October 21, 2013 | By Bruce Martin
Dixon Stays Calm During Dramatic Finale To Win Third IndyCar Title
It was a night of highs and lows. The nature of the MAVTV 500 at Auto Club Speedway changed dramatically and the championship lead swung back and forth between the two drivers eligible for the 2013 IZOD IndyCar Series championship, both men already winners of the Indianapolis 500.
In some ways, the race Saturday night was a throwback race to the old days of IndyCar racing when 500-mile races were a battle of attrition. And while the race victory went to the fastest driver on the track, pole winner Will Power, the season championship was determined by a few twists of fate between 2008 Indy 500 winner Scott Dixon and three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves.
In the early stages of the race, Castroneves raced his way to the front while Dixon was mired in mid-pack. But in a 250-lap race at the 2-mile oval at Fontana, Calif., there was no reason for Dixon to put his car in harm’s way early in the contest because he was content to drive a strategic race and wait for the right time to make his move.
Dixon worked his way to the front and went ahead of Castroneves on the racetrack. With a 25-point lead, Dixon was assured of winning his third career IndyCar Series championship with a fifth-place finish no matter where Castroneves finished.
But when team owner Roger Penske, the winningest team owner in Indy 500 history with 15 victories, made an uncharacteristic mistake by calling for Castroneves to pit while the pits were closed just 48 laps from the finish, it was the beginning of the end for Castroneves’ hopes of winning his first IndyCar Series championship. It went from bad to worse for Castroneves when he made contact with Charlie Kimball’s car, breaking the front wing of Castroneves’ Dallara/Chevrolet, on lap 225.
Castroneves had to pit to replace the front wing. When he returned to the track, he was in sixth place but the first car one lap down.
It looked like Dixon could cruise to the championship, but his car began to overheat because of the unusually high amount of dirt, sand and debris that was clogging the radiator screens of the cars on the track. He pitted under green with 21 laps left so his team could clean the radiator. While he was in the pits, Sebastien Bourdais crashed on the backstretch to bring out a caution.
That caution flag kept Dixon from falling off the lead lap. Although he made one more pit stop a few laps later to clean more crud from the radiator, he clinched his third IndyCar Series championship with a fifth-place finish – one position ahead of Castroneves, who was one lap down.
Power won the race for his third win of 2013 and the 21st of his career but only his second on an oval and his first in a 500-mile race. And while team owner Penske was able to celebrate Power’s race victory, the enthusiasm for the team owner was tempered by the team’s failure to win the IndyCar Series championship. Team Penske’s last series title came in 2006 with Sam Hornish Jr.
This was the sixth straight year a Team Penske driver went into the final race of the season with a chance to win the championship only to see a driver from another team win the title.
But Dixon earned this championship. He staged a dramatic comeback that began at the midway point of the season when he drove to victory in the Pocono INDYCAR 400 Fueled by Sunoco on July 7. It was the first of three-straight victories over an eight-day period for Dixon, who jumped from ninth to second in the standings during that period.
Castroneves, who had a very steady and consistent season by finishing every lap of every race heading into the Houston double-header two weeks ago, only had one win during the season and was hoping consistency would be his ticket to his first career title. But his weekend in Houston was the crushing blow to his championship as gearbox issues in the first race and a broken gearbox housing in the second race saw his 49-point lead over Dixon turn into a 25-point deficit.
And that put Dixon in control of his own destiny at California. It was enough to give him his third series championship, by 27 points over Castroneves.
“It was pretty crazy having to start back in the pack a little bit,” said Dixon, who started 17th after taking a 10-grid spot penalty for an unapproved engine change to make sure he had an engine that would last the full 500 miles. “I moved up I think on the initial lap, then kind of had a few issues with the balance of the car, being back in the pack. We seemed to lose the balance a bit with understeer.
“I think for us it was more about maintaining. I could see still the leader. I was checking in with the team to see how fast the lead was getting away. The biggest thing in that position is to stay on the lead lap. The pack was still pretty compressed. I sort of just maintained. We worked on the car a little bit. We tried changing some tire pressures, working with the bars, the weight jacker. Didn't find the balance till sort of about lap 80, as late as 100. Once we got the balance set, the car was good, we were able to move up and really contend.”
Dixon had a decent car and led twice for five laps but it was not in the same category as the winning car driven by Power, who was in front six times for 103 laps of the 250-lap race. Ryan Hunter-Reay – last year’s IndyCar Series champion – led twice for 45 laps, Bourdais four times for 35 laps and Castroneves three times for 27 laps.
“I think we were one of the better cars out there,” Dixon said. “Will Power did a great job tonight. He was extremely fast, was just kind of hooked up. He could run on the bottom, the top, pick where he needed to go, head straight out speed. Maybe in the right scenario, we could have done it.
“The crunch came toward the end. I wasn't aware, apparently we had an overheating issue for quite some time with the engine. Last year we had a similar issue here. We had an overheating alarm come on. I had it on for the last 50 or 60 laps. When you have an alarm on, you can't see anything on your dash. You can't control the weight jacker or anything like that. This year I made sure they took it off. But I didn't know there was a problem. I guess that was kind of a good thing.
“When I knew there was an issue was when they were pitting me out of sequence. Going into three, they started yelling, ‘Pit, pit, pit.’ I knew we had a problem. Didn't know the extent of it. But to catch that yellow, to understand under that yellow that Helio had an issue, as well, and lost a lap was the perfect scenario.
“I just sort of maintained the car for the rest of the night. They tried to pull as much as they could out of the radiator and some off the side pod to help cool it. The engine ran OK toward the end. It was still getting pretty hot, but it was going to be pretty tough to lose it at that point with sort of 15 laps to go.”
On the flipside, Castroneves saw his championship hopes fade for yet another time in his career. But rather than see his season end in tears, Castroneves was all smiles afterward, perhaps masking his disappointment but realizing he had one of the better seasons in his racing career and proving to the skeptics that is still capable of contending for championships.
“It was a great championship,” Castroneves said. “We did everything we could in our side to bring home the championship. Unfortunately, we didn't finish the position we wanted. But I tell you what, I had a great time. It was awesome. I went for it. I was driving my heart out out there. I was pushing to the limit. The AAA boys did a great job, too. It's a shame that we end up having contact with 83 (Kimball), breaking our front wing. But I knew it would be very hard-fought with those guys. My only chance was to be aggressive, and that's what we did.”
There were no tears shed by Castroneves, at least not in public any way.
“I can't take for granted the season we had,” Castroneves said. “Yes, so close, so far. I would say a lot of little things. If you see the way we finish, you got to finish outside the five, you didn't finish. I didn't win, so basically if I lose by one point or two points, that would be hard to swallow.
“In the end of the day, you can't take the credit from the Ganassi guys and Scott. One weekend unfortunately for us cost a lot of points. Unfortunately it was nobody's prediction. We did everything we could to avoid any kind of mechanical failure. The only time we had a mechanical failure in the whole season, that's what cost the season.
“We can't look back. We just got to continue working hard. This is part of racing. That's why I'm taking it OK. I'm ready to come back actually next year and start all over again.”
Castroneves didn’t blame his team owner by making the mistake that brought him into the pits when it was closed, but he did think the scenario was quite unusual.
“I think it was a little bit of confusion there,” Castroneves said. “I asked again to pit. They ended up calling me, yes. When I noticed I was the only one pitting, we got to go back again.
“It was fine. That was just a blip on the radar. It wasn't an issue at all for the race. I was able to go back right away on the restart.
“We are putting ourselves in an opportunity to do that. I guess wasn't meant to be. Last time we won with Sam, it was a big battle between us and Ganassi, as well. It wasn't meant to be. We trying to cover all the issues that every season we are in this scenario. Three seasons in a row. One season with Ryan Briscoe. The guy led most laps, did everything he could. For the first time ever, there was no yellow flags in Homestead.
“Then came Will. Now it's my turn. The only thing I can say, we can only build ourselves stronger and come back next year. We can't keep crying about it and question ourselves why.”
Power’s victory in the race was impressive, and he hopes he has proven his ability on ovals. He credits his fearless determination to a comment last year’s race winner, Ed Carpenter, said that Power failing in the final race of last season was “expected.”
“This was very satisfying,” Power said. “I was so determined to win. I went backward, forward, backward, forward, but eventually went forward to win it. For what happened last year, I had this race in my mind all year; I had the ovals especially in mind, to do a very good, solid job. That's exactly what happened. It’s probably my best win ever, that's for sure.
“The incentive? The incentive was Ed Carpenter said that Will Power did exactly what everyone expected him to do at the last race last year. I thought that was just such motivation for me to beat him and win at this track and just be good at ovals. I went about it. I thought, ‘I'm going to beat Ed.’ Ed, I really respect him. A very good, fast, clean oval racer. Always good to race. I don't dislike him, but I told him, I said, ‘Man, your comment last year gave me a lot of motivation.’ It's true.
“So, yes, that's right. I like Ed. He's very good. He's quick. But that comment definitely got to me in a good way.”
Dixon was the victor of a race that featured 28 lead changes among 11 drivers with Power winning the race at an averaged speed of 154.867 mph. He defeated Carpenter by 1.4883 seconds, but only nine of the 25 cars that started the race were running at the end.
That was extremely reminiscent of the old days of IndyCar racing when 500-mile races were a grind – an endurance battle that tested both the driver and the car.
This was a race that came with a high toll with seven caution periods for 55 laps. The most serious incident was a major crash in Turn 2 on Lap 110 involving Justin Wilson, Oriol Servia, Tristan Vautier, Simona de Silvestro, James Jakes and Josef Newgarden. It looked like Wilson’s car may have hit one of the seams in the asphalt, which sent Wilson’s car sliding up the track into the wall triggering the massive crash. Servia attempted to go high to avoid the carnage before Newgarden’s car slammed into him.
Wilson was awake and alert and transported to Arrowhead Regional Medical Center for further observation that determined he has non-operable pelvic fractures and a small pulmonary contusion.
At the end of a long, hard night of racing, Power won the battle. But Dixon won the championship for Target Chip Ganassi Racing – the 10th series championship for the team and the fourth IndyCar title in the last five years.
“This one's pretty special, I have to say, because of certainly how our season started out,” team owner Chip Ganassi said. “The fact that Scott Dixon did it. We had a tough, tough beginning of the season. We had a tough Indy 500. We had a tough midseason. Obviously Honda turned around at Pocono. Ups and downs all season. Losing my father at one point. That death, it took a lot of wind out of my sails. Then, of course, the Sonoma incident, the Baltimore incident. We had a lot of things.
“The guys on this team, the guy to my right, never, never, never gave up. These guys don't know the word 'give up.' They don't know how to give up. They hung in there, hung in there, hung in there. Tonight for 250 laps Dixon, Mike Hull, those guys on that 9 car team never quit.”
Dixon has already earned his position as one of the IndyCar racing’s all-time greats with 33 career victories. The only drivers with more wins than Dixon are one Foyt, two Andrettis and three Unsers.
The third IndyCar Series title only solidifies Dixon’s greatness.
“When you've won a couple, they're all very different,” Dixon said. “The first one, I think I was young, just didn't really understand what I had won. Was the first year in the series with the team. My perspective when I was 22 or 23 of what I actually did to what I understand now is totally different. I think the competitiveness of the series has gone through the roof since the merger in '08.
“In 2008, it was a dream year. I got married, won the Indy 500 and the championship. Pretty hard to beat that.
“This year I think has been far different just in the fact midseason we didn't think we had a shot at the championship. I remember having a conversation with Helio after Iowa. I was like, ‘Man, you need to watch out.’ He kind of pissed me off a little bit in Iowa. I'm not in the championship, don't do that again, because otherwise I can maybe hinder your championship.’
“It's funny how it turned out to be us fighting it out in the last few races.
“I feel for Helio. He ran a strong year. He's a hell of a competitor. He's a high-energy person. I've been in that situation before, and it sucks. I want to thank him for having a great race tonight and keeping it clean, pushing as hard as he could.
“But, yeah, I think tonight's race sums up how our year was. It was very up and down. In the end we came out on top, so that's the important part.”
It was a great finish to an outstanding IndyCar Series season that featured 10 different winners, including some impressive first-time winners such as James Hinchcliffe, Simon Pagenaud, Charlie Kimball and Takuma Sato.
But there was also a sense of loss to this championship for Ganassi because his father, Floyd, passed away in August.
When asked, “How big of a kick would Floyd have gotten out of tonight?” the normally steely, often acerbic Ganassi teared up with emotion, his eyes welling with tears and his voice choking.
“I'm sure he's up there smiling down on us right now,” Ganassi said. “He was a big part of my career and my life. He and I really got to know each other through racing. You always see people in positions like this saying, ‘I wish my mom or dad were here.’ I know what that feels like here.
“He was a great guy.
“I wish he was here.”