Only one will be IndyCar Series champion
Dixon, Rossi each has what it takes
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