LONG BEACH, California — After almost winning what would have been his first-ever pole for the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach on Saturday, Scott Dixon didn’t seem at all disappointed about being edged out in qualifying by rival Alexander Rossi.
“I’ve had a lot of seconds lately,” Dixon said with a grin. “You haven’t noticed that?”
ACURA GRAND PRIX OF LONG BEACH: Qualifying results
The five-time NTT IndyCar Series champion for Chip Ganassi Racing not only knows how to win, he has a wealth of experience in accentuating positives, especially close calls. He enters Sunday’s 85-lap race second in the points, thanks in large part to finishing second in two of three starts thus far this season: the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg and Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama presented by AmFirst. Dixon has 42 career second-place finishes, a figure which ranks second on the all-time list.
Dixon won this hallmark street-course race in 2015 and finished second in 2016. His second-place starting position Saturday equaled his best qualifying effort on the 11-turn, 1.968-mile temporary street circuit. Problem is, Rossi won this race from the pole last year and the Andretti Autosport driver has positioned himself ideally to have history repeat itself.
In the final minute of qualifying, Dixon seemed poised to unseat Rossi for the NTT P1 Award. But when his No. 9 PNC Bank Honda slid through a turn near the end of a lap, Dixon immediately surmised the unexpected hiccup scrubbed too much speed and eased off the throttle.
Perhaps. Or perhaps not. Dixon suggested maybe that was misjudged. Then a miscommunication brought him in without taking a final shot at the pole.
“Ultimately, did we have the pace? Maybe, it’s always hard to tell,” Dixon said. “(Rossi) did a really good job. They pieced the lap together. They’re strong. They were strong here last year. I think we closed the gap definitely a little bit.”
Truth be told, Dixon expected to be battling Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay for the pole. They traded quickest laps during Friday’s two practice sessions. But Hunter-Reay got caught by a late red flag in the second round of knockout qualifying and didn’t advance to the Firestone Fast Six.
Rossi, who entered the weekend fourth in points, had the fastest time in Saturday morning’s practice and then duplicated that effort in qualifying.
“He’s good here, man,” Dixon said. “You can’t deny it.”
Dixon and Rossi have become quite familiar with each other in the last year. Rossi pushed Dixon in the 2018 championship chase to the season finale. Dixon walked away with the title, leaving the Kiwi within two of tying A.J. Foyt for the most championships in Indy car history. But Rossi learned so much from the experience and elevated the 27-year-old Californian’s status from one of the best up-and-coming young drivers to simply one of the series’ best drivers.
Dixon, of course, is undaunted by any challenge. He smiled when asked about the difficulty of being able to pass Rossi on this track, where Rossi led 71 of 85 laps in last year’s dominant run.
Three of Rossi’s five career wins in three-plus seasons have come from the pole, too. So where could Dixon get by Rossi this time?
“The pits,” Dixon said with a wry grin. “That’s the best place. Easiest place for the driver.”
Dixon is encouraged by his car’s lap times on the more durable Firestone primary black tires. The softer red alternate tires can provide more immediate speed, but there’s always the question of how long they will last.
But more often than not, strategy comes into play at Long Beach.
“In and out laps (on pit stops) become very critical, especially with how tough it is to get close in some scenarios,” Dixon said. “Restarts, obviously the main start, and pit stops, in and out laps and even if somebody is doing reds or blacks or a different change-up there. We’ve definitely been beaten that way before and maybe gotten lucky that way before, too.”
In other words, the 38-year-old New Zealander was putting on a happy face and essentially saying, “No worries.” After 44 career victories, which ranks third on the all-time list, he’s well aware that anything can happen.
“You just have to lead the last lap, right?” Dixon said.
A final 30-minute warmup practice starts at noon ET Sunday and streams live on INDYCAR Pass on NBC Sports Gold.
Sunday’s race will be the 36th consecutive for Indy cars on the streets of Long Beach. Live coverage begins at 4 p.m. ET on NBCSN, NBCSports.com, the NBC Sports app and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.