The Racing Capital
of the World
October 16, 2013 | By Bruce Martin
One driver has already established himself as one of the great IndyCar drivers of his time. A two-time series champion and 2008 Indianapolis 500 winner with 33 career victories, which places him in a category that includes drivers named Foyt, Andretti and Unser. A man of quiet reserve, determined dignity and perhaps the most honest driver in the paddock – never afraid to tell the truth and without care if it rankles the establishment.
The other driver is a legend of the Indianapolis 500, one of only 10 men who have won the world’s greatest race three or more times in their career. A man of colorful personality who has drank the milk three times in victory lane at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and danced his way into America’s hearts as the winner of “Dancing with the Stars” in 2007.
But there is one thing the latter driver has never been called, and it’s a title he has chased his entire career – series champion.
It’s Scott Dixon versus Helio Castroneves in the battle for the 2013 IZOD IndyCar Series championship in the final race of the season – the MAVTV 500 on Saturday night at Auto Club Speedway.
And for the eighth consecutive season, the IndyCar Series championship will be determined in the final race of the year.
It promises to be an all-out, full-throttle battle over 500 miles under the lights in Southern California.
For Dixon, it will be a well-earned championship that further elevates him into elite status. For Castroneves, it will be a sentimental accomplishment for one of the most popular drivers of this era.
Either way, it’s going to be dramatic, and it’s going to come on a grand stage.
“It’s fitting that we’re racing on an oval for the IndyCar championship,” said Mike Hull, managing director of Target Chip Ganassi Racing. “That to me is the most important thing here. Yes, we have a chance to win a championship, but we have a chance to do it on an oval. When I think of IndyCar racing, oval-track racing comes to mind immediately. Fontana is a tough one by nature, but every oval is, and we can see if we can get the most out of it Saturday night.”
Two weeks ago, Dixon knew he had an incredible obstacle to overcome if he was going to win the championship. After two consecutive races where officiating calls went against his way at Sonoma, Calif., and Baltimore, he was 49 points behind the leader, Team Penske’s Castroneves.
Dixon had two things on his side – determination and the knowledge that with three races remaining there were a lot of points left. But he also needed another very important factor – some bad luck for Castroneves, who entered the Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston doubleheader completing every lap of every race this season.
Houston would be the pivotal race in the championship as Castroneves suffered gearbox failure in the first race Saturday, dropping him to an 18th-place finish while Dixon scored his fourth win of the season. And on Sunday, Castroneves’ Dallara/Chevrolet hit a bump on the track that broke the gearbox after just 10 laps. Dixon would finish second to Team Penske’s Will Power while Castroneves finished 23rd in the 24-car field.
An impressive comeback for Dixon, who went from 49 points behind to 25 points ahead in less than a 24-hour period.
But the comeback is far from complete. Dixon must finish fifth or better to claim his third IZOD IndyCar Series championship if Castroneves scores all the points that are available in the race for the pole, leading the most laps and driving to victory.
Of course, Dixon’s needed finishing position can drop depending on Castroneves finishing lower in the race. But 500 miles at the 2-mile oval in Fontana, Calif., serves as a tremendous equalizer.
“I think for us the easiest way to approach it is how we typically approach a race weekend, and that's to go there setting our sights on winning it,” said Dixon, who also won IndyCar titles in 2003 and 2008. “If we can achieve that, then it makes the championship story just sort of unfold. It'll be a tough situation. Helio and Chevy were quick at the (Sept. 24) test. Chevys have proven to be very fast on these bigger circuits, two-mile, two-mile plus. It's not going to be easy by any means and something that we're going to have to fight to the bitter end. We'll go into the weekend obviously trying to achieve a win.
“It's a good situation for us to be in and one that we'll dig deep and try and carry out next weekend, but obviously with the competition against Penske and Helio, a very accomplished team and a very accomplished driver, it's not going to be easy at all. As typical of many IndyCar Series championships, I think it's going to come down to the last-lap, last-corner scenario. For us, we just hope that we're on the good receiving end.”
While Dixon has reached this position by racing to win, Castroneves got here a completely different way – with consistency rather than victories. Castroneves has just one win this season, at Texas Motor Speedway in June in a car that later failed technical inspection, leaving a bit of tarnish on that win.
Even Team Penske President Tim Cindric believes Castroneves should have put more emphasis on victories rather than just making it to the finish.
“He’s done a really good job at being consistent, but you can’t bowyer this thing along; you have to win races,” Cindric said. “I credit Scott Dixon and his group for winning races. We won one at Texas, but it takes a lot more than that to win a championship. This year it looked like steady was going to win the race, but I’m not sure that is going to be the case. We have to take Fontana for what it is and see what happens.
“It’s a shame to get that close, but as an organization if you look at the last three or four years, we have to feel that the majority of those should have been ours.”
According to the man who calls the strategy for Dixon, there is only one way to race. It’s the same plan that has propelled Dixon to victory lane four times this season – more than any other driver in the series.
“We’re still going to have to race to win at Fontana, we think,” Hull said. “You have to be in a position to take maximum advantage when it counts so you have to have a car, a driver and a crew read everything correctly to get through the stops to winning the race. You don’t luck into winning races; sometimes luck gets in the way of you winning races. But you have to have all the ingredients in place to win the event.
“We’ve had some good fortune and some misfortune. But a championship team has to win. You have to win races, but when it’s not your day to win the race, you still have to run up front. That is what we have been trying to do for years is beat guys like Penske’s guys – the way that they race.”
Dixon is one of the coolest drivers in the cockpit while being one of the fiercest competitors on the track. But knowing he has to finish at least fifth to win the championship against one of the most competitive fields in recent IndyCar Series history is not going to be easy.
“I think it's a hard situation to obviously look at, depending on how the race sort of plays out from the get-go,” Dixon said. “I think that's the biggest thing for us is making sure that we don't rush into things. It is a 500-mile race, and that's how we approach a typical 500-mile race. You're kind of just analyzing how the situation is, what stuff we need to work on, how we need to better it throughout the race distance, and then obviously maybe looking at the competition and seeing where they're strong and how we need to sort of change our approach, whether it's strategy and maybe turning it into a bit of a fuel race to try and win that race, or if we've got straight-up speed then race as hard as we possibly can for the win.”
That’s how both drivers want to finish the season and determine a champion – by racing for a win.
“It’s just making sure that you've prepared yourself, you've made sure that you've given it your 100 percent,” Dixon said. “That's all that you can do. If that makes a difference; that's fantastic. But I think you can overanalyze situations too much.
“In the race you can't be constantly thinking, ‘OK, if I'm here, Helio needs to be there.’ You need to keep a fresh mind, a clear mind so that you can make good decisions at the time when it's tough. I think it's about not putting too much pressure on yourself, giving it your best, and not overanalyzing things.”
Castroneves thought this would finally be the year he earned that elusive series title after leading the points for 10 straight races following Texas in June.
In some ways, though, the pressure may be off Castroneves at Fontana. Rather than protecting a points lead, he must race to win and hope for the best.
“At this point, I feel that I have nothing to lose, so there is no pressure, to be honest, you just go for it,” Castroneves said. “We're going to look for our best result, and on the ovals, try to replicate what we did in Texas, and hopefully we'll successful.
“This team is built on hard-working, everyone really trying to for the entire season, not only in one race but the entire season has been work ethic and that sort of brought us in this kind of scenario. “I’m really excited, to be honest, to go to Fontana and go for it, all out, all in, as they say, and we believe that this team can do it, and we'll do everything we can to make this happen.”
While the team back in the pit area will be paying close attention to the points scenario, the drivers on the track try to block that out of their minds. But the two men fighting it out may be updated on where the other one is running during the race.
“Well, I wasn't watching, to be honest, during the whole season,” Castroneves said. “I was doing exactly what we're supposed to do. When we have a good car, we go for it. When we don't have a car, we just play with what the car is able to give us. And it worked. Everything worked really well.
“But now the only thing we have in mind is a lot of points, is a win. We're determined, we're ready, we're prepared, and that's why we're going for it. There is no other opposition that we need to be thinking about, and right now that's our main focus.”
Just like clockwork, Dixon finds himself in another position to win a championship. Since his last championship in 2008, Dixon has been a contender practically every year. But in numerology, his first two championships were separated by five years, and it has been five years since he last won the title.
While Dixon downplays the five-year quirk as an omen, he has reached this position by being among the best race drivers to compete in the series.
“It's always nice to be in this situation,” Dixon said. “It's what we race for each year.
“We set two goals: One, firstly, to win the Indy 500, and one, secondly, to win the championship. Obviously, we did a little poorly at the first, and this was kind of a late sort of stage, I think once we hit Pocono kind of thing, so as a car performance and team performance in general we needed to pick it up.
“It's been sort of a strange season with the ups and downs we've had. It's great to be fighting for it. Helio's year has been a little bit different in the fact that he's been I think in the top three of the championship for most of the year and led the points tally for a good part of the season. For us, we just hope to be leading at the right time of the year, after the race next weekend.
“It's great to always be in a fight for the championship, but obviously this year is a little different than the last. Excited, a little bit nervous, butterflies. Hopefully it's just competitiveness and wanting to do well and wanting to win this championship. It's a tough one to be a part of to start with, and then even tougher to be fighting it out where many of the other great drivers in the world.”
A test in the high heat and humidity at Sebring, Fla., at the end of June and the arrival of the latest-generation Honda engine kick-started Dixon’s season. He was winless at the Fourth of July but led a 1-2-3 Ganassi Racing sweep July 7 at Pocono International Raceway. Eight days later, Dixon had two more wins after sweeping the double-header at Toronto.
He remained competitive in the ensuing races and appeared on his way to victory at Sonoma before he hit one of Power’s crewmembers leaving his pit area on the final pit stop of the race. Dixon was assessed a drive-through penalty while leading the race and negated what would have been a huge gain in the standings.
The following week in Baltimore, Dixon was put into the wall by Power on a late-race restart, and INDYCAR officials didn’t tow Dixon’s car back to the pits. That put Dixon in a 49-point deficit. But he wiped out that gap and took a 25-point lead in one weekend in Houston.
And that leads to the grand finale – the championship race Saturday night at Auto Club Speedway.
There will be plenty of time to analyze the outcome once the championship is decided. No matter who wins the championship, it will produce a great story.