get down there I can start working and maintaining. It’s planning ahead. It’s having that system in place and making sure that you’re prepared ahead of time.

“When you have a problem at the track, making sure you have all that stuff ready so it’s a quick change and not a lengthy process to make a repair. We had zero DNFs in the World of Outlaws, we had only one DNF out of 96 races [combined among all series].”

Dennis Erb clinched his 2022 championship before the World of Outlaws World Finals. Jacy Norgaard – World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Taming Time

This was not an easy feat. Between a full travel schedule and Lyne’s full-time job as an engineer, time comes at a premium. What they lack in time and resources they made up for in patience and planning.

“We buckled down, and we got all the equipment that we needed back, motors freshened, and things of that nature,” Lyne said about the mid-point of last season. “We were able to keep up with that. We just had a higher focus. I tried to reduce my hours at my day job as much as I possibly could while still maintaining what I need to get done at work. I got rid of a lot of the other distractions and got a more refined system in place at the shop.

“We did certain tasks on certain days so we had time to recover. We were on the road a little bit more, as opposed to coming home to the shop. So we had to be more prepared to stay out on those longer runs. It was just really staying on top of things a little more. It was a heightened sense.”

This was Lyne and Erb’s fourth full season with the Outlaws, but they’ve been on the road together for the last 21 seasons starting in 2001. Their partnership began with Lyne’s bravery. When one door closed, she was quick to open another. In 2001, Lyne’s dad was ready to stop racing. Her mother wanted to regain her weekends, but Lyne knew this was her life path and wasn’t prepared to lose it.

“I’ve always been a tomboy at heart,” Lyne said. “I watched racing with my dad. Growing up he watched NASCAR. In high school, I got tired of playing at the lake house, so I went to the local dirt track and fell in love with it. I just couldn’t get enough. It took a year for me to convince my dad to come to the track with me. He finally did and we sponsored a car that year, the following year he started to race limited cars. He ran hobby stocks and limited late models.”

At some point, Lyne and her father’s level of commitment drifted apart.

“He did it for about five years,” Lyne said. “And then my mom said: ‘I’m done racing. I want my weekends back. It’s just not fun anymore.’ I wasn’t ready to hang up my wenches and Dennis raced out of the same hometown so I, on a dare, went down and introduced myself; told him if you ever need any help, I’ll drill out rivets, I’ll help wash, whatever you need. Twenty-one years later here I am.”

Heather Lyne became the first female crew chief to secure a national touring late model championship in 2022. Paul Arch / World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Breaking Through

Lyne entered a male-dominated job in a field that is also male-dominated – and where there were few examples of women creating these places for themselves. In this way, Lyne became a blueprint for other women as they strive to find a place for themselves in racing and in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) overall. She has her mother to thank for providing a strong role model, her father for sharing her passion, Erb for taking a chance on an unknow entity and most importantly herself.

“I was raised to believe that I can do anything, I want to do, as long as I put my heart and soul into it.” Lyne replied when asked about role models in the sport growing up. “My parents did not raise me to have that limitation. But from a racing role model perspective, I went in there completely green and just introduced myself to Dennis, the fact that he was brave enough to take that risk and bring a girl to the racetrack. Someone he didn’t know at all speaks volumes for him.”

Lyne and Erb have learned how to survive and succeed with each other on the road. They do this by leveraging decades of combined experience and an ability to adapt to the everchanging landscape of dirt late models. Next year the World of Outlaws visits nearly a dozen new tracks and Lyne sees it as an opportunity for continued success.

“I just want to do it again,” Lyne says going into next season, “I’m looking forward to the competition, I always do. I wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t competitively driven.

“There are some new tracks on the schedule that I’m looking forward to trying for the first time that I haven’t been to myself,” Lyne said of the 2023 season, “Dennis seems to do well on those first timers. We won out at Marion center, we finished second at Bloomsburg. We have a good solid notebook of information to tackle them over the last three years with these rocket race cars that we’re running. It’s good to have that information and leverage it to try some new things.”