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Wednesday, January 21, 2004
Dixon expects another tight title race

By Jonathan Baum
ESPN.com

Scott Dixon
Dixon
Heading into 2003, Scott Dixon was just one of the many CART transplants preparing for full-time competition in the IRL. And with names like Michael Andretti, Tony Kanaan and Dario Franchitti -- not to mention the return of Kenny Brack -- joining the IndyCar ranks, Dixon was one of the more anonymous of the bunch.

Things have changed quite a bit in just a year. A championship will tend to do that.

Asserting that the '03 IndyCar title race came down to the wire would be a bit of an understatement. Heading into last year's season finale at Texas Motor Speedway, five different drivers still had a shot at claiming the crown. In the end, the now-retired Gil de Ferran won the race, but Dixon's runner-up finish was enough to clinch the championship.

Dixon now enters the '04 season as the defending series champion -- and with that comes the knowledge that the bull's-eye -- both literally and figuratively -- will be on him and his Target Ganassi team. But that won't necessarily change Dixon's approach.

"I think you always have a certain amount of pressure just to perform and make sure you do well," said the 23-year-old New Zealander. "Even being with such a good team like Team Target, I kind of like the pressure. It pushes you.

"But I wouldn't say there's any more (pressure) this year to defend. I think we set the same goals this year as we did for last year and that's to try and win the championship again, and obviously the big one now is the Indianapolis 500. So I can't really say that for myself that there's more pressure."

Pressure or not, the team's goals haven't changed now that Dixon has a championship under his belt. For when you are a team of Chip Ganassi's caliber, it's all about winning.

"I think we just want to go out there and do the same thing, and do what everybody is going to try to do -- and that's to try and win races," he said. "I think that's the easiest way to win a championship is to win races, and so I don't think there will be any added pressure or less pressure."

Dixon did win three times -- tied with de Ferran and Sam Hornish Jr. for most in IndyCars -- and landed a series-high five poles in 2003. But either Helio Castroneves or Tony Kanaan -- who essentially took each other out at Texas while running near the front -- could just have easily won the championship last year.

And with the likes of Hornish -- who replaces de Ferran in Roger Penske's stable this year -- Castroneves and Kanaan still in the mix, it's a stretch to name any driver as the prohibitive title favorite, much less predict a repeat championship for the low-key Dixon.

"It's not going to be just one person that everybody is going to try and beat," Dixon said. "It is going to be a good four, five people that they have to watch out for."

Tony Kanaan and Helio Castroneves
Kanaan, left, and Castroneves are expected to once again be in the thick of the title hunt.

Kanaan, who became the de facto lead driver at Andretti Green Racing following Michael Andretti's retirement after Indy and Franchitti's off-track injury, entered last year's season finale tied with Dixon atop the IndyCar standings and would have clinched the title with a second-place finish behind de Ferran. But Kanaan finished the race two laps down in 14th and ended up fourth in the final standings.

"We got (to Texas) knowing we had a chance to win the championship. ... Unfortunately, you know, I was hit, we lost the championship there, went from first to fourth, so that was the worst that it could be. And I got the worst."

Kanaan won just one race (at Phoenix) during the 2003 season but finished in the top-five nine times. And though Kanaan on several occasions admitted to focusing on scoring points and running for the championship throughout last season, the Brazilian wants to tally up more victories in '04 -- not to mention improving on what was an impressive first season in the league.

"We should have won more races (last year)," said Kanaan, 29. "We need to prepare each other to do that. We only won one race. I think it was a good season for the whole 7-Eleven team. We had a lot of ups and downs the first year in the series, and I would say it wasn't as good as what we expected, but you know, there's always a time to make it better."

Like Dixon, Kanaan realizes there are several bona fide championship contenders and that repeating last year's championship-contending performance will not be easy, even if Kanaan is seen as one of the preseason title favorites.

"I think we have a strong year ahead of us," he said. "The series is going to be very competitive. I mean, Scott, Dario, Sam -- a lot of people that can surprise us, and it's going to be as tough as last year. So definitely my goal is to try and win more races, which I didn't do last year, only did one, and be as consistent as I was."

Both Kanaan and Dixon's teams have new dynamics to them in 2004. Darren Manning replaces Tomas Scheckter as Dixon's teammate while Bryan Herta joins Kanaan, Franchitti and Dan Wheldon as a full-time driver at Andretti Green. But perhaps the most significant driver change is Hornish joining Castroneves at Marlboro Team Penske.

A two-time IRL champ, Hornish struggled early last season with an underpowered Chevy engine. He did manage a couple of strong finishes at handling tracks but was no match for Toyota- or Honda-powered drivers at faster tracks, where simply finishing on the lead lap became a goal. The Ohio native did surge, however, after Chevy -- with Ford-Cosworth's help -- upgraded its powerplant during the season, helping him win three of the season's final five races to finish fifth in points.

"We had a pretty rough beginning to the season," said Hornish, 24. "Everything that we did, we were trying to make up for a little bit of lack of horsepower and we just were lucky enough that it was one of those things where we got the opportunity to get back into it."

After winning two consecutive IRL titles, Hornish and Chevy certainly didn't expect the early-season struggles they encountered in large part due to the strength of the new Toyota and Honda engines. The power deficit created too big a hole for Hornish and his Panther team to climb out of, ultimately, but that made the late-season success all the sweeter.

"To be where we were at the end of the year was great," Hornish said. "Midseason, early season was not where we expected that we were going to be. We really wanted that third championship in a row, so we were going to try everything we could do to get back there. Just sooner or later, you know, we got ourselves in there and it was great for the team."

Now Hornish, who is being replaced at Panther by Scheckter, moves to the team which has won the last three Indy 500s (Castroneves in 2001-02 and de Ferran in '03). And while he's not about to predict a championship campaign for himself, he is very aware of what Roger Penske's teams are capable of doing.

"I really think that I can't expect anything but the best," said Hornish, who began to test with Penske last fall. "The performances that they have had so far, and put together with what I have been able to accomplish, I don't see anything but good things.

I think we have a strong year ahead of us. The series is going to be very competitive. I mean, Scott, Dario, Sam -- a lot of people that can surprise us, and it's going to be as tough as last year.
Tony Kanaan

"But you never know. You always learn new things. You've got to mesh right. You have to have the right chemistry. I just hope that we'll be able to put it all together and be able to go out there and have a good season."

Whether Hornish develops good chemistry with the colorful Castroneves -- who is also a legit preseason title contender -- remains to be seen. Some have questioned whether the high-energy Castroneves and the laid-back Hornish will work well as teammates. But a similar dynamic existed between Castroneves and de Ferran, and that combination seemed to work.

"It is kind of like the odd couple, but I heard Gil say one time when it starts out, you are trying not to like (Castroneves), but it is kind of hard not to," said Hornish. "I think that's probably how it's going to work. He has so much energy and, you know, so much exuberance I guess, so excited about things. I am kind of a little bit different. I am pretty low-key, but I think we both got pretty good sense of humors even if they are pretty much different. I have had a good time so far."

Hornish is also adjusting to the culture shock of moving from the small yet successful operation of Panther Racing to the mammoth and storied Team Penske.

"It's tough because you are meeting all new people, you know. When I was at Panther Racing, there wasn't anywhere near 67 employees there like there is at Penske.

"And just also being a driver that had racing heroes like Rick Mears, Al Unser Jr. and to be able to just stand there and talk about things that are completely off the subject of racing with Rick Mears is pretty cool. I am pretty much into custom cars and motorcycles, so it gives us something to talk about."

Suddenly, the two-time series champ's speed dial is a bit more impressive.

"Sometimes it is kind of like really hard to believe, you know, like when Rick calls me on my cell phone and I have got his name programmed. It kind of blows my mind sometimes, hey, Rick Mears is calling me or Roger Penske is calling me on my cell phone. It is kind of a neat feeling."

Jonathan Baum is an RPM editor at ESPN.com.