Scott Dixon wins 2018 IndyCar championship; Hunter-Reay wins last race at Sonoma

Leave a comment

SONOMA, California – Scott Dixon concluded an outstanding season marked by uncanny consistency and a bit of luck when he needed it, capturing his fifth career IndyCar championship in Sunday’s season-ending Grand Prix of Sonoma.

While pole sitter Ryan Hunter-Reay earned the race win — the last IndyCar race to be held at Sonoma Raceway for the foreseeable future — Dixon finished second, outdistancing chief championship challenger Alexander Rossi, who finished seventh, running out of fuel coming to the finish line.

Dixon came into the race with a 29-point lead over Rossi, and when the checkered flag fell, he captured the championship over Rossi relatively easy, by 57 points (678 to 621 points). Will Power finished the season third (582 points), followed by Hunter-Reay (566), 2017 champ Josef Newgarden (560), Simon Pagenaud (492), Sebastien Bourdais (425), Graham Rahal (392), Marco Andretti (392) and James Hinchcliffe (391).

“Man, this is so awesome, I can’t believe it that it’s actually happened,” Dixon said after the race to NBCSN. “I don’t know, you always doubt these situations, that it’s never going to happen.

“I can’t thank everyone enough, my wife Emma, the team, my teammate (Ed Jones), everybody involved. This doesn’t come without a lot of hard work. We had a lot of grit, had a lot of things that could have gone wrong today.

“I have to thank the other teams we fought hard with this year, Penske and Andretti, this season. Rossi did a hell of a job all year. He’s been pushing so hard this year. He’s a huge talent and one that is going to win a lot of championships in his career.”

Strategist Mike Hull congratulates Scott Dixon after the latter won the 2018 IndyCar championship.

Dixon becomes only the second driver to capture five Indy car championships and the first to do it in 51 years. The other five-time winner – actually, he went on to win seven titles – is the legendary A.J. Foyt. It’s also the 12th career IndyCar championship for team owner Chip Ganassi.

Rossi gave it everything he could, but he was behind the 8-ball for most of the race, starting with inadvertent contact on Turn 3 of the opening lap, running into the back end of Andretti Autosport teammate Marco Andretti.

The wreck damaged the right front wing of Rossi, as well as caused a flat right tire, forcing him to drive around the entire 12-turn, 2.52-mile track before he was able to pit for service, and he played catch-up from that point on.

“I got a good start and don’t know if he lifted or I misjudged it or whatever, but it is what it is,” Rossi said of his contact with Andretti. “It was going to be a tough day to beat Scott anyways. It’s unfortunate to go out like that.

“It was just two cars going for the same spot. … I wish I could replay that a million more times. At the end of the day, we have to look at 2018 and be pretty happy with it.

“Obviously, it’s disappointing to come away second and the first loser, but we have lots to work on and improve for next year.

“I’m happy about (finishing second in the championship), but I expect a lot out of myself and the people around me. There’s points in the year that I definitely made some mistakes and didn’t have things go our way, so we’ll look to improve upon that and be even better for Year 4 and hopefully come out of the box and lead it the whole way.

“Huge congratulations to Scott. He’s a five-time champion for a reason and it was a pleasure to race him all year, and we’ll try to one-up him in September 2019 (the final race at WeatherTech Laguna Seca Raceway).”

Rossi also made contact with Jordan King during the first half of the race when they tapped tires, but both drivers were able to continue on.

The rest of the top-5 in the race were Will Power in third, followed by teammate Simon Pagenaud, who won the previous two races at Sonoma, and Marco Andretti.

Hunter-Reay dedicated his win to fellow IndyCar driver Robert Wickens, who was seriously injured in a crash that included Hunter-Reay nearly a month ago at Pocono Raceway. It was also a good birthday present for Hunter-Reay’s wife, Becky.

“Congratulations to Scott Dixon,” Hunter-Reay said. “What can I say? Five-time champ. He’s unreal.”

Sixth through 10th in the race were Sebastien Bourdais, Rossi, 2017 IndyCar champ Josef Newgarden, an impressive IndyCar debut by 2018 Indy Lights champ Patricio O’Ward and Dixon’s Chip Ganassi Racing teammate, Ed Jones.

As for other teams, it was a tough day for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.

Takuma Sato, who won two weeks ago at Portland, saw his hopes of making it two wins in a row go up in smoke as the motor on his Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing blew up just 16 laps into the race.

Sato’s teammate, Graham Rahal, brought out a yellow caution flag on Lap 43 when he lost power in his car. His team took the car back to the garage, swapped batteries and returned to the race 15 laps down.

On Lap 50, several drivers were involved in a multi-car spin in the Turn 11 hairpin including James Hinchcliffe and Jordan King. But there was no caution flag thrown as all of the cars involved continued on.

Matheus Leist and Carlos Munoz were both penalized for failure to avoid contact.

We’ll be back with more shortly. Please check back soon.

Notes: Tony Kanaan finished 12th in his 300th consecutive start as an Indy car driver (also the 360th overall start of his career). … Team owner Roger Penske captured the 500th win of his tenure as a multi-faceted motorsport team owner, including IndyCar and NASCAR. Driver Brad Keselowski, who gave Penske his first NASCAR Cup championship in 2011, won Sunday’s race at Las Vegas to make it 500 wins for “the Captain.”

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Tony Kanaan’s “New Reality” in IndyCar

Photo by Stephen King, INDYCAR
Stephen King, INDYCAR
Leave a comment

AUSTIN, Texas – Tony Kanaan is one of the most popular drivers in the NTT IndyCar Series from the fans who love his aggressive racing style and his fearless attitude. His team owner is the most popular man in the history of Indianapolis 500 – the legendary AJ Foyt, the first driver to win the famed race four times in his career.

In 2019, this combination would rather win races than popularity contests.

Kanaan has won 17 races in his career but hasn’t been to Victory Lane since a win at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California when he was driving for Chip Ganassi Racing in 2014. He left Ganassi’s team following the 2017 and joined Foyt’s operation last season.

Foyt always admired Kanaan’s attitude and racing style because it reminded him of his own attitude behind the wheel of a race car. But in 2018, the combination struggled. Kanaan led just 20 laps for the season and finished 16thin the IndyCar Series points race.

“A lot of work has been done because obviously, we struggled quite a bit last year,” Kanaan admitted. “That was the challenge when I signed with AJ was to try to make this team better. It is not an easy task, especially with the competition nowadays.

“It’s a lot slower process than I thought it would be.”

Kanaan believes the biggest keys for him is to “keep digging and be patient.” But he’s also in a results-driven business.

The driver called it a long winter, but he has helped lure some of his racing friends to the team to help improve the two-car operation that also includes young Brazilian Matheus Leist.

At 84, Foyt still has control over the operation, but has turned the day-to-day duties over to his son, Larry. Just last week, the team hired Scott Harner as the team’s vice president of operations. Harner was in charge of Kanaan’s car when both were at Chip Ganassi Racing.

“The second year, we are trying to be better,” Kanaan said. “It’s not an excuse, it’s the reality we have. There are a lot of new teams coming along so we have to step up. Otherwise, we aren’t fighting the Big 3 teams, we are fighting everybody.

“We are working on it. I like the way we are heading. AJ has been extremely open to my ideas.”

Kanaan has moved his family from Miami to Indianapolis to be near the race team’s shop. The team also has another race shop in Waller, Texas and that is where Leist’s car is prepared.

Although Kanaan doesn’t believe it’s ideal to have two different racing facilities, he believes being closer to his team will help build a more cohesive unit for this season.

At one time, Kanaan would show up at the track with a car that could win the race. No longer in that situation, he has had to readjust his goals.

“The biggest challenge is to accept that and understand your limits on equipment and on the people that you have,” Kanaan said. “Being on some of the teams that I’ve been on in the past, with four-car teams and engineers and all the resources you can get and the budget; then to come to a team with limited resources, I have to self-check all the time. With that, comes a lot of pressure as well and block out people’s opinions like, ‘Oh, he’s old or he’s washed up or the team is not good.’

“You need to shield that from your guys, because psychologically, that gets to you. You need people to work well, even if you have a car that is going to finish 15th.

“What is our reality? Racing can be lucky, but we try to make goals. We are greedy, we try to improve, but we are trying to be realistic. I have to re-set and understand this is my reality now, and I have to accept it.”

At 44, Kanaan is the oldest driver in the IndyCar. The 2004 IndyCar Series champion won the Indianapolis 500 in 2013 and if his career ended this year, it would be one of the greatest of his era.

But Kanaan isn’t ready to call it an “era.” He has more he wants to accomplish.

“The mistake I have made in my career is counting your days,” Kanaan said. “The best line I ever heard is when I signed with AJ, he told me he drove until he was 58, so why am I talking about getting old?

“In his mind, I still have 14 years to go.”

There remains one race, more than any other, that Kanaan’s boss wants to win. It’s the one that made Foyt famous.

“For my boss, winning the Indianapolis 500 is all he cares,” Kanaan said. “I could not finish a single race this year and if I win the Indy 500, that would be enough for him.

“We are not in a position to win a championship and I accept that. So, we focus on the Indianapolis 500. We had an awesome car last year and were the fastest on the second day.”

Foyt and Kanaan believe success at Indy may be in the numbers.

“AJ is all about numbers and his number was 14,” Kanaan said. “He found out Dallara was making chassis No. 14 at the end of the year. AJ bought that chassis and said that is the one we are going to race at the Indy 500. I’m not allowed to drive that car until Opening Day at the Indianapolis 500.

“That’s how big the boss is about the Indy 500.”