INDIANAPOLIS – At times disappointed but never undaunted, Scott Dixon emerged from practically another world and an early-season funk to finish second in the INDYCAR Grand Prix on Saturday.
Or as Chip Ganassi Racing managing director Mike Hull said of four-time Verizon IndyCar Series champion Dixon rolling off the line in a season-worst 18th starting position, “We hired a real estate agent and started in a different county.”
Only once in three previous seasons had Dixon started so far back in a race. It’s also rather humbling that neither Dixon nor teammate Ed Jones have led a single lap this season. Suddenly and surprisingly a podium no-show in the first four races, Dixon arrived at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course just seventh in the points.
That made this runner-up result all the more appreciated for a powerhouse team that downsized from four cars to two in the offseason and added a new Dixon primary sponsor in PNC Bank.
“It’s not just for me,” Dixon said. “It’s hard. We’ve been through a lot of changes in the offseason. There’s a lot of pressure on everybody. We’ve got a new sponsor, a great sponsor that everyone is trying to fly the flag for. We just need to find our groove.”
After a setup change for qualifying backfired on Friday, Dixon and his crew rebounded with the fastest lap in Saturday morning’s prerace warmup practice. What was different? What wasn’t?
“Man, that's a long list,” he said. “Yeah, it was dampers, springs, geometry, closed cambers. It was pretty much everything. I think we actually threw in a kitchen sink on most of them, too. It was definitely a lot of changes.
“There was no session we didn’t have a lot (of issues), which is frustrating for us. A team like ours shouldn't be as lost as we were. I think maybe with the (March) test we had here in those really cold conditions, we tried to react to that too much, and over a two-day event, it doesn't really give you much time to sit on it and think about it, and we made a lot of knee-jerk reactions, which we should know better.”
Expectations are always the highest for Dixon, a 37-year-old champion from New Zealand who is the series’ active wins leader with 41. This guy is only one victory shy of tying Michael Andretti for third on the career list.
Known for his ability to conserve fuel, Dixon stuck to a simple race strategy in the No. 9 PNC Bank Honda. But even he sounded surprised at how quickly his car made up ground on the 24-car field. He was already in 12th place after just 10 laps.
“Strategy-wise, we knew we could get big fuel mileage, so we wanted to start on the black (Firestone primary tires) and get rid of the blacks as early as possible and run the rest of the race on reds (softer, faster alternates),” Dixon said. “There was a 10-lap period where we were able to run really fast and get the fuel mileage. That helped us jump the pack.”
A series of speedy pit stops the driver considered “flawless” also enabled him to make up ground.
“The pit stops were amazing,” he said. “In that first stint, I think we were running almost two seconds a lap faster than the rest of the field … and that's where it made that big jump. And then later on in that segment, too, we were able to pass a few more just on outright speed.”
Dixon started alongside Graham Rahal, who also moved up quickly from 17th to eventually lead the race for three laps. But Rahal ran out of fuel in the final turn and lost a spot to finish ninth.
“We didn’t quite have Dixon’s pace on reds,” Rahal said, “which is how he got that big gain over us.”
Except for eventual winner Will Power of Team Penske, Dixon had too much pace for everyone else. It was a welcome change from finishing sixth, fourth, 11th and sixth in his other 2018 starts.
He's now fourth in the points entering the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil on Sunday, May 27 (11 a.m. ET, ABC and Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network). The 2008 Indy 500 winner, Dixon sat on the pole last year, the third time he’s been the quickest qualifier, so don’t except him to start from so far back in the next race at IMS.
“It’s great to finally be on the podium this year,” he said.