Scott Dixon took advantage of Team Penske's dismal day to scoop up the Astor Cup for himself at Sonoma.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this, but then, racing never comes down to the obvious, does it?
Juan Pablo Montoya led from the start to the close of the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series season but, as he succinctly put it, he couldn’t “close it” himself. Graham Rahal had 16 races to be proud of with two victories and the symmetry within his team to carry the Ohioan forward, but two unforced crashes in the final two races moved him from second to fourth in the standings. Helio Castroneves didn’t win a single race this year. 2014 champion Will Power only won one - but aced six poles, an acknowledgement of his latent speed behind the wheel.
Despite having what Montoya called a “shit season”, it was Scott Dixon at the end, holding the Astor Cup high and crowd surfing with fans (and team owner Chip Ganassi) at Sonoma Raceway on a picture perfect Sunday afternoon. And it wasn’t supposed to happen to him - this is the same Dixon who won his first three titles five years apart - in 2003, 2008, 2013 - so to get his fourth championship a mere two years after the third? Unheard of.
They key to Dixon's fourth title
Dixon earned his title by being the best on a day when falloff from Firestone tires killed dreams of many foes. The team led by Mike Hull and Chris Simmons prepared for the race during the 3.5-hour Friday practice and on Saturday morning’s short session - they knew what they had in hand once the green flag flew.
Dixon secured his fourth title through his consistency this season, having only one DNF the entire year (at Belle Isle2). Coming into Sonoma, the Kiwi - who won the season finale on what would have been the 78th birthday of countryman Bruce McLaren - had only three podium results, but two of those were victories. He had four finishes outside the top 10, which is likely why Montoya made his comment.
Montoya, on the other hand had five podium results and two of those were early season victories. Kvetching about double points races after his championship loss did the Colombian no PR good; after all, his second (and final) win of the year came at the 99th Indianapolis 500, a double points race like the Sonoma finale.
Self-destruction of Team Penske's championship hopes
The manner in which Team Penske self-destructed at the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma race was appalling. Montoya speared Power, Pagenaud blocked Josef Newgarden during pit stops and Castroneves never had a chance to do much blocking or jumping of starts or restarts. This is not the kind of results Team Penske is noted for; aside from Power’s championship - finally - last year, there hasn’t been an Astor Cup in Mooresville, NC since Sam Hornish Jr won the 2006 INDYCAR title.
Scott Dixon, on the other hand, is surrounded by teammates that will work with him, not against him. The Chip Ganassi Racing Teams (CGRT) perform as teams and when they win, it’s a victory for all. It’s the culture Ganassi has stressed throughout his tenure as a successful team owner and brought the Pittsburgh, Penn. native his 100th victory yesterday since taking over the former Patrick Racing team’s assets. The first win came with Michael Andretti in 1994 at Surfers Paradise, Australia, if anyone’s forgotten.
And so the Verizon IndyCar Series season has ended, with a pall following the death of beloved driver Justin Wilson just a week prior. That freak accident affected the entire paddock, causing nearly everyone to hug people as they glanced at one another from Friday through Sunday. There were testimonials to #BadAssWilson throughout the race meeting and tears were shed. Hopefully the long off-season can heal some of these wounds and, with new operations leadership (yet to be determined) the series can move forward.
Whatever happens from here, we know some new things: Scott Dixon needs less than five years to score his next title; he’s got 38 wins in the series and is capable of so many more. The 36-year-old Kiwi known as the Iceman, who’s been a part of the Ganassi squad since the middle of 2002 and has scored all but one of his victories with a red car (the first came with PacWest Racing at Nazareth) is a true racer’s racer - much like his friend Justin Wilson. While he might have been considered a long shot for this title, no intelligent person should ever count him out.