The harsh reality of Scott Dixon’s season is that he could have his record-tying NTT INDYCAR SERIES championship in hand heading into this weekend’s season finale at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca.
Dixon was the dominant driver at this year’s Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge, having just led his 95th lap when he came to pit road for his final stop of the race. But speeding on entry by the slightest of margins drew a penalty he couldn’t overcome. Instead of winning the race for the second time in his career, Dixon was reduced to finishing 21st.
That moment still looms large. Dixon enters the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey trailing series leader Will Power of Team Penske by 20 points. Had Dixon even finished in the top three on May 29 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, he could have a nearly insurmountable lead. Winning the double-points “500” might have had him ahead by 60 or more points at this juncture.
“Had we won Indy, the championship might be over,” he said. “But that’s part of racing, man. You’ve got to take with the highs with the lows. I moved on the Monday after the race. You’ve got to. I can’t change it.”
Dixon has been on the gas ever since, the series’ most consistent driver in the months of June, July, August and the first race of September. His wins in the Honda Indy Toronto and the Big Machine Music City Grand Prix in Nashville are part of his 10 consecutive top-nine finishes since the “500.”
Dixon leads all series drivers in points scored since that May disappointment with 337. Power has scored 321.
“I would say that’s our natural occurrence, to be honest,” Chip Ganassi Racing driver Dixon said of late-season heroics in his 21-year career. “I feel like consistency is definitely the key (to winning titles), especially in the current format of the NTT INDYCAR SERIES with how competitive the championship is with depth.
“Your best days are like at Portland where you start 16th and you end up with a third, or in St. Louis when we ended up eighth. Those are still points you’re putting in the bag. You need to average fifth or sixth throughout the season to have a shot (at the championship). It simplifies things, but trust me, a lot of those days are really hard days.”
Dixon likely will need another of those days Sunday when the green flag waves for the start of the 95-lap race. His No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda hasn’t been strong on road course qualifying, resulting in starting positions of 13th at Barber Motorsports Park, 21st and 20th in the two road course races at IMS, ninth at Road America, fifth at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course and 16th at Portland International Raceway. He is hoping that the team’s recent test at Laguna Seca helps, but he knows nothing is certain.
“The downside of things is how you got in that situation,” he said of disappointing efforts in road course qualifying. “But when you figure (the race) out, that’s the winning formula or the part you’re most happy about.”
If Dixon emerges as the series champion Sunday, he’ll tie A.J. Foyt for the most titles in the sport’s history.
Others Strong in Second Half, Too
Dixon isn’t the only driver who has enjoyed a strong second half of the season. Josef Newgarden, Power and Scott McLaughlin all have at least 320 points since the “500,” proof of the competitiveness this series has delivered this season, particularly at the top of the grid.
Newgarden (No. 2 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet) has won three races since Indy, McLaughlin (No. 3 XPEL Team Penske Chevrolet) two. Power got his only win of the season in the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix presented by Lear the week after the “500.”
Newgarden is tied with Dixon in the standings, and he holds the tiebreaker over all the title contenders by virtue of having the most race wins this season (with five). His race Sunday figures to be hit or miss, just like the rest of his season.
“It’s a funny thing to say, but when you strip the wins away, it’s been a really tough year,” Newgarden said. “So, I’m incredibly grateful that we’re in it with an opportunity still. We needed that door to still be open; now let’s try to climb through it.”
Power: Bad Luck Last Year
It has been quite the turnaround for series points leader Power, who this time last year was ninth in the standings, 180 points behind eventual champion Alex Palou (No. 10 NTT DATA Chip Ganassi Racing Honda) heading to the finale with no chance at the title.
Power finished ninth in points last year, his lowest since joining Team Penske full time in 2010. He credited Chevrolet for the 2022 gains, adding that things have simply gone more his way this year.
“Look, I think last year we just had bad luck, and we didn’t show our true potential,” Power said. “This year, Chevy improved the driveability (of the engine), which helped a lot, sort of got us into a nice window.”
Power said Team Penske spent the offseason focused on improving its chances in the “500,” and they did put very little emphasis on road courses, street circuits, even short ovals.
“We really haven’t turned up with anything special as it relates to last year, which shows that the cars were good,” Power said. “We just have put everything together really well this year, and the engine driveability has helped significantly.”
Team Penske drivers have combined to win 10 of the 16 races, and all three of them are still in contention for this championship.
“Outside of the Indy 500, I think we’ve really had the best cars in the paddock,” Newgarden said.
Odds and Ends
- Graham Rahal (No. 15 United Rentals Honda of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, announced the birth of the second child of he and wife, Courtney, a baby girl. Tinley Leighton Rahal was born Tuesday.
- The weekend’s second practice is Saturday at 1:15 p.m. ET, with qualifying for the NTT P1 Award at 5:05 p.m. ET.
- NBC has moved up the start of its Sunday pre-race broadcast to 2:40 p.m. ET. Coverage on the INDYCAR Radio Network begins at 3 p.m. The green flag is expected at 3:30 p.m.