It’s not the ideal situation to be trailing the leader in a championship with one race left in the season, but Scott Dixon knows from experience that anything is possible.
Dixon trails Josef Newgarden by just three points heading into the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season finale, the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma on Sept. 17 at Sonoma Raceway. Two years ago, Dixon trailed Juan Pablo Montoya by 47 points and rallied to win the championship.
That doesn't mean the driver of the No. 9 NTT Data Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing is taking it easy this time around.
“I definitely don't feel relaxed,” Dixon said during a teleconference on Sept. 5. “I don't feel relaxed going into any race. I think the goal is still the same every time. It's to win the race first, and ideally if that happens, it takes care of the rest, especially with how tight the points are between Josef and I. But (2015’s rally) still shows that obviously that's when it's possible, and that makes it very eligible for four of us that can have that swing.”
Aside from Newgarden and Dixon, Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud are still in the mix for the Astor Cup awarded to the champion. Newgarden has 560 points, Dixon 557, Helio Castroneves 538 and Simon Pagenaud 526. Will Power, Alexander Rossi and Graham Rahal also remain mathematically alive in the battle, but their chances are much more remote.
“You'd always prefer to be leading by a healthy margin,” Dixon said. “But I think with the ups and downs and misfortunes we've had throughout the season, I'm somewhat surprised that we're still within striking distance for the points race.”
The downs for Dixon were few this season, but they were memorable. A frightening crash in the Indianapolis 500 was followed by another crash at Texas Motor Speedway. But he still maintained the lead in the standings – thanks largely to a strong, consistent start to the season – from the first race in Detroit in June until a ninth-place finish at Mid-Ohio in August.
Dixon’s comeback began in earnest with his victory at Road America in June and runner-up finishes in the most recent races -- at Gateway Motorsports Park and Watkins Glen International. Now, with double points in the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma, Dixon carries the experience of knowing anything is possible.
“Definitely it makes for an exciting championship last race, which is what everybody expects, I think, out of the Verizon IndyCar Series and how it always is,” he said. “It's pretty tight.”
Knowing it’s possible doesn’t mean it will happen, so Dixon approaches the challenge with caution.
“I wouldn't say that it makes me feel any more relaxed or any more confident,” Dixon said. “There's still a lot on the line, and it takes a lot to beat the competition that we have in the Verizon IndyCar Series. It's a better position than what we were in 2015, but that guarantees you pretty much nothing. It's good to be in the hunt and have a tight gap right there, but we're still going to have to do our best to beat four of the closest competitors right there.”
Dixon’s track record at Sonoma bodes well for the 37-year-old New Zealand native. In 12 races at the 12-turn, 2.385-mile road course, he has three victories and six top-five finishes. He also won the pole at Sonoma in 2006 and has started among the top five seven times.
As always at Sonoma, qualifying is nearly as critical as the race itself.
“It's quite low grip,” Dixon explained. “The tires, last year at least in qualifying, you pretty much had a one-lap window, maybe two if you're lucky, so it's hard to get the front tires in for the first lap. By the time the fronts come in, the rears are kind of on their way out. It's a track that requires a fair bit of compromise. … For me it's probably one of the toughest circuits to get right, to be honest.”
So, as the 2017 season prepares for its send-off, keep an eye on the guy who already has four Verizon IndyCar Series championships and 41 victories in his career, a number exceeded in the history of the sport by only A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti and Michael Andretti. A fifth championship would break a tie with Sebastien Bourdais, Michael Andretti and Mario Andretti and leave Dixon alone in second place, trailing only Foyt’s seven Indy car championships.
“Five sounds great,” Dixon said. “Sounds better than four, so I'd absolutely love to get a fifth championship. But there's a lot of people we have to go through to make that possible. But yeah, when you start to look at those lists and how we're approaching the top parts of those lists, you know, it feels great. But my focus is definitely trying to win the race, and hopefully we can look at those later in life.”
And if he wins? He gets to keep his job.
“It means that maybe Chip (Ganassi, team owner) would hire me again, so that would be a good positive,” Dixon joked. “With the stats and championships … maybe when you exit, I think you can look back on and hopefully you're proud of what you've achieved with the team I've been lucky to be assigned with 16 years-plus now.”
The GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma airs live at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network as the Verizon IndyCar Series championship comes down to the final race of the season for the 12th consecutive year.