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.”

Indy Lights: Kyle Kirkwood joins Andretti Autosport

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One of the Road to Indy’s most talented young drivers will climb another step up the development system ladder this season.

Kyle Kirkwood, the 2019 Indy Pro 2000 champion, has signed a contract to race for Andretti Autosport in the 2020 Indy Lights season. Kirkwood will drive the No. 28 car for the reigning championship team.

A native of Jupiter, Florida, 21-year-old Kirkwood has been incredibly successful in junior formulas over the last few years. He won the F4 US Championship 2017 and won both the F3 Americas and USF2000 titles in 2018.

Driving for RP Motorsport Racing, Kirkwood won 9 of 16 races in his maiden Indy Pro 2000 season last year, allowing him to win his fourth championship in three years and earn the Road to Indy scholarship.

“We are very excited about the addition of Kyle to our Indy Lights program,” Andretti Autosport CEO and Chairman Michael Andretti said. “We’ve followed Kyle’s career from when he started in 2018 with the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship and have been impressed with his success in every race that led to his Indy Pro 2000 Championship last year. As a championship-caliber team, Kyle displays the desire and talent that we look for in our drivers and are excited to see him hit the track for the 2020 Indy Lights season.”

Kirkwood previously drove for Andretti in a two-day test session at Sebring International Raceway in December. He will make his official debut for the team in the season-opening doubleheader at St. Petersburg on March 14-15.

“I am ecstatic that I can now say I am competing in Indy Lights with Andretti Autosport this season,” Kirkwood said. “They have established a winning program in Indy Lights and we plan on carrying that reputation throughout 2020.

“We are a fantastic match for each other and our Sebring test in December proved that.”

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