IndyCar season review: Scott Dixon

IndyCar season review: Scott Dixon

IndyCar

IndyCar season review: Scott Dixon

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A year of frequently fantastic on-track action ended with 10 different winners from 19 races, a worthy champion, a heart-warming result in the Indy 500 and?yes, some troubling incidents, too ” mainly, but not exclusively, off-track.

The fact that the ?500? winner finished outside the top 10 in the championship compelled us to extend our more in-depth assessment, and 11 seemed such a weird number?so we went for the top 12 finishers in the 2013 IZOD IndyCar Series. In the coming days, Marshall Pruett will do a mop-up of the almost-made-its, which include winners such as Takuma Sato and Mike Conway, as well as drivers who grabbed runner-up places, such as Graham Rahal, James Jakes, Simona de Silvestro and Josef Newgarden. For now though, Robin Miller, David Malsher and Marshall Pruett conclude with their thoughts on the 2013 IndyCar Series champion.

1st ” SCOTT DIXON
Chip Ganassi Racing Dallara-Honda
Best finish ” 1st, Pocono, Toronto 1, Toronto 2, Houston 1
Best qualifying ” 1st, Toronto 2, Baltimore

Marshall Pruett writes?

Of all the come-from-behind stats involved with Scott Dixon’s superlative-filled run to the 2013 IndyCar Series championship, one stands out more than all of the others: the Target Chip Ganassi Racing driver led just one, single, solitary lap during the first 10 races.

By spotting the rest of the field 50 yards in a 100-yard dash, Dixon’s mid-season sprint to the finish line at Fontana was much harder than it needed to be. But that set the stage for the Kiwi to record an amazing comeback in a manner where he could demonstrate his best-of-a-generation skills.

You probably know the story by now ” the championship run that started at Pocono after the team got its damping program in order, sweeping the Toronto double-header, Dixon’s charge being halted at Sonoma and Baltimore, the win and second at Houston 1 and 2 and his heady drive to secure the title at Fontana.

We celebrate ” hell, outright marvel ” at what Dixon and his TCGR team did to close the season, but the lesser known occurrences from Round 1 at St. Pete to Round 10 at Iowa also made a profound impact on his championship outcome.

He was knocked out of the top 12 in qualifying for the season opener at St. Pete, leaving the 33-year-old sitting po-faced on the Target Chip Ganassi Racing timing stand as half the field fought for a shot at pole position. The team struggled for grip leading up to qualifying and, rather than fumble through more setup changes, Dixon was the first to raise his hand and call for a switch back to 2012-spec dampers.

Crippled with an understeering car on the 2013 damper build, Dixon’s decisive call allowed him to rocket from 20th to run inside the top-10 by the halfway point of the 110-lap contest. He’d continue to push, locking down fifth on the final lap. Despite a far from optimal setup and a down-on-power engine, the No. 9 was the first Honda-powered car home.

Friday and Saturday at St. Pete were abysmal for Dixon and Sunday should have completed the nosedive, yet he, his star engineer Eric Bretzman and Ganassi general manager/car strategist Mike Hull pulled out of the near-crash and posted a meaningful result with the No. 9 car.

Another disaster awaited Dixon at Long Beach where he spun in qualifying, lost his two fastest laps and was relegated to 26th and last on the grid. There were no St. Pete miracles to be had, but like the opener in Florida, Dixon improved 15 spots in the race, placing 11th, which paid 19 points.

Driver error turned a sixth-place start at Brazil into a distant 18th after breaking his front wings on the back of Helio Castroneves’ car, Ganassi’s woeful month of May saw Dixie start 14th and finish 16th, and it took the Dual in Detroit double-header before he was able to temporarily stop the slide.

Dixon simply decimated the field in 2012, using Belle Isle’s bouncy castle surface conditions as his own personal gymkhana course. One year later he was in for a rude awakening for Round 1 as he once again missed the top 12 in qualifying and had to pit for a new rear wing when he was hit by A.J. Allmendinger at the start. He’d race his way to fourth, picking up 11 positions despite the adversity, and came home fourth in Race 2 after qualifying seventh and dealing with gearshift and suspension issues. Dixon wasn’t mentioned among the greater storylines that weekend as Mike Conway and Simon Pagenaud scored popular wins, but he was lurking, making the most of what he had.

The Texas oval was another disaster for Dixon who had the pace to factor in the race, but dropped out due to driveline failure. He rebounded at Milwaukee by improving from 11th to sixth. A gradually worsening misfire left Dixon 16th at Iowa, closing out a 10-race run where his average starting position was 13th and average finishing position was 10th. But Dixon improved 53 positions across those 10 races, and also lost 25 spots when things went wrong.

Wrapping up the first half of any season with such a poor average start/finish would be a recipe for lowered expectations, but Dixon’s talent and resilience masked what could have much worse.

Move to the final nine races and his average start was between fifth and sixth on the grid, more than a 100 percent improvement. The same was true for his average finishing position, which was fifth. The improved qualifying meant he only had to make 34 passes, but he lost a whopping 35 positions when trouble struck the No. 9.

The context of Dixon’s championship will be routed through his Pocono-to-Fontana performances, and rightly so. He went out and won the title based on those drives, but we shouldn’t discount his efforts from St. Pete to Iowa. He definitely didn’t win the title during that span, but he refused to lose out on the possibility of becoming champion by flattering to deceive on the days when visiting the podium was out of reach.

If Dixon wasn’t in the pantheon of Indy car greats before 2013, there’s no question the three-time champ earned himself a permanent seat among the legends after what he just achieved. From leading that one lonely little lap entering Pocono to walking away as king in Fontana?That’s how heroes are made.

Robin Miller writes?

The measure of a champion can be how he handles a kick in the crotch. Or, in this case, two of them.

When Scott Dixon went from a likely win at Sonoma to being penalized back to 15th place because of knocking the tire out of a rival crewman’s hands as he was exiting the pits, he got mad (at the tire carrier’s path and race control’s call).

When Dixon got spun out in Baltimore and then speared into the wall on a restart, he got madder (at Graham Rahal, then Will Power and then race control again for not towing his damaged car into the pits).

The epitome of cool in the IndyCar paddock had lost his, after finishing 19th at Baltimore. It looked like his championship run had run aground since he trailed Helio Castroneves by 49 points with only three races remaining. But, despite his uncharacteristic yet understandable rage, Dixon didn’t wallow in self-pity for too long. He got re-focused and showed up at Houston like the consummate professional he’s always been.

A victory followed by a second place in the Texan doubleheader, coupled with Castroneves’ disastrous weekend, elevated the 33-year-old Kiwi into a 25-point lead going into the finale at Fontana.

And, while anything can happen in a 500-miler, nobody in the paddock expected Dixon to fold or crash or do something stupid. He didn’t, of course, driving a smart race, finishing fifth and earning his third IndyCar title for Target Chip Ganassi Racing.

Comparing championships isn’t easy but considering how this season started and the land mines he encountered, it would be hard not to say this was Dixon’s finest hour. He slogged into the Pocono 500 fifth in points with only one lap led on his ledger and one podium.

But a victory on the tri-oval after starting 17th, followed by a sweep of Toronto’s streets launched him right back into the frame and his closing qualifying salvo of 3-2-1-3-2 going to California showed why his most of his peers picked him to win the title.

?Man, when I think about all the things that happened and some of the obstacles we overcame, it does make this one awfully sweet,? said Dixon.

The 2008 Indy 500 winner wound up with the most wins (four) and, along with rival Will Power, was the class of the field when it counted most coming down the stretch. From getting kicked to a strong closing kick of his own, that’s how Dixon’s 2013 season is going to be remembered.

David Malsher writes?

Normally when Scott Dixon has a sequence of poor results in a season, it’s because his pit strategies have gone awry due to unfortunately timed caution periods, his engine has dropped its guts, he’s dropped the ball at a crucial juncture, his crew have dropped a wheelnut at an equally crucial juncture, he’s been hit by flying cars, or been caught up in other people’s accidents? Or because Elvis has parked his pet unicorn on the track just where the No. 9 Target car needs to be. Dixie has seen it all, suffered it all.

But this year was very different. It was performance, pure and simple, that held back the Ganassi squadron for the majority of the season’s opening races. Honda took a lot of blame at first, but that wasn’t entirely justified; after all, Takuma Sato put the AJ Foyt Racing car on the front row at St. Petersburg. There had to be a better explanation for Dixon starting that race from 20th, Kimball from 14th and Franchitti from 10th.

And there was. Through the off season, CGR adopted a shock and damper setup philosophy that proved to be misguided, and the cars were not only slow, but also a handful. Yet when the lights turned green on Sunday in St. Pete, Dixie dug deep, beating Simona de Silvestro to the line for fifth. But if he was proud of his own performance that day, he still foresaw a tough road ahead of him.

?We have a lot of work to do if we’re going to win anything this year,? muttered Scott. ?The competition is so tight that you can’t afford to have many bad days. I have faith in the team to turn it around, but?it’s pretty sad that we’ve made it so difficult for ourselves right from the word go.?

A bandage was found in the form of the 2012 setups, and Dixon went to Barber Motorsports Park and finished second, as usual, but Long Beach and Sao Paulo were a bust due to a variety of mechanical issues and their knock-on effects, while at Indy the Target cars were simply under geared for race day conditions, leaving their drivers unable to make passes. As Dixon and Franchitti circulated together in the top six at Detroit’s Belle Isle, it would have taken a brave person to bet on either of them challenging for the title. Sure, Dixon left the event in fourth in the championship, just 20 points behind leader Helio Castroneves, but there had still been no signs of race-winning pace. A year earlier, Scott and Dario had finished 1-2 in Detroit. The contrast was stark. All that was in Dixon’s favor, at this stage, was that no one in a faster car had broken away at the top of the points standings.

Scott’s longtime followers found it inevitable that the situation would get worse before it improved. Gearbox failure floored him at Texas, engine sickness merely crippled him at Iowa. In between those two races, he put in one of the bravest drives of the season at Milwaukee. Lacking mid-range power, and discovering the car’s balance changed quite fundamentally from stint to stint due to some oddly inconsistent sets of tires, Dixon was having to take quite awesome chances in traffic. Only his ability to live with snap oversteer kept it from the wall and resulted in sixth place.

With 10 races down in the 19-race season then, Dixon was seventh in the championship, 92 points away from Castroneves. But as I’ve said many times, while Penske and Andretti regularly produce great cars and setups, it’s the Ganassi team that is P1 when it comes to finding greatness mid-season (and sometimes even mid-weekend). What happened thereafter ” the crucial Sebring test, further engine improvements from HPD, the smart strategic victory at Pocono, the domination of the Toronto double-header, the missed opportunities at Mid-Ohio, Sonoma and Baltimore, the first and second at Houston’s double-header? they all seem too recent to recount in detail here.

It was a truly epic comeback from Ganassi’s No. 9 team, and Chip is rightly proud of team manager and strategist Mike Hull, race engineer Ben Bretzman, crew chief Ricky Davis and of course Dixon himself. But their season is also proof that the points you take home on the bad days are as valuable as those scored when you’re on top. Had Dixon thrown his car at the scenery a couple more times ” perhaps when wrestling with it at St. Petersburg, Milwaukee or when the rear suspension broke at Detroit 2 ” gaining 119 points on Castroneves in the second half of the season would not have been enough. Instead, he and the team maximized what they had when they could during the dark spell, and endeavored to do the same once the car was right.

Which is why the majority of objective observers would surely agree that justice was done last month in Fontana.

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