The NTT INDYCAR SERIES has seen a youth movement take over this season with three first-time winners aged 24 or younger in the first eight races of the season.
But 40-year-old Scott Dixon, the longest-tenured driver in Chip Ganassi Racing history, still stands firmly in contention heading into the REV Group Grand Prix presented by AMR on June 18-20 at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. He is third in the standings, 36 points behind leader Pato O’Ward, who at 22 is one of the talented young first-time race winners this season.
But following frustrating finishes of eighth and seventh in the Chevrolet Dual at Detroit last weekend at Belle Isle, some may suggest Dixon is bending under the weight of the challenge provided by 20-something drivers and 2021 race winners such as O’Ward, Colton Herta, Rinus VeeKay and Chip Ganassi Racing teammate teammate Alex Palou.
After all, Dixon opened the 2020 season – in which he claimed his sixth NTT INDYCAR SERIES title – with three straight wins, including at Road America. Yet he has just one win this season, on May 1 at Texas, in the No. 9 PNC Bank Grow Up Great Honda.
Despite the rumbles, Dixon still thinks he’s not that far away from peak form.
“I feel like we've been knocking on the door,” said Dixon. “I wouldn't say that we've had major issues or lack of speed or anything like that. I think the team's done a very good job.”
Dixon is right. He is one of seven winners at the midway point of the season after dominating the Genesys 300 on May 1 at Texas Motor Speedway. He has four top-five finishes and leads the series with seven top-10 finishes this season. He’s one of just two drivers – joining Simon Pagenaud – to complete all 1,075 laps of competition this season.
And Dixon has led 395 of 1,075 laps so far this season – a lead rate of 36.7 percent and 285 laps more than his closest pursuer in that category, Herta.
But there’s no doubt the youth movement in the sport has increased the competition around Dixon. This has created a lot more of parity within the sport, a challenge Dixon savors.
“I think we're seeing where you need everything to go your way on a day to make it possible, then a close miss you're back a lot further than what you would have been in the past,” Dixon said. “I feel like the teams are very tight right now. There's an influx of drivers coming in that are on their second, third or fourth years.”
That parity also may have prevented Dixon from a sizzling start like in 2020, when he won the first three races of the season and never trailed in the championship standings all season.
But when looking back at Dixon’s previous championship seasons, this year’s start has not been off in the slightest.
In half of his series championships (2013, 2015, 2018), Dixon has only had one win through eight races or not won a race until the third race of the year or later.
In fact, before last year when Dixon won the first three races of the season, he had not produced exceptional starts in his NTT INDYCAR SERIES championship seasons since 2003 and 2008, when he won the season openers.
In 2013, he did not win until the 11th race when he pulled off three in a row to rally for the championship. In 2018, he did not win until the seventh race, at Belle Isle. The 2015 season saw Dixon win for the first time in race three for his only victory of the first half of the season, much like this season.
So, history shows a “slow start” shouldn’t concern Dixon and his chances of winning the series championship. Been there, done that. Plus he has a chance to gain serious ground this weekend at Road America.
The picturesque, 4.014-mile road course is a favorite of INDYCAR fans, and a place that Dixon also loves, as he is a two-time winner at Road America, including last year.
“I think we're very lucky to race on some of those old-school American road courses,” Dixon said. “This one definitely is at the top of the list. You still have kind of grass next to the track and walls. It's kind of high-risk, high-reward, which is how it should be.”
One unique wrinkle of this season for Dixon is the challenge he’s receiving from teammates Palou, driving the No. 10 NTT DATA Chip Ganassi Racing Honda, and Marcus Ericsson in the No. 8 Huski Chocolate Chip Ganassi Racing Honda.
Palou and Ericsson each have won a race, giving Chip Ganassi Racing three winners in the first half of the season. Palou sits in second above Dixon and just a point out of first after a huge second-place finish in the 105th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge.
Dixon has been the top Ganassi driver in the standings every year since 2012. Fellow legend and good friend Dario Franchitti was the last Ganassi driver to defeat Dixon over the season, in 2011 when Franchitti claimed the last of his four INDYCAR SERIES titles.
So, not only does this season have increased external competition with the youth movement, but the pressure has also been turned up internally.
But just like the external pressure of additional parity, Dixon welcomes the internal pressure provided by his teammates making a run at him in the chase for a title. He thinks it is phenomenal for not only Chip Ganassi Racing but for himself in his race to tie A.J. Foyt’s record of seven NTT INDYCAR SERIES championships.
“I think it's great,” Dixon said. “I think it makes it tougher for me. It's a lot more people to learn off. When you're kind of pushing that momentum in one direction, and everybody's kind of behind it and pushing, it makes a big difference for everyone.”
And while he understands that competition and parity can only push him to improve, he knows that if it comes down to the last race in a tight battle for the championship against his teammates, Long Beach will be every man for themselves.
“Once you get to the track and to the race, especially, everybody is trying to win,” said Dixon. “Again, I think that helps the team in so many ways. If we can be 1-2-3-4, that's what we're going to do. If you're racing hard at the end, the only thing that Chip asks is you don't take each other out.”