This week, INDYCAR.com is recapping the 2020 NTT INDYCAR SERIES SEASON. Today is the first of the features highlighting the top three stories of the year.
Scott Dixon had already established himself as an INDYCAR legend, long before the 2020 NTT INDYCAR SERIES season started.
Winning a sixth career INDYCAR championship further solidified Dixon’s true greatness.
Dixon won the first three races of the COVID-19-delayed season, including triumphs on June 8 at Texas Motor Speedway, the GMR Grand Prix on July 4 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the first race of the REV Group Grand Prix at Road America doubleheader on July 11.
That fast start gave Dixon and the No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda crew a sizeable lead after the New Zealander won the first race of the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 on Aug. 29 at World Wide Technology Raceway.
That was the 50th victory of his incredible career, leaving him just two wins behind the great Mario Andretti in second place. A.J. Foyt is the winningest driver in INDYCAR history with 67 wins.
Dixon’s largest championship lead was 117 points over Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden at the end of August. Despite Newgarden’s fast and furious finish to the season, Dixon had banked enough points that Newgarden couldn’t overcome the deficit.
Dixon won the title by just 16 points.
He joined Sam Hornish Jr. in 2001 and Sebastien Bourdais in 2006 as the only drivers to lead the championship all season since 2000.
“It would have been crazy if it had slipped by considering the dominance we had early on with the points lead,” Dixon said. “It’s definitely rare. It’s a great situation to be in. It’s nice to go into the last race with a pretty healthy point lead. One year, I would love to not have to worry about it, go into the last race and have fun.
“But that hasn’t ever been the case.”
Dixon’s fast start to the season gave him an important cushion at the end of the season when Dixon’s performance level tapered off. For whatever reason, Dixon had disappointing finishes in the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio doubleheader in September and the Harvest GP at Indianapolis the first weekend of October.
“If you look at the stats, for sure,” Dixon said. “The Harvest GP was definitely a write-off, for whatever reason. We struggled as a team, especially on the black tires. There was nothing comfortable about that weekend, which was bizarre considering we won the one earlier in the year. It was much hotter conditions, totally different, and we got a little bit of luck with the strategy.
“I felt like St. Pete, the car was really good. I was just frustrated with the qualifying and the braking situation we had, but we fixed that and went straight out into warm-up and were quick. There are some areas we need to work on. There will be some analysis over the next few weeks and few months figuring out why we as a group struggled in qualifying. Last year, I had the best qualifying average for the whole field.
“This year, it was bizarro.
“There are other areas we can improve on. I would say we peaked statistically at St. Louis, but we rebounded pretty well here at St. Pete in the race.”
There was a compelling battle between the two best drivers of the 2020 season in the final race of the year on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida.
Typically, the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg is the first race of the season in INDYCAR. Because of COVID-19, however, the race was postponed and moved to the last race.
Newgarden had to score maximum points by winning the pole, leading the most laps and winning the race and still had to hope that Dixon finished lower than ninth to win the title.
Team Penske driver Newgarden didn’t win the pole, and Dixon employed a strategy of simply racing behind Newgarden’s car for most of the race.
Newgarden scored his fourth win of the season to equal Dixon for most victories in 2020, but Dixon’s third-place finish easily secured him the championship.
“The last few years, three or four victories carry you to a championship, and the contenders are all around the same spot,” Dixon said. “They did it much later in the season. There were races we could have won with different scenarios, and I’m sure there are races he thought he could have won with different situations, as well.
“It is super competitive to win four races, especially with a shorter season. It’s extremely hard to do. But it’s never one person or one thing – it’s a team effort. I’m very thankful for the team we were able to capture four wins this year.”
His latest championship came with a new engineer devising his race setup and strategy – Michael Cannon, who joined Chip Ganassi Racing in 2020 after a successful stop at Dale Coyne Racing.
Chris Simmons, who was previously Dixon’s engineer for his 2015 and 2018 championships, was promoted to Chip Ganassi Racing director of performance.
Dixon and Cannon instantly clicked, a major reason for Dixon’s impressively fast start.
“Those are the two key changes,” Dixon said. “Chris Simmons moved into a different role and was able to work alongside Julian Robertson. That cleared a lot of ways to focus on what we needed to do and process the data.
“Cannon is a really fun person, very interesting, different perspective. He comes from teams that do things completely differently.
“It’s like being an Apple person and having an iPhone and the Mac and then you try to switch to Android or PC. It doesn’t feel right, it feels a bit strange and takes a while for the transition. It’s nice to have somebody that asks why we do that. It was cool for him to kick off the first race and win with him and get on the roll that we did and win a championship. It’s fantastic to kick off that working relationship.
“Hopefully, we can keep that going.”