SONOMA, California — A Verizon IndyCar Series champion commands a healthier level of respect from competitors.
If anyone is aware of this reality, it's three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves, who has celebrated 30 career Indy car victories but never a series title.
“They have the stamp,” he said, referring to a season champion’s stamp of approval.
Around the paddock for Sunday’s season-ending GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma, that stamp starts with four-time winner Scott Dixon of Chip Ganassi Racing (shown above). Now 37, Dixon admits he was too young to appreciate what he had accomplished with his first title in 2003. He’s since added three more championships in 2008, 2013 and 2015.
“I think the first one for me was just such a shock, that we had actually pulled it off,” Dixon said. “I was still just 23. It took until the championship in 2008 to really enjoy it and actually know what I’ve won, especially that year being the first combined season (when the Verizon IndyCar Series and Champ Car World Series unified), it was very special.”
The father of two daughters, Dixon compared championships to having children. Each has its unique personality.
“All of them are very different, how you pull it off, how the season has gone with the ups and downs you’ve gone through,” he said. “I guess they’re kind of like kids. They’re all very different.”
Dixon trails points leader Josef Newgarden of Team Penske by three points entering the double-points season finale. If successful this weekend, Dixon can move into sole possession of second place on the all-time list with a fifth title. The distinction is particularly noteworthy considering the only driver with more titles is legendary A.J. Foyt at seven. Dixon is currently tied with Mario Andretti, Dario Franchitti and Sebastien Bourdais.
A three-time Sonoma winner, Dixon made up a 47-point deficit to win the 2015 championship over Juan Pablo Montoya. That means other contenders are also within range — Castroneves is just 22 points behind Newgarden in third, defending champion Simon Pagenaud of Team Penske is 34 points behind in fourth and 2014 champion Will Power is 68 points back in fifth.
Newgarden, who has four victories in his first year driving for Roger Penske, would love to know what it’s like to command that respect as a champion.
“Guys that have consistently been in the fight for championships, you look at differently,” Newgarden said. “Whether they’ve won one or not, if they’ve been in that fight for a long time with many years where they’ve had a shot at championships, Scott’s obviously been in the championship hunt for many, many years in a row. He’s obviously one of the best to ever come through the system, someone you have to respect tremendously.
“Yeah, you treat them differently. You race them differently. You race Will differently. Simon, Scott, you race them with a certain level of respect because they are champions.”
In addition to respecting their space on a racetrack, it also means knowing they can be trusted in traffic.
“When you race them, you get a different reaction from them,” Newgarden said. “What I mean is when you put your car beside them, when you try something more high risk, you generally get a different reaction from that type of driver, and a good reaction. You can trust that driver more.
“They generally have more ability to make a riskier move happen because it takes two to tango when you’re racing somebody. I feel like the championship guys tango a little bit better than the others.”
Last year, Pagenaud won from the pole at Sonoma to prevail in a showdown with teammate Power, a four-time runner-up to go with his one title.
“I do feel like people have changed the way they see me as a driver,” Pagenaud said of the respect that comes with a championship. “I don’t really care about that, quite frankly. I’m just happy I realized my dream. I’m happy that I wasn’t wrong about it. I said all along I could be a champion in this series and the fact that it’s true now to me is super satisfying.
“No matter what happens from now on, I’ve done it. My desire to make it happen again is even bigger. That’s the problem: When you have a taste of victory, it’s very hard to let it go. So you want it even more.”
If Pagenaud can repeat, he’d be the first to win in back-to-back years since Dario Franchitti in 2009, ‘10 and ‘11.
Power, like Dixon a three-time race winner at Sonoma, experienced the same epiphany about the desire to win another championship after celebrating three years ago.
“At the time, it was very satisfying, satisfying for about a year, then you want it again,” Power said. “It didn’t change anything. I still want to win another one just as bad. It’s not like, ‘Well, I’m done.’”