As the checkers flew over the IndyCar season-finale at Chicagoland Speedway, Scott Dixon didn't know if he had won the race or not. The photo finish between he and championship rival Helio Castroneves was too close to call. In fact, officials originally named the New Zealander the winner, but after close review of the video, Castroneves was given the trophy. Dixon instead settled for second in the race, but he wasn't left empty-handed this time. Instead, the Chip Ganassi Racing driver celebrated in victory lane as the 2008 IndyCar Series Champion.
The title, though, didn't come as easy as Dixon had originally hoped. After a dominant two-thirds of the season, the he held a 78-point lead over title contender Castroneves with three races remaining. From there, Dixon watched his lead shrink due to his string of bad luck, and a swing of good fortunes for Castroneves. A win at Infineon for the exuberant Brazilian kept his championship hopes alive, just as Dixon had one of his worst races of the year. The very next week in Detroit, Castroneves was on his way to victory again, but ended up second, with Dixon finishing down in fifth.
Wishing he had it all locked up by now, Dixon rolled into Sunday's 300-miler with a 30-point lead over Castroneves. Starting from shotgun on the field following a qualifying infringement, the two-time Indianapolis 500 champion charged through the pack to lead before halfway. Castroneves racked up the most laps led bonus, and was 0.0033 seconds ahead at the line to take the win. But even all that wasn't enough for him to claim the championship, as it was Dixon who was runner-up in the photo finish. The nail-biting conclusion to the point's season put everyone in suspense right down to the final few seconds of the race.
"I think for us, we set our minds on having it tied up a long time before now, and I think that's what ran us into a little bit of trouble," Dixon said. "That was definitely the toughest two weeks I've had. Even [Sunday], Team Penske and Helio wouldn't let it go. They were pushing to make sure they had the most laps led, and you have to tip their hats off to them for doing all that they knew to do."
From the start of 2008, Dixon had the field covered. The Ganassi ace led the standings for all but three races, winning on six occasions, including his maiden Indy 500 crown in May. Consistency was definitely the name of the game all year long. Dixon only had three finishes outside of the top-10 during the season, averaging 38 points a race.
This year's championship couldn't have been so much different than his first in 2003. Five years ago, Dixon embarked on his full season of IndyCar, and the title fight came down to a five-way battle at the season finale. The New Zealander prevailed in the end and won, but the spectacle never really soaked in.
"[The 2008 title] means a lot more. I think this year is much tougher," Dixon said. "2003 was a tough championship to win in other ways said. I've always said in recent weeks that we didn't know what we had won then. It was a rookie season for me into the IRL and the team. Going into the last race with five guys mathematically who could have won it, and coming out on top was definitely staggering. I think after '04 and '05 makes you cherish things a lot more, and race wins as a whole, but a championship much more."
Dixon's 2003 title wasn't as satisfying to him because of the lack track diversity. Five years ago, IndyCar was still an all-oval series, compared to today, where the open-wheel machines battle on road and street courses as well. Dixon can now say he's the "best of the best" in American open-wheel racing, especially after this year's unification with Champ Car.
"To accomplish the disciplines that we have now with short ovals, medium-sized tracks, superspeedways, street course/road course [is great], and it looks like it will get stronger as well," he said. "I think you definitely get a true champion out of that. For us to win it on that kind of level I think is pretty special."
One year ago, Dixon came a pint of ethanol short of claiming the 2007 championship, as his Honda-Dallara ran dry on the final corner, of the final lap, while leading. It gave Andretti Green Racing's Dario Franchitti the win, and also the crown. While it was a bitter blow for the entire Ganassi squad, the team kept its focus. That determination to never give up helped put Dixon in the top spot this year, in an even more impressive fashion compared to last season.
"I think that's the way Scott has raced all year long," said Managing Director Mike Hull. "It's a testament to Scott. It's a dedication to the men and women at Chip Ganassi Racing, what they did after coming back from Chicago last year. Oftentimes people spiral into Never Never Land when you get beat like he had got beat last year here at Chicago. We actually took Monday off last year, but we were working on Tuesday. Everybody in the building, we got together and dedicated ourselves to do what he saw this year."
Pulling through this time around awarded team owner Chip Ganassi with his sixth open-wheel championship, adding to the team's already clinched Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series title this season. The racing empire began its dominance in CART with four consecutive championships in 1996-1999 with drivers Jimmy Vasser, Alex Zanardi and Juan Pablo Montoya. Dixon then claimed the team's first IndyCar crown in 2003, and has now backed it up with another one, now five years later.
"Every person that's been a part of any of those championships has a little bit of sweat in this one and has a part of it," Ganassi said. "Every team member back starting with Vasser in '96, starting with Michael Andretti in '94 when he was winning races for us. Everybody along the way, every driver, every crew member, every sponsor, they all have some ownership in this championship."
And don't expect for Ganassi's open-wheel dynasty to run dry anytime soon. Dixon has remained committed to the team for years to come, and wants to make his mark in the American open-wheel record books. Dixon, though, admits he will miss working teammate Dan Wheldon next year, who leaves for Panther Racing. Taking his place will be none other than Dario Franchitti, Dixon's championship rival from last year. The Scot will surely be aiming to become the next two-time champion in 2009. Could Dixon's biggest threat for the title next year come from his teammate?
"I said to Chip, 'That's number two and we have many more to come,'" Dixon said with a smile. "With Dario coming on board, and having the last two Indy 500 champions, and the last two series champions, is going to be a strong package. I'm looking forward to it. This one will be a tough team to beat in coming years."