Who is the best IndyCar driver of this era?

Scott Dixon is often described as 'the greatest IndyCar driver of his generation,' but is he? David Malsher considers the four-time champion's toughest rivals for that crown, and concludes there's only one real threat (for now).

Who is the best IndyCar driver of this era?

Even if you aren’t 100 percent certain that Dixon is the best IndyCar driver of the moment, then at least – the very least – he’s a prime contender for that title. Even in the years when he has an equipment deficit, the Chip Ganassi Racing legend finds a way to get in the championship mix in a manner that makes Team Penske people very twitchy. In the 11 seasons from 2007 through ’17, he finished top three in the championship standings in all but one year.

Given his exceptionally high standards and the fact that he’s mentally sharp Dixon will surely be smart enough to retire while still a winner, but that decision isn’t coming any time soon, and he tells me he was irritated by a recent story that suggested otherwise.

“TK [Tony Kanaan] is 43, [Takuma] Sato is 41, but that story decided to talk about me and retirement!?” the 37-year-old said, almost spluttering with annoyance. “I’ll be racing into my 40s, like those two.”

Which is great to hear because Dixon is as formidable and motivated as ever – witness last Saturday’s charge from 18th on the grid to a second place finish – despite now being in his 18th year of Indy car racing and having nothing left to prove. He sits fourth in the all-time winner list, just one victory behind Michael Andretti, yet Scott’s incentive comes not from the record books but from sheer enthusiasm for the job and a thirst for success. Whenever he matches or surpasses a statistic set by one of the legends of the sport, he insists that it’s not a subject that occupies his mind.

“It’s an honor to be mentioned with the Unsers,” he’ll say, “but career stats are for looking at when I quit.”

And as we now know, that’s several years off. But this modesty and no-bullshit approach to his career won’t stop the media and fans from adding the fanfare and recognizing that Scott Ronald Dixon is already a proper IndyCar icon.

So, given his numbers, the depth of his experience, his consistency and the breadth of his ability across all types of track, he’s the most natural pick as the current ‘master’ of IndyCar racing and certainly the measuring stick against whom his peers are judged.

Brilliant but beatable

The master is by no means supreme, however, as Dario Franchitti proved when he won three straight championships as Dixon’s teammate at Ganassi. Dixon then had a clear advantage on the points table in 2012 and ’13, but in retrospect, the swing in results had much to do with fate – the old ‘what goes around, comes around’. Dixon’s luck in 2010 and ’11 was so rotten that following one of my end-of-season reviews, my mother emailed me the simple message, “Please don’t ever let me get on the same flight as Scott Dixon.”

Yet the following couple of seasons, it was Franchitti who, aside from scoring his third Indy 500 victory, was more usually the Ganassi driver who had the rug pulled out from under him. If there was a Target-liveried car to be hit by an errant rival or which would commit to a strategy that was then undone by caution periods, it was Dario’s.

It was a sad runout for the four-time champ, even before his enforced retirement from the cockpit, but those who say Franchitti lost his pace are forgetting he scored seven pole positions over his final two years in the series. And those who feel his motivation was suspect are forgetting that fateful final crash at Houston in 2013 came during a last-lap scrap with Sato… for 10th place!

So that’s the quality of driver with whom Dixon was being directly compared for five seasons, and that’s a hellishly tough match-up.

Possible contenders

Who of the current crop of IndyCar drivers is at that Franchitti level, and might be annoyed by Dixon’s honorary title of “greatest Indy car driver of his generation”? Helio Castroneves’ 30 wins (three in the Indy 500) and 51 poles establishes he’s one of the best IndyCar drivers of the 21st century but some winless seasons and the lack of a championship hurt his case for being ranked at the absolute peak.

Ryan Hunter-Reay is both a champ and an Indy 500 winner but his stats have been damaged by fluctuations in Andretti Autosport’s form during his eight-years-and-counting stint there. His teammate Alexander Rossi has huge potential but is in only his third season of IndyCar racing, and as of right now, has just three victories and two pole positions to his name. Robert Wickens is even further down the IndyCar learning curve, although he has the potential to be hugely successful over the next dozen years in IndyCar.

Josef Newgarden, in IndyCar since 2012, is the reigning champion, has nine career wins to his name already, drives for Penske, and is still only 27. He could clearly rack up serious stats in the years to come. In fact, even were he to be temporarily lured by opportunities in Formula 1 like Sebastien Bourdais, or NASCAR like Franchitti, he’s got time to return to this series and rack up big numbers.

The aforementioned Bourdais remains a phenomenal driver, and has four Champ Car titles and 37 Indy car victories to his name, but there is a metaphorical asterisk beside any championship title earned while Indy car racing was split into two series. That’s massively unfortunate for Bourdais because I’m convinced that he and Newman/Haas Racing could have beaten the IRL holy trinity of Penske/Ganassi/Andretti to a couple of titles in a ‘combined’ series. Nonetheless, a great talent.

Bourdais’ compatriot, 2016 IndyCar champion Simon Pagenaud is a subtle surgeon of a driver, who can make winning a race look like the simplest thing on earth, but he can also charge through the pack on tracks where passing is supposedly difficult. In Pagenaud, there are definite echoes of his mentor, Gil de Ferran, which is most definitely a good thing.

Juan Pablo Montoya absolutely had the talent to be classified with Dixon, so that if he’d stayed in IndyCar, he might have surpassed AJ Foyt’s win record (67) or Mario Andrettti’s pole record (also 67). But JPM chose to go to F1 and NASCAR, and that 13-year hole in his Indy car résumé leaves too much room for conjecture.

No, in terms of longevity, in terms of stats, in terms of always being a factor, only one of the current full-timers comes close to matching Dixon.

Power house

Despite their similarity in age, Dixon and Will Power made their Indy car debuts four years apart. In 2001, Dixon – already a veteran of two successful Indy Lights campaigns – was a race winner for PacWest in Champ Car, while Power was winning in Australian Formula Ford.

Power would then capture the Formula Holden series, head to Europe, becoming a winner in World Series by Renault and then accepting Walker Racing’s offer for the last two Champ Car events of 2005 and beyond. In the mean time, Dixon had been signed by Ganassi for the 2002 Champ Car season before Chip switched to the IRL, whereupon Scott promptly earned the 2003 title despite very different cars in an all-oval series.

So when these Antipodeans raced each other for the first time – the 2008 season-opener at Homestead, following the IRL-Champ Car merger – Dixon already had a championship and 11 race wins to his name, while Power had just two wins. Scott added a second and quite dominant championship that year, while Power and KV Racing scored the final Champ Car victory in their Panoz-Cosworth at Long Beach, but at all other races the team was thrashing to learn the IRL Dallara-Honda.

Ten years later, Dixon is eight wins ahead of Power, but now the tally is 41-33, and Dixon has added a further two championships to Power’s one. Yet in other regards, the stats favor the Aussie driver. If you gauge their performances since 2010, Will’s first full season as a Team Penske driver and therefore the first championship campaign in which he had a car to match Scott’s Ganassi entry, Oz comes out ahead of NZ, 29-19 in wins, 44-11 in pole positions, and 3268-1960 in laps led.

I’m absolutely not a slave to statistics – in fact I’m very skeptical of those who are – which is why I only recently woke up to this particular comparison. There are far more interesting and esoteric factors to consider than mere numbers when evaluating our sport’s aces; this isn’t baseball. So I’m emphatically not saying bald figures prove Power is better than Dixon.

But nor can they be ignored. Will’s data is pretty damn remarkable. Certainly, he should be considered in any conversation of great IndyCar drivers, yet while Dixon is regarded (not by himself) as the master with four championships, Power is seen as the lightning-quick driver who has finished runner-up four times and earned one title.

What must Power do to change perceptions?

The obvious answer is, ‘Win at least three more championships,’ but he must also alter long-held misconceptions. For example, it’s taken two wins at Texas, two at Pocono, one at Fontana, one at Milwaukee, and pole positions at Texas, Iowa, Milwaukee and Gateway for people to get past the idea that ‘Power doesn’t like ovals.’

And did you notice during ABC’s commentary on last weekend’s Indy Grand Prix, how the commentators were baffled that someone could match Dixon’s ability to go fast while trying to stretch fuel mileage? “Either Power’s Chevy engine is using less fuel than Dixon’s Honda, or Power is using more fuel than he should,” said an earnest Eddie Cheever with a couple of laps to go. Sure, Chevy has improved its fuel mileage recently, but apparently it’s completely unthinkable that there is more than one driver who is expert at making a little fuel go a long way while going quick.

Yet Power’s biggest deficit to Dixon, in terms of respect from the masses, is that one of Scott’s 41 wins came in the Indy 500, while none of Power’s 33 wins have put his face on the Borg-Warner Trophy. Unless IndyCar is ingrained in your soul, you won’t care how many times Power’s ill fortune – that’s another aspect where he matches Dixon! – has lost him the series championship. For those who watch IndyCar only on Memorial Day Weekend, Dixon was a dominant winner in 2008, while seven years later Will lost Indy to teammate Montoya by 0.1046sec.

After last year’s St. Petersburg race, in which a fuel-feed problem caused Power to be black-flagged, I was chatting with him when a member of IndyCar management came over to commiserate.

“Forget it; it don’t matter,” he told Power. “How many of these early races have you won? The one you’ve got to win is in May. Then no one remembers how well you went in St. Pete or Barber.”

A harsh verdict perhaps, but probably an accurate one. Power’s résumé – especially as a long-standing Penske driver – will not be complete until he’s captured at least one Indy 500. He’s not the most successful driver to have failed to win it; that ‘honor’ falls to 42-time IndyCar race winner Michael Andretti. But at least the second-gen Andretti has become famous for leading more laps at the Speedway than four-time Indy winner Rick Mears – and he’s also racked up several wins there as a team owner. Power doesn’t yet have a consolation prize.

The teammate factor

Aside from winning the 500, for Power to establish his place in the IndyCar pantheon, he needs to beat his full-time teammates, Newgarden and Pagenaud, both of whom have become champions. Power is the only one of them to have been race-winning fast at all five races held this year but there’s no doubt that Josef, as reigning champ, is a ferocious competitor: the chances he takes usually pay off so his judgment is excellent, he’s a fast learner, and he’s quick. At Sonoma last year and Barber this year he beat Power to pole, admittedly only by hundredths, but even when he doesn’t start at the very front, Newgarden has the aggression and race pace to work his way forward.

Certainly Will has the speed, talent, brain power and experience to beat ‘the kid’ with the same equipment, but he needs to guard against the team’s momentum shifting behind the younger gun, as we saw at Sonoma last year. Power had understood team president Tim Cindric’s switch to Newgarden’s car as strategist at the start of the season, to ensure a smooth transition for the new arrival. He also understood the need to play the team game at the Sonoma finale and act as Josef’s tailgunner to protect against (of course!) Dixon… even if Will did look bored witless after an uneventful cruise to third.

However, although Power himself remained impressively stoical on the subject, several objective observers winced at the team swapping a couple of the Will’s crew guys over to Josef’s machine to ensure the biggest push for the title favorite. To prevent a recurrence, Power needs to head into season finales as top Penske driver.

Power switch unlikely

Will we ever get to see a direct comparison between Power and Dixon? It seems unlikely. Will's ardent and sincere praise for Roger Penske and the team after clocking the squad’s 200th Indy car win last weekend would suggest he ain’t moving any time soon. And simple logic would suggest similar: for the last two seasons, Penske looked superior to Ganassi, whether Chip was running Chevrolets or Hondas.

But Power shouldn’t be automatically averse to the idea of a team switch. He has surely now repaid the loyalty and kindness that Roger showed him after twice breaking his back in Penske cars, and he knows better than most that Ganassi’s lulls don’t last long. He may like the idea of helping CGR return to a position of pre-eminence, and if Chip can either renew his deal with NTT Data or find another strong sponsor for a second (or third) car, Power should also have no question marks over how much resource will be plowed into R&D. That’s especially important when IndyCar starts to open the ‘boxes’ in which teams can make their own custom tweaks, because Ganassi is a great team that can really strut when let off the leash.

If a Power move to Ganassi is still only a remote possibility, could Dixon perhaps go the other way and join Penske? That seems even less likely, at least in IndyCar, especially as the Dixon/Ganassi combined heritage was a major allure for the #9’s main sponsor, PNC Bank, and we’re told that's a multi-year deal.

Still, just out of interest, I recently asked both Power and Dixon how they’d feel about partnering with the other, regardless of which team they were in.

“Dixie is a real solid driver, no obvious weaknesses,” responded Power. “Fast, gets the job done, races hard, works hard. If we were on the same team, we’d make a lot of progress and learn from each other. Yeah, that would be cool.”

“It would be fun,” agrees Dixon. “Will’s obviously a fantastic driver, and I think we’ve always got on pretty well together. Intra-team rivalry is the best sort – you learn from each other, you push each other, and then the team benefits.”

Chip Ganassi is fond of saying (and tweeting), “I like winners,” and the idea of running IndyCar’s two most prolific winners of the last decade in one team must surely be tempting. Luring Power would not only strengthen CGR but also weaken Penske, even were Roger to replace Will with Wickens or another rising star.

But who would then emerge on top in a Dixon vs. Power intra-team battle? Well, let that debate begin.

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