FONTANA, Calif. -- Charging from 12th on the starting grid to win at Homestead-Miami Speedway caught the 22 year old from New Zealand a bit off-guard. More intriguing is that the March 2003 race was Scott Dixon's first in the IZOD IndyCar Series.
Dixon went on to win two additional races and, despite five DNFs, was the surprise series champion with Target Chip Ganassi Racing. Considerably wiser and more experienced in 2008, he claimed another series title punctuated by his first Indianapolis 500 victory.
On Oct. 19 at Auto Club Speedway, Dixon celebrated his third series title after 250 grueling laps on the 2-mile Auto Club Speedway oval.
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The longest-tenured driver for Target Chip Ganassi Racing entered the MAVTV 500 25 points ahead of Helio Castroneves, who, incidentally, was the title runner-up in 2008 and finished third in the ’03 standings. Dixon finished fifth and Castroneves was sixth, which put the final margin at 27 points.
"I still can’t believe we’ve won the championship. I guess the five-year thing played out," said Dixon, who was competing in his 220th Indy car race.
It is the 10th Indy car championship for Target Chip Ganassi Racing and the ninth with Honda (Dixon won in '03 with Toyota). The team will switch to Chevrolet power for the 2014 season.
Dixon, who earned his 32nd Indy car victory just ahead of turning 33 on July 22 at Toronto, added his 33rd in Race 1 at Houston on Oct. 6. He’s seventh on the all-time list – one behind Al Unser Jr. That alone would be motivation for the 18-race 2014 season.
Dixon, who’s also made 157 consecutive Indy car starts and is the 12 driver with three or more series titles, might just be reaching his prime.
“Racing is still in my veins and hopefully my career is a long one and something that I can enjoy for a long time,” he says. “As you go on through your career, you have good races, bad races, lots of ups and downs. You cherish Indianapolis 500 victories and championships a lot more. I don’t know whether you know you won’t do it in 10 more years or what but the drive is still there. I still wake up every morning wanting to go to the track and race cars and hopefully win some more races.
“I think the championships in 2003 and 2008 -- there were five years in between -- that the ups and downs make you realize it’s not that easy to win races.”
Following the ’03 victory at Homestead were wins at Pikes Peak and Richmond (the latter back to back). Dixon posted six top-five finishes – including five runners-up – in the final nine events of the 16-race season to grab the title from Gil de Ferran.
“In 2003, it was a strange deal – the first time I ever ran an all-oval series,” he recalls. “It’s fair to say I was a little reluctant to start with but also very young. I didn’t really know what I had achieved at that point. It was still a hell of an accomplishment.”
Dixon dominated in 2008 with six victories and leading 11 of the 17 races (899 of total 2,860 laps). He led 115 of the 200 laps in the Indianapolis 500 in winning from the pole.
“2008 was an all-around great year,” Dixon adds. “We won six races, won the Indy 500. It was one of those dream years. For me to look back at that stage in my career it was very cool to look back and see what we had achieved that year. It’s strange to have championships that far apart and look at the differences and see how you were different at those times.”
This year, prior to the July 7 race on the 2.5-mile Pocono Raceway tri-oval, he was seventh in the standings (92 points behind Castroneves, who took the outright points lead a month earlier with a victory at Texas Motor Speedway). Dixon says doubt began to creep into his thinking about the prospects of climbing into contention.
"I think you go through those moments," he says, "or at least you try not to go through them every year. After the Iowa race, in which Helio and I had some conflicts on track, we spoke at Pocono before the race and I said, 'Hey, man, you have to watch out for me because I'm not in the championship.'
"Pocono was a big turnaround. I remember getting out of the car and the first thing I said to Chip was, 'This morning I did not think we would be standing (in Victory Circle).' Racing has some funny ways and life does in general."
Though Castroneves remained steady with top-10 finishes, sweeping Toronto put Dixon in position to strike. He did at Houston with the Race 1 win and runner-up finish in Race 2, while Castroneves’ car experienced mechanical issues in both 90-lap races.
“We don't intentionally start the season bad, though we typically seem to somehow,” says Dixon, who has won at least one race in nine consecutive seasons. “It's so competitive, with how many different race winners we've had this year, the points are jumbled up, people have made strides at different points in the year.”
His just happened to be at the most opportune time.