Dixon Looming Larger In Castroneves' Mirror As Title Fight Hits Stretch Run
Helio Castroneves maintains the IZOD IndyCar Series lead, but Scott Dixon is charging and rapidly closing in on the Team Penske driver heading into his best track – the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.
Dixon is just 29 points behind Castroneves entering the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio – a race Target Chip Ganassi Racing standout Dixon has won four times since 2007, including his victory last year. Dixon is attempting to win his fourth-straight race this season after winning July 7 at Pocono Raceway followed by a Toronto doubleheader sweep on July 13-14.
“I hope we can keep these results coming,” Dixon said. “It was much needed. It was a big turning point for us in the championship. Before Pocono, we were 92 points out and now 29 and second in the championship. Typically, Mid-Ohio has been a great circuit for us. Hopefully that transfers.
“I think it's a combination of the team. They've always had good results here, and both cars have been very quick. If you could put your finger on it, you would try to replicate it at every track. It makes it tough to work out why, but if you are, you just roll with it, and hopefully, you can continue to (stay on the roll) each year.”
While Dixon is on a roll, he realizes he must maintain his focus in order to keep it going.
"It was a big wow to win three in a row,” Dixon said. “Pocono was more a shock. My first comments to (team owner) Chip (Ganassi) when I got out of the car, 'This morning I didn't expect to be sitting here.' When you have a weekend that turns you like that and the confidence with the team and the driver and everybody, it gives you a better flow. Going into Toronto, we had a few problems on the first day, and we seem to correct those quickly and made the most of the weekend.
“You've got to do your own thing. Yes, you can take in more information and see what other people are up to, whether it's on a practice day and going out and having a look around and seeing what everyone is doing in each corner. The best way for you to focus on what you need to change and what direction to go is to go do it yourself with your team. We approach each weekend the same. As a standalone, we can't go off the results we had last week. We've got to go here and make the best of this weekend.”
It’s obvious the momentum is on Dixon’s side, but Castroneves continues to hold a points lead that he has occupied since winning the Chevrolet Duals in Detroit on June 2.
“We just got to keep focused on our work,” Castroneves said. “I'm not worried less or more because it's Scott. The same thing was with Ryan Hunter-Reay. They are both on great teams.
“But I trust my guys. I know we have the best equipment, the best guys out there. We know what we capable. That's what we're focused on at this point.”
While Dixon may have the advantage at Mid-Ohio based on his past results Castroneves is another driver that appreciates what the track has to offer.
“Racing at Mid-Ohio is a tradition,” Castroneves said. “I've been racing here a long time, but before me, they were racing here since the early 1970's. It shows the tradition of Indy car and it's a great track. The design of the track from back then is still in fashion today. It's a challenging place. Over the years, the asphalt has changed and the track gets faster every time you go on it. The first two laps you do today, it's very different from where you finish. Every time you go out there, you learn something. Even with the experience that I have, there's always something new. The fans are so great and are a big part of why I like coming here.
“The good news when you see someone has adapted to a track is that every driver has a track that suits their driving style. For the competitors it's good because it pushes you to the next level. You look a little at what they've done in the past and work it out. That's the way I see it. Our PPG boys are working hard. It was good we've had these two weeks off because our boys have been working to find things to help us that we haven't seen before. In that aspect, we're not focusing on what (Dixon) is doing. We're focusing on what we can do. But we know how good he's going to be.”
While most drivers are focused on the next race and try not to look too far ahead, Castroneves is just six races away from achieving his career-long goal of a championship – something he’s never accomplished.
“It's still a long way to go,” Castroneves said. “Six races. A lot of points are involved. We just need to keep doing what we're doing. It's gotten us here to this point (where we're leading the championship). The results we've achieved have come from our consistency. We're pushing the limit of the car and myself. We're not trying to overdo it. If the cars good, we'll go for it. If the car's not good, then we have to find ways to make it happen. That's what we've done in the past. We've always been very close (to winning the championship), and right now things are going our way. Hopefully we keep it this way.
“At Detroit, we got pushed into the wall and we were still able to come away with a top-10 finish. Things happen for a reason. You can't always explain what the guy upstairs has planned for you. I'll tell you one thing. We're not trying to change the focus. We're not trying to do anything different. We're not stopping in believing what we've got. I think this team has a lot of heart, and combined with what we want, hopefully our wish comes true.”
Castroneves is best known for three things – his three Indianapolis 500 victories, his signature celebration of climbing the fence after a victory and winning “Dancing with the Stars” in 2007.
But the one thing Castroneves has been unable to achieve is an IZOD IndyCar Series championship. The popular Castroneves realizes this may be his last best chance at winning the title.
“Interesting, when you have opportunities like I have, I want as bad as anybody,” Castroneves said. “Especially having those guys behind me, I have that chance. Experienced guys, experienced teams.
“When you put yourself in this position, yes, I'm going to fight as much as I can. If I have a good car to finish, I will finish strong. If I don't have a good car to finish, I'll play smart. You use different strategies, ways to put us there. That's what's happening at this point.
“So I want it more than anybody.”
Castroneves’ main competitor is Dixon, a two-time IZOD IndyCar Series champion and the 2008 Indianapolis 500 winner. He began the season struggling with the Honda engine. But when the latest-generation Honda was introduced before Pocono, Dixon has been unbeaten with the new engine.
His Target Chip Ganassi Racing team also decided to test at Sebring International Raceway in the middle of the summer to get a better understanding of the Firestone tires and how to set up their Dallara chassis to optimize their race setup. Anybody who has been to Central Florida in the heat and humidity of the summer knows how miserable that can be, but Dixon believes it was essential in igniting his hot streak and making him a legitimate championship contender this season.
“We seemed to find an area that we think we're in a pretty good condition,” Dixon said. “The car still brakes well, obviously has mechanical grip, looks after the tires pretty well, too.
“I think we should probably credit some of the gains that we made, everybody went and tested at Pocono, tested at other places, we went to Sebring in the middle of summer, which is never too much fun, worked on the car, worked on some of the issues we had at the start the year, tried to zero in on where we were going wrong, and I think that's definitely helped.”
This season is starting to look very similar to the 2007 season. Dixon wasn’t considered a strong candidate for victory until this point in the season, and then he also went on a three-race winning streak in July, which put him in the thick of a thrilling battle with Dario Franchitti, who was then at Andretti Green Racing. The two drivers battled all the way to the final lap of the final race of the season at Chicagoland Speedway before Dixon’s engine sputtered and ran out of fuel in the last turn heading to the checkered flag.
“We just needed a cup of fuel, and that would have been different,” Dixon said. “We don't intentionally start the season bad, though we typically seem to somehow. I hope that it goes like '07, but turns out like '08. It's so competitive, with how many different race winners we've had this year, the points are jumbled up, and people have made strides at different points in the year.
“I suspect there's going to be four, five, six people that are going to be fighting for it at the end of the year. Hopefully we're one of them. Hopefully we dig deep enough and maybe it goes our way.”
It is undeniable Dixon is firmly in the championship hunt in 2013.
“I think so,” Dixon said. “Helio has had a pretty stress-free year as far as not being involved in accidents or having mechanicals. Ryan Hunter-Reay, every time I kept seeing him at Toronto, he was in some kind of altercation. He lost a lot of points over the weekend.
“I think it's still going to be a tough battle. I like the look of the tracks we have coming up. I think we are in the hunt. I think some tracks we'll be at a slight disadvantage to the Chevys, some we might have an advantage. The Toronto weekend was a bit of an eye-opener for our team at least. Some of the other Hondas were not up maybe where they should have been.”
And these next six races should be quite a battle, and it all begins at Dixon’s best track – the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.
“The way the year started, I didn't think we'd even be close toward the front of the championship,” Dixon said. “I think there's been a fair share of other good guys, guys that have had good points that have had their issues, as well. It's actually closed the gap a fair bit.
“This is the stretch that we need to make a good time of it.”
And don’t forget about reigning series champion Hunter-Reay. Although he has dropped to third in the championship, he is still within striking distance of the points lead.
"We're trying to defend the championship, and that's how it's been all year,” Hunter-Reay said. “We've been right there second in the points pretty much the whole year, we have two race wins, but we've just had a string of bad races recently. Hopefully we'll be getting over that soon, and there's no better place to turn that around than Mid-Ohio.
“You hear past champions talk about that and in a championship run year things tend to go your way, and you get on a hot streak and things fall into place. I thought we were on that earlier in the year, and we still can be on it. We've come back from bigger deficits than this so I'm optimistic. From Pocono to Toronto - eight days - we had a terrible run and we're ready to turn that around."
Hunter-Reay believes the unique nature of the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course makes qualifications very important because it is a tough track in terms of passing. It is also a tough track on the drivers.
“Mid-Ohio has a flow to it that no other race track has,” Hunter-Reay said. “It has high-speed corners - we're using fourth gear at 140 mph through Turn 1 and doing probably 4 Gs through there - and it just gives you that reward. It's a track that when you get it right it's so rewarding because you're hanging it out on the edge, and you can feel the risk is there. It has elevation changes, braking zones, fast corners; it has everything you'd want in a racetrack. This is one of my favorite racetracks, and you always have to be a student of the game. You have to over-analyze every bit. You have to constantly be digging to find the place in your driving style to put it all together.
"It's going to be a tight competition here this weekend. IndyCar is always tight, but this is going to be a real shootout.
"The race at Mid-Ohio is one of my favorite rounds of the IndyCar schedule. Mid-Ohio is the heart of American open-wheel road racing, and I have some great memories over the years at this track. I’ve been on the podium a few times here and following tough weekends we had at Pocono and Toronto, we’ll be working hard to rebound and cut into the championship points lead. We’re a tenacious bunch at Andretti Autosport, and we’re determined to make a late-season run at the championship."