Scott Dixon on track

If Scott Dixon is successful in maintaining his championship lead in next week’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, he will do something rare by leading the NTT INDYCAR SERIES championship from start to finish.

Just twice in the past 20 years has an INDYCAR driver taken the lead after the first race of the season and maintained it throughout the entire campaign. That was Sam Hornish, Jr. in the Indy Racing League in 2001 and Sebastien Bourdais in Champ Car in 2006.

More recently, Juan Pablo Montoya came close in 2015 when he was the championship leader after every race before having the title snatched away by Dixon in the final race of the season at Sonoma Raceway.

The driver chasing Dixon for this title is Josef Newgarden, and he was the points leader after every race but one last year and that was coming out of the Indianapolis 500. Team Penske teammate Simon Pagenaud was the leader after that race after winning the 500.

Dixon began this pandemic-delayed season with three straight victories, including the season-opening race at Texas Motor Speedway in June, the GMR Grand Prix at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on July 4, and the first race of the REV Group Grand Prix at Road America on July 11.

Dixon added a fourth victory to his season total with a win in the first race of the doubleheader at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway on Aug. 29, giving him what seemed to be an insurmountable 117-point lead over Newgarden.

Since then, however, Newgarden has cut huge chunks out of the lead and enters the final race of the season just 32 points behind Dixon.

However, the driver of Chip Ganassi Racing’s No. 9 PNC Bank Honda still controls his path to the Astor Challenge Cup. Even if Newgarden scores the maximum points in the Oct. 25 race by winning the pole, leading the most laps and taking the checkered flag, Dixon can clinch his sixth NTT INDYCAR SERIES championship if he finishes ninth or better.

“That has been drilled into me now,” said Mike Hull, Dixon’s race strategist and the team’s managing director. “I don’t always think about all of those things.

“I’m a pretty simple guy. I think about the fact you have to perform. We work really hard as a team to do exactly that. Over the years, keeping it simple, has worked well for us. I’m sure we will have mathematicians there telling us what is going on as the race progresses.”

Hull has been atop the timing stand for all five of Dixon’s NTT INDYCAR SERIES championships. In the title seasons of 2003 and 2008, Dixon won the opening race, but he had to come from behind to capture the other three titles (in 2013, ’15 and ’18).

This year, Dixon got off to the best start of his career and picked a great year to do that. Because the schedule was shortened to 14 races, getting off to a fast start was crucial because it allowed Dixon to control the championship chase.

“I think it defines Scott Dixon quite clearly,” Hull said. “Scott Dixon, in his career with us, 18 years now, has always adapted quickly to the changing formula.

“Yes, the cars are the same. The product from the engine company are very similar, but the format is very different. What he has done is the same thing he has done when the aero has changed or the mechanical grip has changed, or we gained downforce or we lost downforce or the power level has changed.

“His mental side of racing helps him adapt to the time element you have, and you have to totally prioritize your thinking process to get the most out of your time available to you. Naturally, he wants to have more track time, but he has done a great job adapting to what we have to do to go racing.

“I think it is a testament to how he has conducted himself over the years to the changing formula of INDYCAR racing.”

The addition of Michael Cannon as Dixon’s race engineer along with shuffling a few key members throughout the organization created another winning formula for Dixon’s team.

But this season is also a credit to the perseverance of the operation in a very crazy year.

When COVID-19 halted the action before it ever began on March 13, nobody was quite sure what the 2020 NTT INDYCAR SERIES would look like or how many races would make a full season. Thanks to the perseverance of INDYCAR and its teams, the rescheduled St. Petersburg race will be the 14th and final race.

“To be successful in whatever you do in life, you have to be willing to accept change,” Hull said. “What we’ve done this year with our schedule and program has been a big change, let’s face it. All of the race teams have done a good job. I think INDYCAR has done a terrific job in picking up the reigns and creating a schedule where we could race effectively in a COVID environment.

“It hasn’t been easy.”

Even as Dixon has made it look that way.