INSIGHT: Dixon's path to title No.6

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INSIGHT: Dixon's path to title No.6

Insights & Analysis

INSIGHT: Dixon's path to title No.6


Each of Scott Dixon’s six NTT IndyCar Series championships have bent to unique arcs. With his latest, earned Sunday in a thriller on the streets of St. Petersburg, the New Zealander added a new twist to the theme that wasn’t seen in 2003, 2008, 2013, 2015, or 2018. For once, the hunter became the hunted.

“It’s the only time that I’ve ever led from the start and all the way through,” he says. “There is a different kind of stress. You don’t want to be in that situation where we’ve won before, where we’ve come from a big deficit and that the countback or the tiebreaker that we had with Montoya (in 2015), the fact that in ’13, we were able to get it over (Helio Castroneves) from an almost 90-point deficit.”

Another new component for Dixon involved weathering the repeated assaults on his championship lead from main rival Josef Newgarden. As the Chip Ganassi Racing team began to lose its competitive edge at numerous rounds late in the season, the Team Penske driver demolished most of Dixon’s comfort margin. Having made a living – and multiple IndyCar titles – out of slicing into the championship leader’s points advantage, Dixon and the No. 9 Honda team spent the closing stages of the season learning how to maintain faith and composure.

“I think you definitely run into a lot of false confidence,” he said of the four-race slide that emboldened Newgarden. “And even on the team, with the crew guys, thinking that the year’s going so smoothly – which it was; at one point we had a 117-point lead, and you’re like, oh, we just need some top fives and everything’s going to work out very good. And we feel like we didn’t change anything, but the situations that we had at Mid-Ohio and some road courses, you just start to see it dwindle away, Every year is a crazy year in this series. We tried to finish it, with a race (to go), but we came up short.

“And a huge credit obviously to Josef and Team Penske, as always, they’re a class act. It’s always going to come down to the wire and they did all they could. And luckily enough, we had enough. Trust me, I’d much rather it go the way that Lewis (Hamilton in Formula 1) has it where it’s just complete domination. But I think it just shows you how competitive the entirety of IndyCar Series is, man. There’s never any runaways. But yeah, trust me, I would much rather it go a lot smoother, but that’s just not the case.”

There’s no shortage of respect between the two drivers that have shared the last four IndyCar championships between them Dole/Motorsport Images

At 40, Dixon knows he has a handful of years left atop the sport before the inevitable changing of the guard will take place. By chance, and by fortune for IndyCar fans, an enthralling rivalry has developed between himself and Newgarden.

Upon joining Team Penske in 2017, the American took control of the series and captured his first championship. In 2018, Dixon and CGR fought back and claimed the Kiwi’s fifth title. The next round went to Newgarden as he became a two-time champion in 2019, and in Round 4 of their heavyweight battle, Dixon evened the scorecards at 2-2, and added a sixth crown to his mantle.

In the four years of heated competition, IndyCar’s standard bearer has only come to appreciate the driver who will likely take his place as the series’ dominant force when Dixon decides to retire.

“He’s a hell of a competitor and we’ve seen that for a few years now, and it’s never a flash in the pan,” Dixon said of his rival, who turns 30 in December. “Honestly, there’s tough competitors throughout, but there’s very few that are there every season. And if you look back at the last two, three, four seasons, that’s how it’s really played out. I like Josef, I like his style. He races fair, he’s not all showboaty. I think he’s generally just a great person and I think that plays true in a lot of ways, but obviously he’s a huge talent. And we saw that from the days when he first started with (Sarah Fisher Hartman) Racing.

“And they hit a next-level once they got to Penske, which we always expect. And for the 19 years I’ve been with Ganassi, I’ve known that you’re always racing Penske for a championship or for each race weekend. And he’s continued that on. As we all know, it’s an extremely bright future for Mr. Newgarden and it feels that much better when you’re able to close it out and get that championship over him.”

A continuing theme throughout the majority of Dixon’s six championships involves consistency with key personnel attached to his No. 9 entry. Race strategist Mike Hull and chief mechanic Blair Julian serve as anchors in Dixon’s world, and with a shift to inbound race engineer Michael Cannon for 2020, the team ensured his title-winning engineer Chris Simmons remained close in a new overarching role of performance director.

Mike Cannon’s input helped elevate an already strong No.9 team. Levitt/Motorsport Images

Even with two new variables in Cannon and a re-cast Simmons to figure out, the team emerged as the strongest force in the series as it went on to open the season with three consecutive victories. Dixon takes pride in the personal side of his contribution to the sixth championship, but one gets the sense he cherishes the achievements from his crew to a higher degree.

“That’s what it’s all about, man,” he said. “I’m a small piece in this situation and that’s what I love. It was actually very daunting when I walked through the door in 2002 to Ganassi – it was called The Red Army at that point because they had so many people and added a satellite car. It was the days of when it was really only two cars per team. But you had so many people that had to run those cars, just with the technology and the size of the operations. And I could feel it as soon as I walked through those doors, just the will to win. And you only go to a race to win; that was very different from some of the other teams that I’ve been with.

“But yeah, my car, what we’ve been able to achieve together with Chip, obviously Chris Simmons, he’s been in such great situations, obviously with Dario (Franchitti) and myself and what we’ve been able to do. I think for Cannon, obviously, even the first race (win) at Texas, it was the first race (win) like in 10 or 15 years or something like that. Just to be a part of that situation and to see his love for the sport. And what it means to him. Just to see him after the race and what he’s been able to achieve for his first year at the team, and what he was able to bring and in a different dynamic.”

If there’s one area of Dixon’s game that goes under-recognized, it’s his active efforts to keep the No. 9 team from falling into monotony and routine. Maintaining a creative spark, especially on the engineering side, has kept the program in a perennial title hunt.

“It was great to have such a different set of eyes on what we do and our procedures and somebody to ask like, ‘Hey, why do you do it this way?’” he said of Cannon’s acquisition. “And he’s not shy which, I think… It’s pretty daunting in many ways. And I think even for an engineer or any level coming into a team like this and there’s such an ecosystem that’s already going on, that he’s not afraid to rub against that or alter it or change it up. It’s been a great fit for all of us.”

Of all the soft spots Dixon has for his pit crew, dubbed ‘The Wolf Pack,’ a special one is reserved for its leader.

“Blair, man… there’s nobody better than Blair Julian at what he does,” Dixon said of his countryman. “And just the way he gets the team to work with him and around him. And he’s the guy that is calling everybody like, ‘Hey, when we go to Toronto, let’s get everybody together, let’s go (play) ping pong.’ He’s all about the morale and building, everybody working together and that goes so far. He is the glue guy. I’m so lucky to work with so many great people, man.”