Monday August 31st, 2015

Three thoughts on Scott Dixon’s thrilling double-whammy victory at Sunday’s GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma, the final race of the 2015 IndyCar season.

1. Dixon is the ultimate comeback kid.

At a glance, the 35-year-old Kiwi’s track record over the last 12 seasons would seem to paint him as a driver who does his hard work early and coasts on his laurels. But really the Ganassi driver is more like a marathoner in his approach, biding his time (or taking forever, from the likely vantage point of his fans) to make his move.

Dixon entered Sunday’s race ranked third in the standings, 13 points behind Graham Rahal and 47 points behind leader Juan Pablo Montoya. Catching Montoya, who had paced his peers for the entire season, was a fairly big ask for a driver as steady as Dixon—even with double the points on the line at Sonoma, an event Dixon won in 2014 when it was just an in-season stop. But once again, Dixon proved that he is at his best when he is forced to rally.

Racing
David Letterman reflects on Graham Rahal's rise, IndyCar's somber finale

After qualifying ninth, four spots behind Montoya and three from Rahal, Dixon surged to the front during a yellow flag pit stop around lap 35; that caution came after Montoya collided with his Penske teammate Will Power. (More on this later.) By lap 50, Dixon was not only still in the lead, but he had closed his points deficit to naught. Not far behind him were his Ganassi teammates, Tony Kanaan and Charlie Kimball to protect his chance at a checkered flag—which was a major part of Dixon’s calculus for winning a championship. The other part was Montoya finishing, at best, fifth—which would draw the drivers even in points, but give Dixon the tiebreak advantage based on the number of wins.

With 12 laps left, the two men were still tied at two victories apiece. Then Dixon, after conserving fuel for most of the race, lined up for the last restart of the day, dropped a heavy right foot and opened up a massive gap on second-place driver Ryan Hunter-Reay. When Dixon crossed the finish line, some six seconds quicker than Hunter-Reay after 85 furious rotations around Sonoma’s 12-turn, 2.4-mile circuit, Dixon appeared unsure what exactly he had won. There was no fist pumping, no yelps of joy that burst from his bright red Chevy. Dixon saved that for well afterward, when he was finally presented with the Astor Cup, his fourth. As the California sun approached the horizon, Dixon was still beaming.

2. Team Penske sure had themselves a rough afternoon.

After qualifying three cars inside the top five, including Montoya in fifth and Power on pole, the Penske cars seemed as if they couldn’t get out of their own way. Nearly halfway through the race, Montoya sideswiped Power’s tail through a corner and sent him spinning off track. The incident, which sent Montoya into the pits for a long servicing to replace his nose cone, flipped his track positioning from the front to the back. (Incidentally, it also knocked Power, the defending series titlist, out of contention altogether.)

• Scott Dixon wins fourth career IndyCar championship

In a championship that was his to lose, here was the worst-case scenario for Montoya, who had led the points race from the first checkered flag back at St. Pete in March. And yet he nearly made up for it, scrambling from a track position in the high 20s straight back into the top 10. (Indeed if you’re looking for proof of Montoya’s raw driving ability, seek out a replay of this race and just marvel as he keeps his unruly Chevy on course for some 40-odd laps.) Just when Montoya seemed doomed to an eighth-place finish, he caught a huge break when Sébastien Bourdais rear-ended and spun out Rahal just ahead. After Bourdais was assessed a drive-through penalty with six laps to go, Montoya climbed from eighth to sixth. He got no further, though. As snatching defeat from the jaws of victory moments go, Montoya’s wasn’t quite as stunning as the Seahawks throwing on second and short with goal to go. But it was close.

3. The future of IndyCar is bright.

Surely some will be inclined to look at the series’ seemingly high accident rate relative to other motor sports, especially in the wake of the incident just last week that claimed the life of 37-year-old driver Justin Wilson, and conclude that IndyCar should probably be shut down for good. But with Sunday’s race, the series proved itself yet again to be on the forefront of safety (James Jakes walked away from a really nasty wreck) and excitement. (See bullets 1 and 2.)

• Video: NASCAR vs. IndyCar debate on which is best

Granted, IndyCar still has a lot of work to do to recapture the popular imagination. But with a procession of young and talented American drivers asserting themselves in new ways this season and an engaging championship format that is propelled by properly intense action at the track, the series seems well positioned to challenge NASCAR for racing supremacy on home soil. As ever, this competition too will come down to timing. There, at least, IndyCar has Dixon as a guide.

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