Saturday, July 12, 2008
Mixed signal ends up putting Dixon atop podium again
By John Oreovicz
Special to ESPN.com
GLADEVILLE, Tenn. -- For the second race in a row, IndyCar Series championship leader Scott Dixon looked fallible.
This week he won anyway.
A late call by the Target Ganassi Racing crew caused Dixon to stay on the track when most of the leaders pitted for fuel on the 148th lap of the Firestone Indy 200 at Nashville Superspeedway.
Call it a mistake or a miscommunication, it proved to be the key to the New Zealander's fourth win of the 2008 season, because he had enough fuel to make it to Lap 171, when a heavy rain shower ended the race 29 laps short of the scheduled distance. Running the same pit-stop strategy, Dan Wheldon completed a 1-2 finish for the Ganassi team.
Dixon's good fortune came at the expense of Tony Kanaan, who led a race-high 59 laps for Andretti Green Racing until the fateful round of yellow-flag pit stops. Kanaan finished fourth behind Team Penske's Helio Castroneves.
"We had a miscommunication actually on that pit stop there," Dixon said after his third consecutive victory at Nashville. "We were meant to come in, but I missed it -- I couldn't turn the car down enough to try and follow TK.
"It worked out our way. [Kanaan] definitely had a better car, especially in traffic. [My] Energizer car was definitely good by itself out front, but the rear was a bit loose when behind traffic. Every time we run this paint scheme it seems to work out for us."
This was definitely a night when things went Dixon's way. He never looked like he had the fastest car, but he was in the right place at the right time when the rain hit.
The result extended Dixon's championship lead by 15 points to 63 over Castroneves. Wheldon and Kanaan are the only other drivers within striking distance of the 2003 IndyCar Series champion with seven races remaining in the season.
"Tonight definitely spread the points race out, but it ain't over," said Castroneves, who passed Kanaan and fifth-place finisher Danica Patrick on the final restart to move into the top three. "Obviously those guys took a chance and it paid off."
The man who apparently would have won had Dixon followed Kanaan into the pits like he was supposed to was Wheldon. The Englishman confirmed that he stayed out on purpose as the Ganassi team attempted to split its strategies.
Wheldon was running seventh before everyone in front of him but Dixon pitted.
"I think we were going to gamble, particularly with the position we were in," Wheldon said. "I think we were going to split the strategy because the team was in good position for that, with one driver leading the championship and another in third place. It was definitely a lucky night for me.
"It turned out to be a good mistake for Scott and he's definitely on a roll. But he's very deserving. He works hard, he's on his game, and every time he gets into the car he seems to be quick."
Like Wheldon, Dixon admitted he was lucky rather than good on Saturday night. It was probably the most favorable mistake of his career.
"You could probably say the timing was off," he said. "When they called it and said follow TK, that was just as I was going by the pit entry. If I had tried to pull the car down, I probably would have spun out.
"I was pretty angry for a few laps after that and every lap we were going around, we were hoping some rain would come our way. But I think we had at least another 10 or 15 laps of gas. We were running quite lean and wanted to keep that in our back pocket with weather coming. We thought it was going to hit a lot earlier."
Kanaan was philosophical after appearing to be in position for the win had the race been run to its scheduled distance.
"The rain and me, me and the rain
we've seen this picture before," he said. "But I support my team. It was the right call -- who can predict the rain? It could go either way and it is what it is. I guess when it's your year, it's your year. I can't complain. We've done what we're supposed to do. They know we are strong, they know we are back in the championship hunt. So let's go to the next one."
The question now is whether anyone can come between Dixon and a second IndyCar Series championship. He's the defending champion at next week's venue, Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course (July 20, 1:30 p.m. ET, ABC).
"There's been a hell of a lot of luck for us," Dixon admitted. "But hey, we're ahead in the points and this is fantastic for the championship."
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.
There's been a hell of a lot of luck for us. But hey, we're ahead in the points and this is fantastic for the championship.
-- Scott Dixon