- John Oreovicz, Autos, Open-Wheel
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TORONTO -- The IZOD IndyCar Series promised twice the excitement at the Honda Indy "2 in T.O." doubleheader weekend.
They delivered, but failed to disclose that almost all of it would be packed into one day.
Although Saturday's 85-lap contest was marked by drama and controversy, Sunday delivered a sun-baked snoozefest. The common denominator was Target Chip Ganassi Racing's Scott Dixon, who claimed a $100,000 bonus from Sonax car care products by sweeping both Toronto races.
Added to his win at Pocono Raceway the previous Sunday, Dixon has won three races in the space of eight days and moved from seventh to second in the IndyCar Series standings. He is now just 29 points behind Castroneves after arriving at Pocono 92 points down.
Dixon is now also Indy car racing's most successful active driver. Career victories Nos. 31 and 32 at Toronto moved him ahead of the trio of Bourdais, Dario Franchitti and Paul Tracy (with 31 wins apiece) into seventh place on the all-time list.
"It's been a long time since I had a car that dominant, and I'm so thankful for it," Dixon said from Sunday's Victory Lane. "It was a little hotter and the race was at a faster pace than yesterday, so I was definitely trying to hold on. I think it's been 2008 since we had that kind of a run.
"It's been a hell of a swing over a seven-day period … quite a turnaround for our team," he added. "We've just got to keep the momentum going."
Dixon wasn't aware of the potential $100,000 bonus for sweeping the doubleheader until a reporter told him about it after his Saturday win.
But even though that money dwarfs the standard $35,000 Dixon won for each of his individual race wins at Toronto, the New Zealander has his eye on a bigger prize.
"The 100 grand is good, but the points are what we are here for," he said. "Winning the points is worth a million bucks."
A third IndyCar Series championship to go along with the ones he won in 2003 and '08 is beginning to look like a distinct possibility for Dixon and the Ganassi team. The dramatic turnabout has come in the space of three weeks, since Dixon finished an unhappy 16th, three laps off the pace, at Iowa Speedway.
The combination of a new specification of Honda engine with superior fuel economy that allowed the Ganassi team to score a 1-2-3 triumph at Pocono, and a highly productive street course development test at Sebring International Raceway has put Dixon and teammate Franchitti back at the sharp end of the field.
Franchitti backed up the Ganassi resurgence at Toronto with a third-place finish Saturday and an impressive fourth-place run from the back of the field Sunday.
Wow what a weekend! 8 days and 3 wins... Couldn't be happier for the team! It's put us in a great position for the championship! @Target
— Scott Dixon (@scottdixon9) July 15, 2013
However, the four-time IndyCar Series champion was at the center of the storm Saturday. About 20 minutes after the race, as he was celebrating his third-place finish on the podium, he was informed that he had been penalized 25 seconds for blocking Will Power on the penultimate lap. Replays showed that Franchitti held the inside line down the back straight while Power crashed at Turn 3 while trying a banzai move to claim third place from his rival.
Franchitti was furious after learning of the penalty.
"It's a load of crap, the call," he said. "Will was out of control, he bounced off the wall, then bounced off me and went straight on. He did the same to Scott earlier in the race, and I didn't defend the corner any differently than anyone else did all day. It's just very frustrating."
Adding to the intrigue, the penalty was assessed by longtime IndyCar Series official Brian Barnhart, who was filling in for race director Beaux Barfield after a personal issue prevented Barfield from traveling to Canada.
Barnhart, who was the IndyCar Series' top official from 1997 to 2011, gained notoriety for micromanaging the rules and making a series of controversial calls that ultimately cost him the position of race director at the end of the '11 season. Those included mandating a restart on a wet track at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and calling a picky blocking foul on Castroneves that cost Helio a win at Edmonton.
At Toronto, many observers believed that Franchitti did not deserve a blocking penalty for the situation with Power, pointing out that Takuma Sato was not sanctioned by Barfield after making far more blatant blocking moves in the final laps of IndyCar's race in Sao Paulo, Brazil, in early May.
"You could call that a block, but it's so minute," said former Indy car star Paul Tracy, who was calling the race for Canadian television.
"It's a tough call. It's controversial, but Barnhart is no stranger to controversy at all."
The Ganassi team protested the penalty immediately after the race. INDYCAR reviewed video evidence and telemetry provided by the Ganassi team, and, about two hours later, Franchitti was reinstated to third place.
The 100 grand is good, but the points are what we are here for. Winning the points is worth a million bucks.
"-- Scott Dixon
Barnhart was already under scrutiny on Saturday for a Lap 70 restart, when Bourdais took the lead from Dixon as the New Zealander appeared to hesitate approaching the green flag. Barnhart reviewed the restart and chose not to impose a penalty on Bourdais.
It was a moot point because Dixon passed Bourdais for the lead a few laps later.
"[That] restart was a complete joke, in my view," Dixon said. "Bourdais definitely jumped. It was the same thing [Ryan] Hunter-Reay did on [Ryan] Briscoe last year at Baltimore. We've discussed it so many times in meetings that the leader crosses the line first. Obviously the flagman isn't watching, either.
"I hate dwelling on bad things, but it's a point that needs to be addressed."
There was no controversy Sunday, and, after his second win in as many days, Dixon's total focus was on the championship.
"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 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," he added. "Helio has had pretty much a free run this year. He hasn't had any DNFs, and I think he's finished on the lead lap of every race, with no mechanicals. Hunter-Reay has had a few DNFs, he's been involved in a few accidents, and so have other people.
"Hopefully we can make a good, strong run towards the end, but Pocono was the turning point for us."
Castroneves, whose sole victory this season came at Texas Motor Speedway, knows he has his work cut out if he wants to win his first IndyCar Series championship. The next race is at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, where Dixon has won four of the past six years.
"Our approach will be the same that got us here," Castroneves said. "Hopefully we'll have that same consistency and mentality we've had all year. If we have the car to go for it, we'll go for it.
"I want to win it as bad as anybody. We're fighting with experienced guys and experienced teams, but I feel like I'm with the best team in the business. I'm going to fight as hard as I can."
4dBob Pockrass and John Oreovicz