Dixon still winless at St. Pete, ‘will keep on digging’ for it

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ST. PETERSBURG, Florida – As Scott Dixon walked off pit lane on his way to the podium and the postrace festivities on a hot, sunny Sunday afternoon, he confided with NBC Sports.com that there were several reasons to have mixed emotions with his outcome.

Dixon finished second in Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg – the 2019 season opener for the NTT IndyCar Series. It remains a race Dixon has never won in his career, but the result gives him a tremendous start on the season championship.

“It’s not what we ultimately wanted,” Dixon told NBC Sports.com “You have to take the points. It would have been nice to get the win here, finally, but we have come up short a few times now and we will keep on digging.”

Dixon finished 2.8998-seconds behind Team Penske rival Josef Newgarden in Sunday’s 110-lap street race. Dixon started fourth and never got his No. 9 PNC Bank Honda to the lead, but he challenged Newgarden toward the end as the margin between the two ebbed and flowed.

Dixon had another reason to take away a positive from Sunday’s race as rookie teammate Felix Rosenqvist of Sweden finished fourth in the No. 10 NTT Data Honda after putting on quite a show on the track. He raced into second place in the first lap at the start. Thirteen laps later, Rosenqvist made a spectacular pass for the lead in Turn One, getting ahead of Will Power’s Chevrolet as both cars wiggled slightly.

“I’m not surprised at all,” Dixon said of the rookie’s performance in his IndyCar debut. “I knew he was going to be aggressive at the start. It was cool to see that. He showed Will Power and Josef Newgarden what’s up, and I had a chuckle with that. He’s fast, man, he has a lot of experience of a young guy. He is a smart kid. He’s going to go a long way.

“I knew he was going to go for it. I’m surprised he didn’t go for the lead in the first corner. But that’s what you have to do. You have to be aggressive and you have to go after it.

“And he did.”

Rosenqvist would lead three times for 31 laps before finishing fourth behind Power.

It’s important to Dixon that he have a strong teammate to benefit the entire operation. The No. 10 car has just one victory since Dario Franchitti won the 2012 Indianapolis 500. That lone win came from Tony Kanaan at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California in 2014.

Kanaan never won again for Ganassi and left the team at the end of 2017. Ed Jones took over the No. 10 car in 2018 and was winless.

The combination of 38-year-old veteran Dixon and 27-year-old rookie Rosenqvist may give team owner Chip Ganassi his best combination of drivers since Dixon and Franchitti from 2009-2013.

“We’re glad to be back on the sharp end of the grid,” Ganassi told NBC Sports.com.

Ganassi calls the race strategy for Rosenqvist and the No. 10 car while the team’s managing director, Mike Hull, is in charge of Dixon’s operation.

“Mike Hull did a good job with his car,” Ganassi continued. “We had a good day.”

The addition of a fast teammate can be a tremendous asset in Dixon’s quest for a sixth IndyCar Series championship. During Dixon’s last two title years in 2015 and 2018, he did it without the help of a teammate serving as his “wingman” that could run up front. Team Penske had that with drivers Will Power, Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud and, until 2017, Helio Castroneves.

It was one more “team” car that Dixon had to contend with on the racetrack in the closing stages of a championship. It worked for Team Penske with Power winning the championship in 2014, Pagenaud in 2016 and Newgarden in 2017.

Dixon had to fend off the competition on his own in 2015 and 2017 as the No. 10 car was mired deep in the pack in the closing races.

He is hopeful Rosenqvist can help his quest but also remains realistic.

“We’re at race one — let’s see where that goes,” Dixon said. “It’s awesome to work with someone so close, but it’s no surprise. I don’t think anyone is surprised. He has raced a lot of stuff and been fast in everything that he is raced.

“Hopefully, it’s going to be a strong year for both the 9 and the 10.”

So far, Dixon and Rosenqvist have worked well as teammates, but it’s very early days for these two.

“It’s not like Scott is telling me everything,” Rosenqvist told NBC Sports.com. “He is a competitor and a gentleman. If I ask him something, he will always be honest, and I have the same approach as him. We have a good relationship as teammates. We have no big ego. We know if we both work in the same direction it will be best for most.

“I’ve always been on the philosophy if someone asks you and you don’t want to tell him, then you are afraid. But if you are confident in yourself, you can tell everyone what you are doing, but they won’t be able to beat you; they can always copy you.

“You will always be one step ahead.

“I tell everybody everything.”

Rosenqvist will take his “open book” philosophy into his dealings with his teammate. Dixon is considered one of the best “teammates” in the IndyCar paddock. Former teammates such as the late Dan Wheldon, Franchitti, Kanaan and Jones entered Chip Ganassi Racing as friendly rivals and ultimately became close friends with Dixon.

The dynamic between the two current teammates has yet to be determined.

“That’s a little hard to compare, to be honest,” Dixon said. “Felix has worked with the team for two or three years now with open tests we’ve done with him as a rookie. The guy has got a ton of experience in so many different cars, so it’s been really refreshing, actually, to not be in the same ecosystem and thinking of the same things. It’s kind of thinking outside the box which has been really refreshing.

“He’s a strong guy, very committed and obviously very talented and he’s going to be a hell of a fight for the whole year, and it’s nice to be working with somebody really close as far as on the speed side.”

On the track, Dixon didn’t get the results he wanted, but second place matched his best finish for this event.

“I felt our cars were strong for the first 15, 20 laps, especially on restarts, as well, but the last sort of five to ten, it flipped the other way and the Penske drivers had some really good speed,” Dixon said of the race. “I had some great battles out there. Lapped traffic was interesting, Will and I had a really tough fight in Turns one, two, and then all the way to three.

“I think strategy-wise and pit stops, it was a clean day for us. I think any of us got out front, as will said, had some really good pace, you would have been able to capitalize and Josef’s did that and their strategy, they were able to run and start on new (Firestone) Reds (softer, faster tire compound) and use Reds later. Their pace opened it up.

“It was an interesting day, and good points for us and hopefully we can keep maintaining that.”

After New York whirlwind, Josef Newgarden makes special trip to simulator before Detroit

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DETROIT – There’s no rest for the weary as an Indy 500 winner, but Josef Newgarden discovered there are plenty of extra laps.

The reigning Indy 500 champion added an extra trip Wednesday night back to Concord, N.C., for one last session on the GM Racing simulator before Sunday’s Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix.

After a 30-year run on the Belle Isle course, the race has been moved to a nine-turn, 1.7-mile layout downtown, so two extra hours on the simulator were worth it for Newgarden.

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“I really wanted to do it,” he told NBC Sports at a Thursday media luncheon. “If there’s any time that the sim is most useful, it’s in this situation when no one has ever been on a track, and we’re able to simulate it as best as we can. We want to get some seat time.

“It’s extra important coming off the Indy 500 because you’ve been out of rhythm for a road or street course-type environment, so I really wanted some laps. I was really appreciative to Chevy. There was a few guys that just came in and stayed late for me so I could get those laps before coming up here. I don’t know if it’s going to make a difference, but I feel like it’s going to help for me.”

After a whirlwind tour of New York for two days, Newgarden arrived at the simulator (which is at the GM Racing Technical Center adjacent to Hendrick Motorsports) in time for a two hour session that started at 6 p.m. Wednesday. He stayed overnight in Charlotte and then was up for an early commercial flight to Detroit, where he had more media obligations.

Newgarden joked that if he had a jet, he would have made a quick stop in Nashville, Tennessee, but a few more days away from home (where he has yet to return in weeks) is a worthy tradeoff for winning the Greatest Spectacle in Racing – though the nonstop interviews can take a toll.

“It’s the hardest part of the gig for me is all this fanfare and celebration,” Newgarden said. “I love doing it because I’m so passionate about the Indy 500 and that racetrack and what that race represents. I feel honored to be able to speak about it. It’s been really natural and easy for me to enjoy it because I’ve been there for so many years.

“Speaking about this win has been almost the easiest job I’ve ever had for postrace celebrations. But it’s still for me a lot of work. I get worn out pretty easily. I’m very introverted. So to do this for three days straight, it’s been a lot.”

Though he is terrified of heights, touring the top of the Empire State Building for the first time was a major highlight (and produced the tour’s most viral moment).

“I was scared to get to the very top level,” Newgarden said. “That thing was swaying. No one else thought it was swaying. I’m pretty sure it was. I really impressed by the facility. I’d never seen it before. It’s one of those bucket list things. If you go to New York, it’s really special to do that. So to be there with the wreath and the whole setup, it just felt like an honor to be in that moment.”

Now the attention shifts to Detroit and an inaugural circuit that’s expected to be challenging. Along with a Jefferson Avenue straightaway that’s 0.9 miles long, the track has several low-speed corners and a “split” pit lane (teams will stop on both sides of a rectangular area) with a narrow exit that blends just before a 90-degree lefthand turn into Turn 1.

Newgarden thinks the track is most similar to the Music City Grand Prix in Nashville.

“It’s really hard to predict with this stuff until we actually run,” he said. “Maybe we go super smooth and have no issues. Typically when you have a new event, you’re going to have some teething issues. That’s understandable. We’ve always got to massage the event to get it where we want it, but this team has worked pretty hard. They’ve tried to get feedback constantly on what are we doing right, what do we need to look out for. They’ve done a ton of grinding to make sure this surface is in as good of shape as possible.

“There’s been no expense spared, but you can’t foresee everything. I have no idea how it’s going to race. I think typically when you look at a circuit that seems simple on paper, people tend to think it’s not going to be an exciting race, or challenging. I find the opposite always happens when we think that way. Watch it be the most exciting, chaotic, entertaining race.

Newgarden won the last two pole positions at Belle Isle’s 2.35-mile layout and hopes to continue the momentum while avoiding any post-Brickyard letdown.

“I love this is an opportunity for us to get something right quicker than anyone else,” he said. “A new track is always exciting from that standpoint. I feel I’m in a different spot. I’m pretty run down. I’m really trying to refocus and gain some energy back for tomorrow. Which I’ll have time to today, which is great.

“I don’t want that Indy 500 hangover. People always talk about it. They’ve always observed it. That doesn’t mean we have to win this weekend, but I’d like to leave here feeling like we had a really complete event, did a good job and had a solid finish leading into the summer. I want to win everywhere I go, but if we come out of here with a solid result and no mistakes, then probably everyone will be happy with it.”