- John Oreovicz, Autos, Open-Wheel
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FONTANA, Calif. -- The MAV-TV 500 at Auto Club Speedway was a throwback to the days when 500-mile Indy car races were genuine contests of attrition.
Scott Dixon demonstrated that he had the speed to win the 250-lap superspeedway marathon, but he backed off in the final 100 miles battling high engine temperatures. That left Will Power to hold off Ed Carpenter for the race win, while Dixon's cautious fifth-place finish was enough for the New Zealander to clinch his third IZOD IndyCar Series championship.
Only eight out the 25 starters were running at the end of a race that featured several crashes and dirty track conditions that required pit crews to frequently clean out blocked radiator ducts.
The temperatures on Dixon's Honda engine soared with about 60 laps to go, but a couple of precautionary pit stops to clear debris from the radiators helped the 33-year-old from Auckland nurse his car to the finish directly ahead of championship rival Helio Castroneves.
He won the title by 27 points over Castroneves after trailing by 49 with just three races to go.
"It was a crazy day," Dixon said in Victory Lane. "We started back and had to work on the car a fair bit through the race. Huge credit to Team Target -- they played everything straight tonight. We had to work on a bit of strategy, we had to work on the car a lot and then we had the issue with some overheating problems towards the end.
"I still can't believe we've actually won the championship. This is fantastic."
Dixon already ranks with some of the greatest Indy car drivers of all time. He is the sport's active leader with 33 race wins -- the only names ahead of him on the all-time win list are Foyt, Andretti and Unser -- and he now joins an elite group of champions with three titles or more.
He takes flak for his perceived lack of flash, but to those who know him well, Dixon is as warm and outgoing as any driver in the IndyCar Series. And now with three championships to his credit -- not to mention a half a dozen other near misses -- he may finally start getting the recognition he deserves.
"The people within this community really know what a talent he is," said team owner Chip Ganassi, who won his 10th Indy car championship Saturday night. "This certainly establishes him. The championships he won didn't come bang-bang-bang, He's a tenacious guy, and we were close to a couple others as well."
The latest championship is always the sweetest, and this one seemed pretty unlikely for Ganassi and Dixon at the start of July. But a new specification of Honda engine helped produce a surprise victory at Pocono Raceway and sparked a run of four wins in the second half of the season.
There were also incidents at Sonoma and Baltimore that could have weakened his or the Ganassi team's resolve. But a win and a second place at Houston created a 74-point swing in Dixon's favor that put him in position to be largely in control of his championship fate at Fontana.
"I guess the five-year thing did play out," Dixon remarked, referring to the spacing between his IndyCar championships. "It just means so much, with how with how competitive everybody is in this series, and the trials and tribulations we had to fight through this year. We made a comeback I never thought was possible.
"I'm sure Chip is going to have a smile," he added. "Its been a hard year on a lot of people and this makes it that little bit better."
Castroneves had led the championship since May on the basis of a single win and a series of top-10 finishes. Then a disastrous weekend in Houston with gearbox failures in both races of the doubleheader turned his 49-point championship lead into a 25-point deficit for the final.
Like Dixon, the Brazilian was also a factor in Saturday night's race. He led 27 laps before encountering a variety of issues that left him running sixth at the checkered flag.
"It was awesome out there and I had a lot of fun," Castroneves said. "Up to 15 laps to go, I thought we still had a chance. I was pushing to the limit and I drove my heart out. We knew it would be a hard fight with those guys, and I pushed it to the limit."
Somewhat lost in the celebration of Dixon's third championship were excellent performances by the podium finishers. By scoring his first 500-mile race win, Power overcame the bad memories of a year ago, when he crashed in the first quarter of the race while fighting for the championship with Ryan Hunter-Reay.
Carpenter's late charge put him very close to repeating his Fontana victory of a year ago, while third-place finisher Tony Kanaan was just two positions away from claiming $250,000 from Fuzzy's Vodka had he won.
Despite seeing his Penske teammate lose the championship, Power was visibly fired up in Victory Lane. Saturday was the first time that the Australian put together a full, problem-free race on an oval and he was clearly thrilled to have broken through.
"It's the most satisfying win of my life," Power declared. "That is the most satisfying thing I've ever done. I've wanted to do it so badly all year, but in the early ovals I was kind of conservative, just trying to finish every lap. Tonight, I said, 'This time I'm going for it.' "
Power said he used a quote he read from Carpenter as bulletin-board material to fire up before the race.
"It's funny that Ed and I were battling because I just read an article where he said I did what everyone expected here last year at this race," Power added. "I thought, 'I want to beat that guy.'
"I respect him, but that comment disappointed me and it gave me a little motivation. I am so stoked, so stoked for Verizon, and what a great way to end the season."
After finishing second in the championship the last three years, Power was eliminated from title contention early this season. He bounced back strongly with three wins in the last five races to leap up to fourth in the final standings, and he's sure to be a front-runner again in 2014. But he won't be the favorite.
No, with his third series championship in hand, Scott Dixon will finally be recognized for what he is: the benchmark that Power and every other IndyCar Series driver is measured against.