Dixon stays hot with Sonoma win

SONOMA, Calif. -- While Penske Racing teammates Will Power and Helio Castroneves stumble toward the finish of the 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series championship, Scott Dixon has regained his winning ways.

It's too late for the New Zealander to contend for a fourth IndyCar title -- "I think I still need that meteorite to strike the 12 car [Power]," he joked.

But Sunday's tactical victory for Target Chip Ganassi Racing in the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma at Sonoma Raceway showed that even if he doesn't win this year's crown, Dixon is still Indy car racing's best driver.

Dixon has won two of the past three IndyCar races, and his 35th career victory tied him with Bobby Unser for fifth place on the all-time list.

"Scott is a very, very good driver and records are made to be broken," Unser said from his Colorado vacation home. "He's truly a great driver and drives with a lot of vigor.

"I just wish Chip would give him a stock car, sprinter or midget to race in, because I'm sure he'd win in those too."

Dixon's IndyCar Series competition probably wishes he would go compete somewhere else. Once pole winner Power took himself out of contention Sunday by spinning shortly after a restart, Dixon found himself firmly in the mix.

Graham Rahal brought hope to his fans by leading 20 laps late in the race, but he had to pit for fuel with three laps to go.

That left Mike Conway in position to win his third race of the season for Ed Carpenter Racing, but the Englishman's run at the front lasted just a few corners because Dixon blasted past him into Turn 2 on the 83rd of 85 laps.

Dixon crossed the line 1.136 seconds ahead of Ryan Hunter-Reay and Simon Pagenaud as Conway ran out of fuel on the last lap and finished 14th.

"It was really tough," Dixon said. "There were so many strategies, many broad ones and some that were close. I thought [Tony Kanaan and Rahal] were going to make it, but when they had to stop, obviously the race was between myself, Conway and Hunter-Reay.

"The team did a great job strategywise and getting the jump on the Penske guys in the pits [when Dixon jumped ahead of Power on Lap 37, just ahead of Power's spin] definitely helped the way the race played out. At the end, I was following Conway, trying to figure out where he was leaving himself a bit vulnerable, and I think caught him a bit by surprise."

Dixon could conceivably score 104 points in the season finale Saturday at Auto Club by taking pole position and winning the race with the most laps led. He's 103 points behind championship leader Power, who will bag at least 20 points if he simply starts the race at Fontana.

Dixon's 2014 season got off to a terrible start, but since July 1, he's been the hottest driver in the series. He has finished outside the top five only once in the past seven races, and that was a seventh-place run at Toronto.

The problem is six results of 11th or worse in the first 10 races of the campaign.

"We started this year very much on the back foot," he said. "We had a lot of changes -- engine manufacturers, teammates, we went from a three-car team back to a four-car team. The [Tudor United Sports Car Championship] team switched engine manufacturers, and that took a lot of resources from the Indy car team and lot of the development programs probably weren't as seamless as in the past.

"We know our team finishes the season strong," he added. "If we could start the year actually on the map, we'd be in really good shape."

Pagenaud and Hunter-Reay, who also remain mathematically eligible for the championship (minus-81 and minus-92 respectively), paid tribute to Dixon's talent.

"Scott always has really good end of seasons," Pagenaud said. "He's always there. I think we were more surprised to see they were not there at the beginning of the season."

"You're never surprised to see Scott win," added Hunter-Reay. "He's one of the best and he's a threat to win on any given weekend."

The Penske duo of Power and Castroneves can count themselves lucky that Dixon started the season so poorly.

Power was fortunate to claim a 10th-place finish after a midrace spin and a wheel-banging match on the last lap with Justin Wilson and Sebastien Bourdais as they fought for every last point.

Castroneves, meanwhile, saw his car damaged on the first lap and never really recovered.

"It was over right there for us," said Castroneves, who goes to Fontana 51 points behind Power. "We're not giving up. We're still 50 points behind and we're very disappointed.

"I hope bad things come in three, because the last three races ... we kept waiting for a break and it never happened."

Power's ability to close out a championship was again brought into question when he spun at the Turn 7 hairpin.

"It took me by surprise," he admitted. "Everyone was so slow ... . It almost felt like someone hit [me] because it went around so easily."

Power could have blamed sleep deprivation, because he and Castroneves and several other members of Team Penske were shaken out of their sleep when a 6.0-magnitude earthquake struck within a few miles of their Napa hotel.

They were relocated to a different hotel in Sacramento.

"That was crazy and we were in the epicenter," Power said, adding that mirrors and other fixtures in his room were shattered. "It was one of the most frightening moments of my life, to wake up to that from a deep sleep. Our room was absolutely destroyed."

Several drivers who were staying in motor homes at the track also felt the earthquake.

"I've been through my share of hurricanes," said Florida native Hunter-Reay. "You see it on the news and you get plenty of time to prepare. But this was pretty wild, and to experience it in a motor home ... you're missing out if you haven't tried it."

Power can clinch his first IndyCar Series championship with a seventh-place finish next weekend at Auto Club Speedway.

Dixon, meanwhile, is heading south with the more modest goal of third place in the standings within reach.

"I think if [Power] starts, he's going to mathematically take me out of it," Dixon said. "But third place is a real position we can get to. It's a huge long shot, but right now our objective is to get to third place in the championship.

"Hopefully we can put ourselves in the right spot and see what happens."