Editor’s note: Starting Thursday and leading up to Sunday’s IndyCar championship-deciding Grand Prix of Sonoma, we will feature each of the four title contenders.
Today we focus on Scott Dixon, who is shooting for his fifth IndyCar championship later this afternoon. Dixon leads 2016 Indianapolis 500 winner Alexander Rossi by just 29 points going into the 85-lap jaunt around the 2.52-mile permanent road course, which will mark the final time for IndyCar to compete at Sonoma Raceway for the foreseeable future.
As for the other three drivers still in mathematical contention, we kicked things off Thursday with Joseph Newgarden, on Friday with Will Power and Saturday with Alexander Rossi.
SONOMA, California – Scott Dixon doesn’t mind answering questions about his career, this season, even his bid to win a fifth career IndyCar championship in today’s season-ending Grand Prix of Sonoma at Sonoma Raceway (live on NBCSN, 6:30 p.m. ET/3:30 p.m. PT).
But one thing Dixon would rather just leave as-is and not be asked about is his phenomenal luck, coming back time after time this season to turn what looked like a bad finish, into a halfway decent showing.
The perfect example was two weeks ago at Portland International Raceway. Dixon was part of the early-race tangle in Turn 3 that put Marco Andretti’s car on his side. The Auckland, New Zealand native was hit hard from behind by a driver he’s still unsure of because the impact came in a cloud of dust.
Fortunately, the damage to Dixon’s No. 9 Chip Ganassi Racing PNC Bank Honda was minimal. But he also fell way back in the pack and saw his 26-point lead in the standings coming into Portland dissolve, leaving him at one point in the race as much as 16 points behind his closest challenger, Alexander Rossi.
But just like he’s done so many times this year as well as in his career, Dixon roared back to finish fifth, regaining his lead over Rossi and even increasing it slightly to 29 points leaving him with a 29-point lead over Rossi heading into today’s season-ending and championship-deciding race.
MORE: Ganassi keeps IndyCar championship in perspective: it’s just another race.
Dixon’s comeback from Portland even brought out pundits on social media, calling it “the miracle on dirt.”
So can Dixon — who starts on the outside of the front row today, alongside pole-sitter and Rossi’s Andretti Autosport teammate, Ryan Hunter-Reay — pull off yet another miracle of sorts today? Can he keep Rossi at bay? With so much to lose and everything to gain, will Rossi potentially make a fateful mistake that costs him the championship and seals it for Dixon?
Or, as one reporter so gracefully put it to Dixon, “It’s been quite a year of unparalleled reliability for you. … In terms of the odds of something happening at some point in the season, does that leave you waiting for the axe to fall Sunday?”
To which Dixon smirked slightly and then quipped back at the reporter, “I was trying not to think about things like that. Thank you.”
He then continued, “We had some pretty miserable races at the start of the year and some pretty big mistakes and some pretty bad luck, I think, in strategy, where we had a podium going in Long Beach, same in Barber, Indianapolis we handled it in qualifying but the car was good in the race.
“I think you can ask any driver; there’s many scenarios and situations throughout the season that, yeah, we could have done that better or we could have had some more luck here and there. I found during the course of the year it kind of evens its way out.
“But yeah, I can’t change that, so I’m not going to really think about it. We’ll just keep our heads down and try and make the most of it.”
We’ll just keep our heads down and try and make the most of it.”
On a race day where good friend and former Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Tony Kanaan will make his 300th consecutive start in Sunday’s race, Dixon is showing no signs of pressure or significant concern.
But don’t let his nickname of “Ice Man” and his stoic expression fool you. There’s plenty of things for Dixon to consider heading into Sunday’s race:
1) Can he maintain his 29-point lead?
2) Can he finish at least one point higher than Rossi to still win the championship?
3) Will he have to worry about one of Rossi’s teammates – or Rossi’s friends driving for other teams – be potential blockers or obstacles to Dixon’s championship quest?
4) Will seven rookies – including two making their first career IndyCar race starts – be a concern? Will they make a mistake that potentially could take Dixon out?
5) Will Rossi use uncanny strategy – like the fuel-saving gameplan at Gateway that pushed him back in the field, only to come back in the closing laps to finish runner-up?
6) Could Rossi get to a point where the only way he can save his title hopes is by making contact with Dixon, either unintentional or on purpose? What then?
Forget about it, that’s what Dixon – who has three wins and four podium finishes this season – would say and do.
“For us, the goal is just to go out and win the race and then we won’t have to worry about all that,” he said. “It’s going to be exciting. It’s always an exciting race at Sonoma, but also for the IndyCar Series championship.”
For us, the goal is just to go out and win the race and then we won’t have to worry about all that.”
But Dixon is well aware of potential of the opposite happening.
“We’ve been in this situation a few times, but still, everything is on the line,” he said. “For us, the championship is the goal but I don’t know. It can always flip. Sometimes you just need a little bit of luck, too.”
Even though he has four other IndyCar championship trophies at home, Dixon is putting special emphasis on winning a fifth title more so because there’s greater significance than just another championship.
If Dixon wins the crown, he would become only the second driver in Indy car history to earn five championships in a career (A.J. Foyt is the only other one to achieve that feat, and he has seven championships in total).
“(Winning No. 5) would be big, huge,” Dixon told MotorSportsTalk. “It would put us in fairly rare territory, which statistically for later in my career to look back on would definitely be a huge milestone.
“For me, it’s more about being in this business we’re here to win races and championships and that’s kind of how you grade yourself each year on its own. But I think to try and go on and win a fifth (championship) would be massive.”
Even though Dixon typically dislikes talking about records and statistics and the like, closing to within two titles of A.J.’s record is one thing he’s thought of. He’s also pondered passing Mario Andretti for second on the Indy car all-time win’s list (Andretti has 52, Dixon has 44 – or it could be 45 if he wins Sunday’s race).
And then there’s Foyt’s overall wins mark of 67, tops on the Indy car wins list.
“I think A.J. is pretty safe, on his own little island with wins,” Dixon said. “Mario, it’s conceivable, but still extremely tough.
“To even get one win a year is hard. There’s a few of us this year that have three (wins), which is not like the old days, like one year we got six wins (2008, when he won his second IndyCar championship).
“It’s definitely a lot harder to get to that point and, looking at my age, (turned 38 in July) it depends how much longer you feel not so much the love, but the passion for it.
“For me right now, it’s greater than ever, but I can’t predict that. For me, it’s just to keep my head down, get as many victories as possible, and when you walk away, maybe look at it and hopefully it’s good and hopefully you’re happy with it.”
So when the green flag drops just after 6:30 p.m. ET/3:30 p.m. PT in Sonoma, Dixon will be as ready as he ever will be.
“It would mean a lot to win the championship,” Dixon said. “We’re in the business of winning, so it’s an obvious thing.
“Every year, we set two goals. The first is to win the Indy 500 (good friend Will Power won it this year while Dixon finished a close third) and the second is to win the championship. For me personally, this would be huge.”