Dixon is the newest "Mr. IRL"
STEAM CORNERS, Ohio --
On Sunday, he earned a new moniker -- "Mr. IRL."
By winning Sunday's Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio, Dixon claimed the 20th victory of his Indy Racing League (IRL) career and that breaks the career victory record he shared with
Before Hornish moved to NASCAR after the 2007 IndyCar Series season, he was the embodiment of what the IRL was all about. He was a home-grown American race driver who came from the small town of Defiance, Ohio, and went on to achieve greatness in the most extreme form of racing in the United States, if not the world.
When IndyCar racing needed an American hero, Hornish was just that, becoming the best driver of his generation. He was also the "Great American Hope" for that sport and endured a lengthy and divisive split before unification made IndyCar whole again in 2008.
By then, Hornish had left for NASCAR, where he struggled as a rookie in 2008 before showing flashes of promise in 2009, including last week's fourth-place finish at Pocono Raceway.
When the IRL was created in 1996, Dixon would have never fit the prototype for drivers at that time. After all, he was from Auckland, New Zealand, and came from a junior formula background of road and street course racing. The grizzled, old-timers of IndyCar racing at that time wanted the series to go back to its USAC roots, where drivers from midget, sprint and Silver Crown racing could advance to the Indianapolis 500 just like
Unfortunately, corporate America avoided the IRL like the plague and drivers such as
The IRL developed
After winning a third IndyCar Series title and achieving his lifelong dream of winning the Indianapolis 500 in 2006, Hornish began to look for a new challenge and wanted to test his skills against American drivers in NASCAR Sprint Cup.
By then, the IRL had evolved into a series that included the big teams that had enjoyed success in CART. One of those teams was Target/Chip Ganassi Racing, which left CART after the 2002 season and brought over a two-car team with Dixon and
Dixon was shy and unassuming to those who didn't know him. But to those who got to know the Kiwi, he was refreshing for his frankness, sincerity and honesty.
When Dixon won the title in 2003, he called the cars that raced only on ovals "bleep."
But street and road course racing was added to the IndyCar schedule in 2005 and the IRL's transition of becoming just like CART was well underway.
Dixon, who had experienced two disappointing seasons after winning the title in 2003, began to return to prominence in 2006 -- the year Hornish won his third and last IndyCar championship. In 2007, Dixon lost the championship when he ran out of fuel on the last turn of the last lap of the last race of the season to
Last year, Dixon was able to win his second IndyCar Series championship and his return to the top was complete.
"Unfortunately, Sam is not still here to defend that," Dixon said. "That's the sad side of it. It's a fantastic milestone for me and for the team. I've achieved all of my wins with Target and without them it wouldn't be possible. To finally be labeled that in this series is a big deal to me and a big deal to the team.
"It's going to be tough to hang on to that. Helio is pretty close and to keep that going I'm going to have to race for a lot more years. If I can get that up to 25, 30 or 35, I think that would be pretty cool."
At 29, Dixon is not lured by the dollars that go to NASCAR drivers. Frankly, he is not interested in that style of racing. And he has no illusions about a Formula One career.
Dixon is one of the best things IndyCar has going because this is the series that he wants to be in.
But while Dixon is No. 1 in a series that began competition in 1996, he is only 19th in all-time Indy-car open-wheel victories and has a long way to go to catch A.J. Foyt, who tops that list with 67 wins followed by Mario Andretti's 52.
Counting a victory in CART in 2000, Dixon is tied with Franchitti with 21 wins while
Franchitti, who had many great battles with Hornish on the ovals before both drivers left for NASCAR after the 2007 IndyCar Series season, is able to compare both drivers and assess their strengths and weaknesses.
"Dixie, he's been on it," Franchitti said. "Today was a great performance by him. It's really, really impressive. They are very different drivers. For me, I've watched Scott get better in all the different disciplines. He can win on any type of track. And Sam is a fantastic oval driver but really struggled on the road courses. He was getting better before he left for NASCAR but he really struggled.
"I think that's the big difference between the two. They are both great drivers."
As Hornish left to add yet another American driver to NASCAR's mostly American field, the IndyCar Series should take pride in its international field of drivers that compete for a championship on short ovals, superspeedways, street courses and natural terrain road courses.
That is what makes IndyCar unique among any other motorsport in the world.
And in this unique form of racing, nobody better represents IndyCar than Dixon, the man who is proud to be known as "Mr. IRL."
With the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Watkins Glen rained out until Monday, pole-winner
"I don't feel like I need it (a win) to complete my resume," Johnson said Friday at Watkins Glen. "It's been shocking to me and I saw this with short tracks as well. The types of tracks I figured I would be really good at with my background in off-road trucks and road racing that I've done, I thought that I would come into a NASCAR-style vehicle and take to it right away.
"My example for the short tracks was that in ASA I was really competitive and ran on a lot of the great short tracks around the country. I (thought) I would go back to that same short track in a heavier car with a radial tire and I was terrible; but I did better at the 1.5-miles out of the gate in the Busch (now Nationwide) Series. It's been kind of that weird thing for me and I don't understand it."
Johnson has competed in the 24 Hours at Daytona and several other Rolex Grand American races and enjoyed the experience, but has been unable to get a Cup car into victory lane at either of the two road courses on the schedule -- Infineon Raceway in Watkins Glen, New York and Watkins Glen International.
"Certainly I hopped in other vehicles; I hopped in a Grand Am car and am on pace with my teammates that are extremely fast and won a championship," Johnson said. "So I don't know what it is about the Cup car that I've had some troubles with.
"But I am getting closer and I think more seat time is helpful. I usually am a slow learner, but once I get something I own it and I don't let go of it. I feel like I'm chipping away at it. Last year here at the Glen was probably my best opportunity to win, and we had that flat tire. I'm not really sure. I can't really remember that pace of the race and how competitive we were with the No. 18 (Kyle Busch) car, but I have to feel we would have been up there in the top two or three if we didn't have our troubles.
"I feel we're getting closer and I hope it's this weekend and when I figure out how to really get around these places, I'm sure I'll be on it and do well with it."
Johnson has already established himself as one of NASCAR's all-time great drivers. But, just as
"Truthfully, it's been on my list far before winning a Cup championship," Johnson said. "I was just able to get the championship stuff done before getting a road course win. I had no idea that this type of success would come and I would be experiencing stuff at the championship level. So, there were a lot of other steps and goals on my sheet before a championship, but I was very fortunate to get those first.
"Winning championships is what the season is based on and what the ultimate goal is, but when I look at the little battles through the course of the year, a road course is at the top of that list right now."
But the only driver in the Cup series who is higher in the standings that Johnson doesn't believe that a road course victory will make any difference on Johnson's greatness.
"I think three consecutive championships is enough to pretty much overshadow the fact that he hasn't won a road course race,"
There has been plenty of speculation on whether Tony Stewart would add a third car to his team in 2010, but the owner/driver admitted more has to fall into place before that becomes a reality.
"I don't think we've ruled that out yet," Stewart said. "It's getting to the point in the season if we're going to do a third team and have a third team for next season it would have to happen pretty quickly. At least having the sponsor and driver lined up to make sure that we have an adequate amount of time to get all the tools and pieces in place for next year.
"But I would say it's not very likely right now."
It may not be likely, but who thought Stewart would be leading the points in his first year as an owner/driver?
When it comes to Tony Stewart, never count this guy out.
Jeff Gordon couldn't help but laugh when he hears the theory that Sprint Cup drivers competing in the Nationwide Series are diluting their effort in Cup.
"I think this is so funny and so ironic because five years ago it was, 'Man, all the guys that are running the Nationwide Series are running in the top-five in points. Do you think you should be running more Nationwide races and is there a correlation to that?'" Gordon recalled. "Now here we are saying that none of them are in the top-five.
"I will say the biggest difference is that the cars are so much different. I think there is so little that you can learn from Saturday's races to the Sunday races because the cars are so much different with the new COT (Car of Tomorrow). Once they move over to their version of the COT, there might be a little more correlation and that.
"Now you've got guys that are not just running Nationwide races, they're running whole seasons for the championship. I give those guys a lot of credit for flying all over the country and doing what they're doing.
"That's definitely not something that I'm interested in doing. To me, the intensity of the Cup series is enough, the schedule is hectic enough and I can totally understand those guys wanting to run eight or 10 races a year on the companion weekends. But the guys that are going for the championship -- that's a lot to take on and I could see where it could be a distraction."
De Ferran would late return to the cockpit of a race car, but it was in a high-tech Acura in the American Le Mans Series Prototype 1 division.
De Ferran has decided to retire again, this time as a sports car driver, and as able to drive to victory in the ALMS race at Mid-Ohio on Saturday.
It was an emotional victory for the likable Brazilian because in last year's race at the same track, crew member
After winning Saturday's race, de Ferran said over the team's radio, "This one is for you, Jonesey."
Jones has returned to work in the pits while he continues to recover from his severe burns.
"To hear him say that, it means a lot to me," Jones said. "He announced his retirement again this week. That's big for him. He won this race for me. That's big for me and the team. That's top shelf."
De Ferran and co-driver
"It's been an emotional weekend," de Ferran said after climbing from his car, then sitting and sobbing. "This is the last time I will win a race here. It has always been a special place, and certainly what happened here last year left us with some deep scars. So this is a great result for us."
De Ferran may be retiring as a race driver but the 41-year-old said he will focus his efforts at de Ferran Motorsports, where he hopes to add a two-car IndyCar team to his operation for the 2010 season.
"I have said before that we are looking to expand the operation into IndyCars," de Ferran said. "In the perfect world I would like to run two sports cars and two IndyCars in the series next year."
The 41-year-old de Ferran admitted that two drivers high on his list are Japanese driver
Dixon is in the option year of his contract with Ganassi but sources indicate he is attempting to buy his way out of the final year of his deal with the team. If that happens, then he Dixon would be free to sign with de Ferran.
That would also open a seat at Ganassi for IndyCar Series driver Danica Patrick, who is in the final year of her contract with Andretti Green Racing (AGR).
"Having the right guys pushing the pedals is a major part of it," de Ferran said. "The driver plays a key role in many ways on the development and competitiveness of the team. We are always going to search for the best.
"I had the pleasure of working with Sato in Formula One. He was very successful in the lower formulas in the UK and Japan. He remains competitive and has told me he has an interest in looking at IndyCar racing. I think Sato is interested in running IndyCars.
"As far as Scott Dixon is concerned -- wouldn't that be nice? He is one of the best drivers in the paddock today but has been with
"We will always search for the best drivers whenever we can. It's an ongoing process. Time is running against us. If we want to run well, the sooner we start the better. The secret to this sport is preparation and for us to prepare well we need time, we need skilled personnel and we need money. If we leave everything until late our chance to be competitive right from the start diminish with each day that goes by."
Dixon said on Friday, however, that while he has a great deal of respect for de Ferran but currently, his contract calls for him to remain with Target/Chip Ganassi Racing.
"It's a hard option to look at going from such a fantastic team to a startup team is always tough," Dixon said. "I'm happy doing what I'm doing. I've known for a while that Gil is going to run a team and that he wouldn't do it unless he has a budget similar to a Penske or a Ganassi. Gil is very accomplished and there is no way he would do it unless he did it properly. I definitely know that. I hope it does work out well for him.
"Do we fit into that equation? I love doing what I'm doing and where I'm doing it at."
De Ferran is moving forward with plans to put together an IndyCar team for next season.
"We want to make the team a big operation," de Ferran said. "We have to see how the negotiations develop with our potential sponsors and partners. For me, expanding to IndyCars is a natural. My background is in IndyCars and it's a sport I understand very well. You need the right people in the right places doing the right things. Because of my past involvement in the sport it puts me in a unique position to understand the mix that we need to be successful.
"Any time is a good time to get involved in IndyCar. Once you make the decision to do it there are several reasons to do it. Also, there are internal reasons why this can be a good fit. I think the sport of IndyCar racing is a great sport and attracts a lot of attention and I want to be a part of that.
"It's all or nothing. You can't be half-in or half-out."
"The Formula One rumor came when there was the American Formula One team starting up, but there's not really any truth to that," Patrick said. "I had not been contacted about it and wasn't extremely interested either. I prefer to race in the U.S. and be near my family and friends. This is really where I prefer to be.
"The NASCAR rumors are true. We're definitely exploring all the opportunities that are out there for me as a driver and as a business and a brand. So, one is more true than the other."
But it appears Patrick's best option would be to stay in IndyCar, signing with Target/Chip Ganassi Racing where she would get top-line equipment, a tremendous opportunity to achieve her lifelong goal of winning the Indianapolis 500, and the possibility to compete in a limited NASCAR Nationwide Series schedule.
That would more sense than making the giant leap into NASCAR where she has no previous experience.
• "I'd like to see Eldora added to the schedule but other than that I'm pretty happy with it."