Scott Dixon sits sixth in the IndyCar championship standings right now.
Scott Dixon hates to lose - and so does his Target Chip Ganassi Racing team. Dixon, the reigning Verizon IndyCar Series champion, lies sixth in points as the series culminates its 2014 season with the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma on Sunday at Sonoma Raceway and next weekend’s MAVTV500 on the Auto Club Speedway oval at Fontana, Calif.
Prospects of defending title are slipping away
Sixth place is the cut-off point for eligible drivers in the championship and Dixon, thanks to his last-to-first victory at Mid-Ohio two races ago, is the final driver who can claim the title, despite lying 130 points behind leader Will Power coming into the Sonoma contest. He trails Power, Helio Castroneves, Simon Pagenaud, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Juan Pablo Montoya in the points tally. The Sonoma race pays 50 points to the winner; next weekend’s Fontana contest awards double points, or 100.
This is a learning year for the Target team, having lost the services of three-time Indianapolis 500 winner and four-time INDYCAR champion Dario Franchitti to injury last October at Houston. Tony Kanaan took over the No. 10 car, giving Dixon his first new teammate since 2009, when Franchitti returned from his single season racing NASCAR.
The team also switched from Honda to Chevrolet power after being the former manufacturer’s lead squad since competition returned to the Indy cars in 2012. Calling this season an exercise in rebuilding the uber successful Target team is a bit simplistic; for this team success is always expected.
(2014 is) one of the worst years we’ve ever had
Dixon has remarked that the 2014 season is “one of the worst years we’ve ever had, which has been very frustrating for a team like us. Four competitive cars,” he noted, “[and] to have only one race win so far this year has been not so great. It’s been a tough year.” Still being only 38 points out of third place just doesn’t cut it. “I think just about every year since 2006 (when former engine partner Toyota departed the series) we’ve gone into the last race with a fighting chance of winning the championship, so this year, unless something comes out and wipes out the 12 car, it’s going to be pretty tough,” he joked.
While he said the switch from Honda to Chevrolet “was actually very smooth,” the team started the season “a little light in development. We had a lot of other projects as a team going on with the switch in engine manufacturer. Internally, in the building (where Ganassi’s IndyCar and TUDOR United Sports Car Championship teams work), we switched the sports car team from BMW to Ford, which was a big deal, I think. Especially with running Daytona and Sebring at the start of the year, took a lot of effort to get that achieved, which takes away a little bit from the IndyCar program.”
The Chevrolet engine, Dixon said, “Drives totally different to the Honda. I think we were maybe a little stuck in our ways in compromising the car for how the engine drives. I think we’ve been able to find more of a middle ground recently, which has definitely helped. We just didn’t start the season strong enough and it’s been a bit of playing catch-up. I think our off-season development was maybe not as strong as maybe some seasons in the past.”
It’s actually somewhat of a relief to Dixon being here at Sonoma and not having the pressure of a championship on his head. “Last year was a totally different situation where we were fighting back… I think we’ve been in that situation at this race, to be fighting for the championship” every year since 2006.
Sunday’s race at Sonoma has many facets to it: there are the six racers vying for a title that will ultimately be decided next Saturday night and 16 drivers needing to gain momentum at the end of the season to aid their fortunes for the coming year. Three of Dixon’s teammates fall into the latter category as Kanaan, Charlie Kimbsll and Ryan Briscoe are all searching for their first win of the year and wanting to make the point that they belong in the Ganassi stable in 2015.
To Dixon there’s “nothing better than team competition to raise your game,” Dixon notes as he recalls battling Franchitti for titles over the years, understanding the pressure that’s falling on Team Penske’s Power, Castroneves and Montoya. For a team, he says, “You can’t have a better situation than fighting 1-2 in the championship,” which is what Power and Castroneves, neither of whom has won a championship, face over the next seven days.
With qualifying yet to run on Saturday afternoon, from his catbird seat Dixon is looking forward to seeing how the championship plays out - he’s ready to pounce if any of his competitors have difficulties. “Winning a championship, especially in this series, you’ve got to be good at so many different disciplines to try and pull it off with the competition we have out there, and a car that you can’t really modify that much from team to team like in the old days,” he mused. If there’s anyone that can rise to that challenge, it’s the ice man, Scott Dixon.