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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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Rahal determined to regain winning touch in 2019 IndyCar season

Photo by Shawn Gritzmacher, INDYCAR
INDYCAR
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AUSTIN, Texas – Graham Rahal entered the room with a smile on his face and a chip on his shoulder.

It was IndyCar “Media Day” and Rahal wasn’t happy with the way last season went at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. He was less happy with the fact some aren’t considering him a serious threat in 2019. He playfully chided with one media outlet for failing to mention his team as one to watch in 2019.

“We use that as motivation to show everybody how we are viewed,” Rahal said. “We are here to win.”

Rahal just turned 30 in January but is entering his 13thseason in big-time Indy car racing. He entered the 2007 Champ Car Series season when he was just 17. He missed his high school prom because he was racing at Houston.

“That was the luckiest day of my life,” Rahal said. “I didn’t have to go to the prom. It doesn’t get any better than that.

“Plus, I got my second career podium that weekend.”

Rahal drove to victory in his very first race in the combined IndyCar Series in the 2008 Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. He was hailed as the “Poster Boy of Unification” and a future star. What followed was a seven-year drought before he captured his second-career win in a thrilling race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California.

He won two races in 2015, one in 2016 and two in 2017. He was expected to contend for victories and possibly the championship last year but struggled through a disappointing season and finished eighth in the standings.

“I’m looking forward for chance this year,” Rahal said. “Last year was a tough one for me and for the team. I’m looking forward to what my new engineer, Allen McDonald, has done so far. He is an accomplished engineer and brings a different mindset to our program this year from what we had last year. He and (fellow engineer) Eddie Jones are very close friends and that will help us from the standpoint they are on the same page.

“We needed a bit of life brought back to the team.”

Rahal believes his challenges are to get everything in order before the season starts. The team has defined the areas where it was lacking in 2019. The team needed to improve in research and development after starting behind last season.

“I’m excited for what I see, and I know in the end it will all pay off,” Rahal said. “It’s just a matter of when.

“There is a lot to be excited about for us. We are in a great position as a team. We have great sponsorship and that will allow us to push forward and do the things we need to do.”

Rahal believes at 30, he has a long time ahead of him to win races and championships and maybe even the Indianapolis 500. In order to reach those goals, however, Rahal’s team needs to regain the competitive level he displayed prior to last year.

“We’ve been fortunate to win six times,” Rahal said. “A lot of people come into this sport and never win. I fully recognize there is no reason we can’t win a lot. I don’t care what anybody writes, what anybody thinks – I really feel that when it comes to race day, we perform better than 99 percent of the other people out there.

“As a team and for myself, we have to qualify better. If we can qualify better, we’ll be a thorn in everybody’s side. We know the rear of our cars just aren’t good enough. When we need to find that extra tenth or two, it’s just not there but absolutely, we want to win.

“I don’t come here year after year to just drive around. Our sponsors don’t invest in us year after year to not see us win. We feel that. But our cars aren’t good enough and we know that.”

Rahal believes the team has identified the problems with the setup of its car. It has a deep engineering staff but hasn’t had a chance to develop the damper program and other important areas that provide a competition setup.

Takuma Sato, the winner of the 101stIndianapolis 500 when he was with Andretti Autosport, scored the team’s only victory in 2018 with a win in the Portland Grand Prix. The two are back this year and have built a respect for each other.

“He’s a good guy,” Rahal said of Sato. “Other than Helio Castroneves, Takuma is probably the happiest man on the planet. He’s a great guy and fits in well with our organization. We pride ourselves on being a family and he fits in extremely well to that.

“We need to do a better job for him as a team. He won a race last year, but we can both do better to win with both cars.

“The Andretti cars are the best right now and the Penske cars will be good. We have a lot of space to close up on those two teams but hopefully, we can do it.”