Dixon in fa­mil­iar place ahead of fi­nal race

The Southland Times - - SPORT - BEN STAN­LEY IN MADISON, ILLI­NOIS

De­spite rac­ing for his fifth Indycar ti­tle in Cal­i­for­nia this week­end, Kiwi mo­tor rac­ing su­per­star Scott Dixon ad­mits that a change in en­gine man­u­fac­turer and aero-kit left him with far lower ex­pec­ta­tions for 2017.

Dixon, a two-time for­mer Hal­berg NZ Sports­man of the Year, sits just three points be­hind Amer­i­can Josef New­gar­den ahead of the sea­son’s fi­nal race in Sonoma on Mon­day NZT.

With two sec­ond places in his last two races, Dixon, who has driven for Chip Ganassi Rac­ing since 2002, heads to the Grand Prix of Sonoma with mo­men­tum, while the race’s dou­ble points mean the Kiwi vet­eran has ev­ery chance of claim­ing the sea­son’s crown with the fi­nal chequered flag. Yet few Indycar ex­perts, mem­bers of Dixon’s car crew and the driver him­self were that con­fi­dent he’d be this com­pet­i­tive af­ter Chip Ganassi Rac­ing switched en­gine man­u­fac­turer and aero-kit from Chevro­let to Honda in the off­sea­son. Dixon last raced us­ing Honda in 2013.

‘‘We maybe got, well, not so much com­pla­cent but a lit­tle stuck in our ways with how we ap­proached some venues,’’ Dixon, whose sixth place fin­ish last year marked his worst sea­son since 2005, said ahead of a re­cent Indycar race in Madison, Illi­nois.

‘‘[The new en­gine and aero-kit] was kind of like hav­ing a new shiny toy – it was some­thing we could look at a lot dif­fer­ently. We re­ally had noth­ing to lose be­cause we knew it was go­ing to be a tough change. The en­gine is very good from Honda but the aero kit is a huge dis­ad­van­tage. I think we sur­prised our­selves for the first quar­ter or half of the sea­son with the per­for­mance we had.’’

Dixon capped an ex­cep­tional start to the sea­son ahead of the Indy 500 in May, qual­i­fy­ing for the glam­our race with the fastest time in 21 years and climb­ing to the top of the driver stand­ings.

Yet the Kiwi would suf­fer a night­mare race week­end in his new home­town. Dixon was mugged at a fast food restau­rant, be­fore be­ing in­volved in a hor­ror in-race crash that saw him es­cape, re­mark­ably, with just a frac­tured an­kle.

Dixon, known for his calm, prag­matic ap­proach to rac­ing, brushed off the crash, but rued lost op­por­tu­ni­ties for points as the sea­son has pro­gressed.

‘‘We should have won St Pete [and] we should have won Long Beach. We got pole at Indy [500], and got some good points at [the] In­di­anapo­lis [Grand Prix]. We should have won or fin­ished sec­ond in Texas.

‘‘We look back al­ready and we’ve lost a ton of points - 60 or 80 plus points - that could have made a huge dif­fer­ence.’’

What­ever the fu­ture holds, Dixon, who is plan­ning to drive com­pet­i­tively un­til he’s at least 40, reck­ons the wild world of Indycar is still, mostly, as fun now as it was when he de­buted in 2001.

‘‘Some things are,’’ he says, with a laugh. ‘‘ Some things get …well, you learn to ex­pect a cer­tain amount of things some­times too when you get older and have been im­mersed in it so long. I think that also drives the in­spi­ra­tion too, though.’’

CHRIS­TIAN PETERSEN/GETTY IMAGES

Scott Dixon is chas­ing a fifth Indycar cham­pi­onship ti­tle this week­end.

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