NEWTON, Iowa -- As he stood in the pits while the tires that got him to second place were removed from his car, Scott Dixon smiled as if he’d won the race.
He’d just raced from sixth to second in the final 26 laps of the Iowa 300 at Iowa Speedway, a sudden surge that was crucial to his attempt to win a sixth NTT IndyCar Series championship. He didn’t prevent Josef Newgarden from winning the race, but -- for a moment, anyway, sometime around 1 a.m. local time -- he knew what Newgarden must’ve felt like for most of a dominating victory.
“I had a long night, for the most part, but the end was kind of fun,” Dixon said with a smile. “When you have a car that’s strong like that, it’s all good. I had a glimpse of what Josef had for about the last 20 laps.”
For much of the rain-delayed race, though, Dixon and his No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda were stuck far back in the field -- a lap down and in danger of going two laps down at one point. But when the pits opened with 30 laps remaining, strategist Mike Hull called in Dixon for fresh tires.
“Honestly, it felt like we had used tires all night,” Dixon said. “To get fresh tires at that portion of the race, where most people had run 20 or 30 laps, was definitely a big advantage. But you could see at the end that we’d burned them off pretty quickly. We really struggled the whole night. We felt like we were on a different track, man.”
The key was fighting to get the lap back, and then staying on the lead lap until an opportunity arose to get fresh tires. That played out when Ed Carpenter spun on Lap 264, bringing out a yellow flag and a chance to pit.
“We stayed on that lead lap and then the yellows came out,” Hull said. “That part worked well. We kept working with the car all night and kept changing it. Toward the end, the car came to life, obviously, and Scott did the rest.”
James Hinchcliffe dueled with Dixon during his charge, eventually finishing third -- his third podium finish in eight races at Iowa Speedway after wins in 2013 and last year. Afterward, he credited his crew for constant improvements on the No. 5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda.
“Big credit to the guys,” Hinchcliffe said. “Every time we came into the pits, they made it a little bit better. They were adjusting tire pressures, wings -- whatever we needed. I was working with the tools in the car, and every stint we just seemed to take a step forward.”
When Dixon passed Hinchcliffe for second with 16 laps remaining, he tried to challenge Newgarden but couldn’t get much closer than 2 seconds, settling for a 2.8527-second margin at the finish. When Newgarden first learned that Dixon was his closest challenger, he was surprised.
“I heard (strategist) Tim (Cindric) say, ‘Scott’s two seconds back,’” Newgarden said. “I’m like, ‘Scott? Where the hell did he come from?’ You’ve got to expect the unexpected in these races, so I was like, ‘OK. If he’s ready to go, I’ll turn it up.’ I wasn’t taking it easy, but I was saving my tires and biding my time up front. Look, if he wanted to box, I would’ve been ready to roll. I was just trying to not let him get close enough.”
In 316 starts in his career, Dixon has finished first or second 90 times -- an average of 28.5 percent. When told of the statistic during a post-race press conference with Hinchcliffe, Dixon smiled again.
“I guess I’m lucky,” he said.
Hinchcliffe grinned and rolled his eyes.
“Yeah, that's what it is,” he said.