Only one will be IndyCar Se­ries cham­pion

Dixon, Rossi each has what it takes

USA TODAY International Edition - - SPORTS - Jim Ayello Colum­nist The In­di­anapo­lis Star USA TO­DAY NET­WORK

IN­DI­ANAPO­LIS – In one cor­ner stands an icon, an open-wheel su­per­star look­ing to add yet an­other notch to his al­ready im­pres­sive belt.

Scott Dixon doesn’t need a fifth IndyCar ti­tle to go down as one of the great­est of all time, but to be­come the only man within two cham­pi­onships of leg­endary A.J. Foyt (seven) would all but ce­ment his place on IndyCar’s Mount Rush­more.

In the other cor­ner stands a break­out star, a 26-year-old wun­derkind with his sights set on be­com­ing this gen­er­a­tion’s Scott Dixon.

As a cham­pion in just his third cam­paign, Alexan­der Rossi would be­come the fastest driver to win an IndyCar ti­tle since Se­bastien Bour­dais won the CART cham­pi­onship in his sec­ond season (2004). He’d also be the man who ended the five-year reign of Chip Ganassi Rac­ing and Team Penske atop the Ver­i­zon IndyCar Se­ries.

Dixon owns a 29-point ad­van­tage head­ing into the week­end, but with the se­ries fi­nale of­fer­ing dou­ble points, Rossi can nearly con­trol his own des­tiny. It’s a clas­sic heavy­weight ti­tle bout that will play out be­fore our eyes this week­end at Sonoma Race­way.

Who will be left stand­ing come Sun­day night?

The case for Rossi

Locked in: In this fi­nal quar­ter of the season, no team has been sharper than Rossi and his No. 27 An­dretti Au­tosport crew. Some nearly im­pec­ca­ble strat­egy calls com­bined with a finely tuned, su­per fast race car have launched the tal­ented young driver to wins at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course and Po­cono Race­way, a run­ner-up fin­ish at Gate­way Mo­tor­sports Park and what would have been an­other podium at Port­land In­ter­na­tional Race­way had it not been for some un­timely yel­low flags.

This is a team that has op­er­ated prac­ti­cally mis­take-free since the street course race in Toronto. No race has been way­laid by a me­chan­i­cal fail­ure or de­railed by a prob­lem in the pits.

The truth is that while Rossi has been try­ing to catch Dixon in the stand­ings, it’s ac­tu­ally been Dixon chas­ing Rossi. Be­cause of the speed the No. 27 car has shown since Toronto, the Chip Ganassi Rac­ing driver has been forced to empty his full bag of tricks to pre­vent Rossi from over­tak­ing. Had those yel­lows not fallen the way they did in Port­land, there’s a good chance we’d be talk­ing about Rossi’s cham­pi­onship lead head­ing into Sonoma rather than vice versa. If this team stays as hot as it’s been for the past month, Sun­day’s head­lines will read: “Rossi seals first cham­pi­onship with a win.” Fear­less: More than a month ago, some cham­pi­onship con­tenders ex­plained that the only way any­one was go­ing to catch Dixon in the ti­tle hunt was if the vet­eran suf­fered some mis­for­tune down the stretch. Rossi, how­ever, took a dif­fer­ent tack.

Fol­low­ing his Mid-Ohio vic­tory, when asked if he still had time to catch Dixon, Rossi nod­ded and calmly ex­plained it was in­deed pos­si­ble. He and his team needed to do just one thing to catch him: Be per­fect.

“I don’t ex­pect him to make a mis­take,” Rossi ex­plained. “The pres­sure is on me to de­liver the re­sults, to de­liver un­der pres­sure.”

And he has. Faced with a deficit many deemed in­sur­mount­able, Rossi fear­lessly em­barked on a mis­sion to chip away at the Ice Man’s lead. From Toronto to Gate­way, he chis­eled Dixon’s ad­van­tage down from 70 to 46 to 29 to 26. It grew at Port­land, but only marginally as Rossi sal­vaged a hard-luck race with an eighth-place fin­ish.

Chas­ing one of the great­est driv­ers of all time, Rossi and his team have erased 41 points. They’ve done it with­out buck­ling un­der the pres­sure of know­ing if they make even the small­est mis­take, it was all over. They weren’t in­tim­i­dated. They weren’t afraid. They knew just how tall the moun­tain ahead of them was, and they made the as­cent any­way. Now they’re poised to stand atop it. Road and street course ram­page: While Rossi hasn’t been quite as con­sis­tent this season on road and street cir­cuits as Dixon — five top-five fin­ishes to Dixon’s seven — he has un­corked some mas­ter­ful per­for­mances lately.

Think back to Watkins Glen last year or Mid-Ohio and Long Beach this year. In all three in­stances, Rossi went from the pole to the check­ered flag, never let­ting vic­tory stray from his sight. For Rossi, there ap­pears to be some week­ends where he’s sim­ply on a dif­fer­ent level than his peers. If Sonoma is an­other one of those week­ends, Dixon will have to be on his A-game. Af­ter all, a Rossi vic­tory means Dixon must fin­ish sec­ond (give or take some bonus points) to pre­vent Rossi from win­ning his first cham­pi­onship.

Of course, there’s no guar­an­tee Rossi makes the up­com­ing fi­nale one of those types of week­ends, but there’s rea­son to sus­pect he could. Not only has the team been peak­ing in the past month, but he and his three An­dretti Au­tosport team­mates will be on track Thurs­day for a team test. Dixon and Ed Jones will be there for Ganassi, too, but Rossi’s team will be gath­er­ing twice the data. And not to the be­lit­tle the sup­port of­fered by Jones, but be­ing a sec­ond-year driver in his first year at Ganassi, he likely won’t be able to con­trib­ute in the same ways as ex­pe­ri­enced vet­er­ans such as Ryan Hunter-Reay and Marco An­dretti.

Don’t over­look this test, ei­ther. It could prove piv­otal on race week­end. Over the past month, Rossi has re­peat­edly talked about how crit­i­cal his team­mates’ in­put has been as he’s chipped away at Dixon’s lead. As the fi­nal race week­end ap­proaches, do not make the mis­take of un­der­es­ti­mat­ing the role Hunter-Reay, An­dretti and Zach Veach could play in his pur­suit on a cham­pi­onship.

The case for Dixon

The Ice­man: They call him that for a rea­son. Through­out his leg­endary ca­reer, Dixon has be­come renowned for his abil­ity to block out the world and fo­cus on the task at hand. Nearly noth­ing fazes him. And what does, doesn’t linger.

Con­sider last year’s dou­ble­header in Detroit. Re­mem­ber what a roller-coaster ride the month of May was for him? Some­one lit­er­ally put a gun to his head a week be­fore he en­dured one of the most fright­en­ing crashes in In­di­anapo­lis 500 his­tory. Yet a week later, bat­tered and bruised, he limped into the Detroit Grand Prix dou­ble­header and emerged with a pair of top-six fin­ishes, in­clud­ing a run­ner-up in Dual 1.

“Noth­ing stops him,” Dixon’s long­time friend and ri­val Dario Fran­chitti said. “He just gets straight back on, and that’s why he’s so suc­cess­ful. That de­ter­mi­na­tion he has, it’s un­be­liev­able. Af­ter ev­ery­thing he’s achieved, ev­ery­thing he’s got in life, he’s still just Scott. It doesn’t change him. It’s just, ‘OK, next. Let’s go.’ It’s what I love about him and why I hated com­pet­ing against him. Be­cause he just kept com­ing.”

If he emerged from last May un­fazed, the spot­light of com­pet­ing for yet an­other cham­pi­onship will hardly reg­is­ter. Dixon will be at his steely best come this Sun­day.

Sal­vage mas­ter: Given the qual­ity of both cham­pi­onship com­peti­tors, in all like­li­hood the duel for the IndyCar crown will be fought at the front of the field on Sun­day. How­ever, some­times the things that are likely to hap­pen are spurned for the un­pre­dictable.

If some­thing wild were to un­fold and Dixon was forced to the rear of the field, it’s not over. Far from it. We’ve learned over and over again this season no mat­ter where he starts, no mat­ter what kind of ad­ver­sity he runs into early in the race, he can never, ever be counted out. Port­land was just the lat­est ex­am­ple. “It’s one of those things, man, where it’s how con­sis­tently he’s able to do it,” stated James Hinch­cliffe, who was col­lected in the same Lap 1 crash that tem­po­rar­ily side­lined Dixon in Port­land. “Ev­ery­one has good years and bad years, but Scott’s bad years are still re­ally good (laughs). His bad races are still not bad.

“In Port­land when all the dust set­tled, and I saw him sit­ting there, I thought, ‘Dammit man. I just (hate see­ing that hap­pen to a cham­pi­onship con­tender.’ Then I watch him back out, pull away and fin­ish fifth. And later I was like, ‘Yeah, that ac­tu­ally sounds about right (laughs).’ That’s what make Scott, Scott. You know?”

While Dixon’s un­canny abil­ity to re­cover from trouble might not need to be em­ployed this week­end, it’s a valu­able ar­row for Dixon to have in the quiver — just in case.

Ex­pe­ri­ence mat­ters: While Rossi will be turn­ing laps in an Indy car for just the third time at Sonoma, Dixon has vis­ited the pic­turesque track 13 times in his ca­reer. What’s more, he is the only driver in the se­ries to have com­pleted ev­ery lap in those 13 races. Dixon could prob­a­bly nav­i­gate the 2.385-mile per­ma­nent road course with his eyes closed.

And track knowl­edge isn’t the only place where Dixon owns an ex­pe­ri­ence edge. While the 18-year vet­eran has been there and done that four times as a cham­pion, he boasts a team with an ex­ten­sive cham­pi­onship pedi­gree as well. His sup­port staff is head­lined by Mike Hull, who not only serves as CGR’s man­ag­ing di­rec­tor but has been the race strate­gist for 43 of Dixon’s 44 ca­reer vic­to­ries. In all, Hull has helped bring 11 IndyCar cham­pi­onships to CGR, so like his leg­endary driver, he’s no stranger to the spot­light.

Mean­while, Dixon’s race en­gi­neer, Chris Sim­mons, and No. 9 team man­ager, Scott Harner, have been part of mul­ti­ple cham­pi­onship ef­forts through­out their ca­reers. When you hear peo­ple talk about a cham­pi­onship-cal­iber race team, the CGR No. 9 team is what they’re talk­ing about.

That’s not to say the No. 27 crew, head­lined by team man­ager and strate­gist Rob Ed­wards, and race en­gi­neer Jeremy Mil­less, aren’t a for­mi­da­ble bunch. They most def­i­nitely are, but even they wouldn’t deny that when it comes to hav­ing cham­pi­onship ex­pe­ri­ences to draw from, Dixon and his team own the edge.

Sonoma Race­way in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia will be the fi­nal bat­tle­ground for the Ver­i­zon IndyCar Se­ries driv­ers Sun­day. KYLE TERADA/USA TO­DAY SPORTS

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