Championship spotlight: Scott Dixon

Scott Dixon’s 2013 championship will be one to remember. He started the season somewhat slow compared to his championship competition, but by the middle of the season he roared to life and his late season surge propelled him to a series championship.

At the start of the season, Dixon’s main Achilles heel was in qualifying, especially at St. Petersburg and Long Beach, where he qualified in the mid-20s. He made up for that by finishing in 5th at St. Petersburg and coming from 25th at Long Beach to finish in 11th place.

He also had a close moment at Texas in June. Dixon’s car was suffering from gearbox issues and the Target Chip Ganassi Racing crew worked to change the gearbox, but upon the return to the track, the car was down on power.

Come the midpoint of the season in Iowa, Dixon was sitting 7th in the standings and was a whopping 92 points behind the leader.

When the series rolled into the Pocono Mountains for the next race, everything changed. Dixon qualified in 17th place and moved up a few positions at the drop of the green flag. Coupled with great pit work that allowed Dixon to further move up the running order and doing what Dixon does best, making fuel mileage than his rivals, Dixon led the final 28 laps to take his first win of the year.

From there, Dixon got on a hot streak and swept the doubleheader in Toronto in dominant fashion and suddenly found himself second in points only 29 behind Castroneves.

The midseason surge was aided by Honda making an engine spec change that improved the engine performance as well as fuel mileage. The team also tested at Sebring International Raceway before Toronto.

“We really worked on the dampers and geometry of the car to find a better running area for us to make it easier to extract speed out of the car,” he says on the test.

It was from there that Dixon was suddenly able to really make a charge for the championship despite being almost two whole races out three races earlier.

“With that momentum, confidence wise, not just as a driver but for the team as well, it’s a pretty exciting situation to be in,” he says.

Come Sonoma and Baltimore, two separate incidents with Will Power. Dixon was in the hunt all day at Sonoma but on his final pit stop he made contact with Power’s tire changer and was assessed a drive thru penalty which dropped him to 15th in the finishing order. The next week at Baltimore, Dixon qualified on the pole and was inside the top five for much of the day until he was spun on lap 48, that set the stage for another game changer.

On the subsequent restart, Dixon got a good run on Power while Power jumped out to pass Sebastien Bourdais and Power put Dixon in the wall. Considering the fact that Dixon had come from 91 points back after Iowa to get within striking distance, and to have it all go away like that and be back down 49 points, Dixon was understandably upset and gave some memorable comments and interviews after both races.

“When you are on a streak, you always want to ride that wave, but we were in a pretty small boat and had a very big wave to overcome,” he said.

A month later in Houston, Dixon did what he had to do to stay in the championship hunt. He dominated and won the first race and finished 2nd in the 2nd race, while Castroneves suffered from mechanical issues both days. Castroneves’ loss ended up being Dixon’s gain, and Dixon suddenly had a 25 point lead heading into the finale at Auto Club Speedway.

A 25 point lead may seem like a lot, Dixon was well aware of the challenge that laid ahead of him in Fontana, as anything can happen in a 500 mile race.

The way it was set up, with Helio having his problems in Houston, those thoughts run through your mind and thinking that they are going to be very strong at Fontana and have a great possibility of winning the race and if we have a mechanical issue it’s going be nail biter all the way down to the end thinking that you can possibly lose it. In this sport, you shouldn’t think that you have won it until it’s happened.

At the start of the race, Castroneves went to the front and was very aggressive and put himself back into contention very early, while Dixon ran around 15th or so.

Dixon explains what was going through his mind at the start of the race:

As always, you want to be ambitious at the start and if you can be near the front that is where you want to be. The car wasn’t as good as we would have liked in traffic, we struggled with a bit of understreer. Secondly, there were some guys racing pretty hard quite early in a 500 miles, so we kind of looked at that situation and maintained the only thing we needed to keep focus on was how quick the leader was and how quickly he was going to start lapping people, because the last thing we wanted to do was go a lap down.

At the first yellow, Dixon entered the pits in 12th and a lightning fast pit stop got him out in 7th place and from there held his ground around that range until the mid to latter stages of the race as the team made the car better and the car came to life. At the end of a night that attraction played a big factor, Dixon survived overheating issues to finish in 5th place, the last car on the lead lap.

All three of Dixon’s championships have been different. In 2003, he was only 23 years old and only had been with Chip Ganassi Racing for one season and it was his first season in the Indy Racing League as it was known (he spent 2 full seasons in CART in 2001-02) as teams were crossing over to the IRL.

In 2008, Dixon got married to Emma Davies-Dixon, won six races including the Indianapolis 500 and dominated the championship.

“It is very tough to beat that year,” said Dixon.

This season, Dixon started off slow and didn’t look like a major player in the championship until he won at Pocono and the doubleheaders in Toronto. In the end however, he chased down Castroneves and was able to last a final 500 mile dash to the finish to take his 3rd title.

This season was different because of the strange way it happened with mid-season thinking that we were out of it and then fighting back and having a couple of upsets at Baltimore and Sonoma thinking again this isn’t going to be our year. The way this one felt was hugely satisfying that comes from the lowest point of eights place in the championship and then come down to the last race and hold on to the championship felt pretty sweet.

With three championships under his belt, the best may still be yet to come for Dixon. At only 33 years old, he still is young and does not appear to be slowing down. Historically, drivers like Johnny Rutherford and Emerson Fittipaldi were still winning races in their 30s and 40s, and the same can happen for Dixon.

With 33 wins under his belt, he leads all active drivers in wins (including CART stats) and has surpassed legends like Rick Mears, Johnny Rutherford and Gordon Johncock in the win column. He is only 9 wins away from Michael Andretti, who is 3rd on the all time list and won all of his races in a 16 year span. He is within reach of that mark and can get there in a matter of a couple of seasons (or season if he is lucky).

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