JOLIET, IL -- Scott Dixon will be the first to admit he is a far different individual than when he won his first IndyCar Series title in 2003.
That year, he was new to the series, didn't like racing on ovals and was a reluctant competitor after having moved over from CART with Target/Chip Ganassi Racing. After clinching the championship in '03, he said the cars drove like "crap." Suffice to say, he didn't seem to be a strong advocate of the series.
Five years later, Dixon has changed his opinion.
He is probably the most loyal driver in IndyCar and one of the most staunchest defenders of the series. In past years when IndyCar's best drivers, such as three-time series champion Sam Hornish Jr. and last year's title winner Dario Franchitti left for NASCAR, Dixon had no interest in leaving for stock cars or going to Formula One.
The IndyCar Series has become his racing home and the driver from Auckland, New Zealand, had his greatest season in 2008, winning a record-tying six races, including the biggest of them all, the 92nd Indianapolis 500 in May.
By clinching his second IndyCar Series championship in Sunday's PEAK Antifreeze and Motor Oil Indy 300 at Chicagoland Speedway, the 27-year-old Dixon believes there are more championships to win in IndyCar.
"Absolutely," Dixon said. "I said to Chip [Ganassi, his team owner] just now, that's number two and we've got many more to come."
How times have changed, not only for Dixon as an individual but for the IndyCar Series in this year of unification.
Franchitti's foray into NASCAR didn't quite turn out as well as the Scotsman expected and he has jumped back to IndyCar where he will be Dixon's teammate in 2009. Television ratings, attendance and awareness all increased this season, mostly because IndyCar racing is whole again.
And by winning a title in the first year of unification, Dixon was able to beat the best and prove that he is the best at a track where he lost the 2007 championship in the last turn of the last lap to Franchitti, who was then driving for Andretti Green Racing.
"It's a testament to Scott," said Mike Hull, the managing director for Target/Chip Ganassi Racing. "It's a dedication to the men and women at Chip Ganassi Racing, what they did after coming back from Chicago last year.
"Oftentimes people spiral into 'Never Never Land' when you get beat like he had got beat last year here at Chicago. We actually took Monday off last year, but we were working on Tuesday. Everybody in the building, we got together and dedicated ourselves to do what he saw this year."
"You know, [this year] means a lot more than the championship in 2003," Dixon admitted. "I think this year is much tougher. I think after '04 and '05, it makes you, I guess, cherish things a lot more, definitely race wins just as a whole, but a championship much more."
Dixon exudes a quiet self-confidence that can be felt when he enters a room. In the past, he was downright shy and avoided the spotlight at all costs. Today, Dixon is comfortable with its bright glare.
He was married in the offseason to his beautiful wife, Emma, who knows something about speed herself as she was a champion hurdler for Great Britain before the London native fell for the quiet Dixon from New Zealand.
"I was a little worried when he got married," team owner Chip Ganassi said. "You think, 'gee' but what it has done is it made him such a great guy off the track, and it really focused him on the track. It just kind of put everything in focus for him."
It's been quite a year for Dixon, who was married in February, won the Indy 500 in May and the IndyCar championship in September. His charge for the championship actually began in 2006. Since the start of that season, Dixon has 42 top-10 finishes in 48 races with 12 victories, 36 top-five finishes and has led 1,405 laps.
Since the Richmond race in June 2007, Dixon has 21 top-five finishes in 26 races including 10 victories, 23 top-10 finishes and has led 1,089 laps.
He is just the second driver to win multiple IndyCar championships joining three-time title winner Hornish.
It is also the fourth-straight year the winner of the Indianapolis 500 has gone on to win the series championship, tying a record from 1967-70 when A.J. Foyt ('67), Bobby Unser ('68), Mario Andretti ('69) and Al Unser ('70) accomplished both.
Now Dixon is proving that his name belongs in the same company as those IndyCar legends.
Now that NASCAR has determined the 12 drivers who make up the Chase, a few thoughts.
NASCAR has signified the 10 races that precede the beginning of the Chase as the "Race to the Chase." I thought the "Race to the Chase" began with the Daytona 500 in February. Does that mean the 16 races that precede "The Race to the Chase" are the pre-season or the regular season? Or, are the 26 races that precede the actual "Chase" the regular season or the pre-season?
The only certainty is the driver that finishes first at the end of the Chase will be the champion, and it seems that Jimmie Johnson is getting hot at the right time. By winning Sunday's Chevy Rock and Roll 400 at Richmond, it was Johnson's second-straight victory and fourth this season, which places him third when the series heads to New Hampshire for the first of the 10 Chase races on Sunday.
Suddenly, Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards have company in the fight for the championship, which is why the bonus points for victories in the 26 races that precede the Chase are so important.
So looking ahead to the start of the Chase the first two races usually separate the contenders from the pretenders. For a driver who starts off with two bad races, the hole will get deep in a hurry and that driver may be mathematically alive for the title but realistically out of it.
But with the format of the Chase, it rewards a driver who is hot at the end of the season more so than the driver who has been great all year long. That is why it is very conceivable that Busch and Edwards may not win the championship and a driver like Johnson will.
It's all about getting hot at the right time.
Although a third-straight title by Johnson would be historic -- he would join Cale Yarborough as the only drivers to win three in a row -- it may not be the best thing for NASCAR.
Johnson is a nice guy but he's "Mr. Corporate" and doesn't generate much emotion from the race fans.
What this angry mob really wants to see is a street fight between Busch, Edwards and -- of course -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. They want to see Edwards, who appears more like the Dolph Lundgren "Ivan Drago" character in Rocky IV, beat up on Busch, who looks more like Pee Wee Herman. Or they'd prefer to see Earnhardt Hip Hop his way to his first championship.
It's time for something colorful and something exciting to happen in the Chase after last year's yawner where Johnson and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon turned it into an HMS mutual admiration society.
Now that Dario Franchitti has finally come to his senses and returned to the IndyCar Series after his ill-fated attempt at NASCAR, and with the emergence of IndyCar as a unified series, it should mark the end of an era where IndyCar drivers thought they could drive in NASCAR.
While Tony Stewart is one IndyCar Series champion who has been successful in NASCAR, and Juan Pablo Montoya, a former CART champion and Formula One driver was able to win a race in his rookie season, Franchitti and Sam Hornish Jr. struggled throughout the season.
Hornish insists he is in NASCAR for the long haul but believes he has not driven in his final IndyCar Series race. And Dan Wheldon, who once wanted to drive one of Chip Ganassi's stock cars, will be driving Panther Racing's IndyCars instead.
That's good for IndyCar racing because, frankly, it made about as much sense as Wayne Gretzky wanting to play for the Boston Celtics.
Just because an IndyCar and a NASCAR ride have four wheels and a steering wheel doesn't make them the same. They are vastly different racing disciplines, which explains why only a few drivers, such as A.J. Foyt in his prime and Stewart in recent years, have been successful in both.
And while it would be great to see Jeff Gordon one day drive in the Indianapolis 500, it's probably best that these drivers stick to what they do best.
This has to go to Tony Stewart and his pit crew at Joe Gibbs Racing.
After finishing second to Jimmie Johnson in the closing laps of Sunday's NASCAR race at Richmond, Stewart sarcastically ripped his pit crew over the team radio to crew chief Greg Zipadelli. The Joe Gibbs Racing crew chief promptly shot back at Stewart that "we win as a team and we lose as a team and we don't need any of that crap."
With Stewart leaving JGR at the end of the season to become an owner/driver at Stewart Haas Racing, Zipadelli is probably counting down the days, hours, minutes and seconds until Stewart's final race with the team.
This was once the best crew chief/driver relationship in NASCAR, but after 10 seasons, they are ready for a racing divorce.
Who else but Kyle Busch getting wrecked by Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Richmond, sending the huge mob to their feet in wild cheers?
Flash back to May, when Busch ran into the back of Earnhardt, who was in the lead late in the first Richmond race. Given that exchange, it's easy to understand that these fans wanted revenge.
Although it appeared that Busch actually drove down on Earnhardt to cause his own crash, in the minds of the Earnhardt race fans, I can hear them now -- "Junior sure did show that punk."
Scott Dixon's has many nicknames, including "Scotty D." Last year, Helio Castroneves won Dancing with the Stars by beating out former Spice Girl Mel B.
So, naturally, I had to ask Castroneves, "Who was a tougher competitor -- Scotty D or Mel B?"
"That's a good one, there," Castroneves said with a laugh after losing the IndyCar Series title to Dixon on Sunday. "I would have to say Mel B because I was in a very different territory and didn't know how it would turn out. I was pretty nervous. Here, I knew what I needed to do."
The incredible finish of Sunday's PEAK Antifreeze and Motor Oil Indy 300 at Chicagoland Speedway was the perfect way to finish IndyCar's season of unification.
Dixon was originally credited with winning the race by .0010 seconds, which would have made it the closest finish in IndyCar history. Dixon, who needed to finish eighth or better to clinch the season championship, wheeled his car into victory lane and was ready to celebrate both a race victory and title.
Not so fast.
IndyCar Series officials use a camera placed at the start/finish line for any finish of .0066-of-a-second or less and when they looked at the photo, Castroneves was ahead by 12-1/8th of an inch, a 0.0033-second margin of victory and his second win in the final three races of the season.
It was the second-closest finish in IndyCar history, falling just short of the 0.0024-second margin of victory when Sam Hornish Jr. defeated Al Unser Jr. at Chicagoland Speedway in 2002.
Vitor Meira was notified by e-mail that his final IndyCar race with Panther Racing would come at Chicagoland Speedway.
Talk about tacky.
Meira should have invested in a better Spam Blocker to keep that e-mail from arriving, forcing the team to tell him in person. After all, who likes to be fired by e-mail?
"I feel like it's important for the fans to know what I think about everything that has happened this last week," Meira said. "I didn't want to leave Panther and the No. 4 car because I know how good this team is going to be next year. I feel like I'm a big part of the foundation of this team in the new generation of the IndyCar Series. I'm sad to leave and I don't agree with all the decisions that have been made, but that doesn't change the way I feel about Panther Racing and I'll always have a lot of respect for them. I feel like I'm personal friends with every member of this team. That will never change."
Jay Penske said he is very interested in talking to Meira about 2009 when Luczo Dragon Racing will field a one-car team for the entire season.
Tomas Scheckter drove a limited six-race schedule for the team this year and was expected to be the driver next season. But despite Scheckter's talent and speed, he was unable to finish a race in 2008 in a season marred by broken half-shafts on pit stops and crashes. He finished 26th in Sunday's race after dropping out on lap 87.
At one point, Penske had considered a two-car team for the entire series in 2009, but wants to focus on one car next season, with the possibility of a second car in the Indianapolis 500.
Meira finished 27th for Panther after he crashed in the second turn on lap 75.
"It's a shame it had to end like that," Meira said.
Although the message of Meira's departure arrived in an impersonal e-mail, Panther Racing had a huge "Thank you Vitor" banner on the pit wall for his final race with the team.
"I went over there to meet with them and they just wanted to talk to Helio. I wasn't invited. I was de-invited."
-- Penske Racing president Tim Cindric talking about meeting with IndyCar Series officials after his driver, Helio Castroneves, was dropped to the rear of the field after an infraction during his qualification attempt. Castroneves would come back and win Sunday's IndyCar finale at Chicagoland Speedway.
"When you're lucky enough to be on the radio with a guy like Scott Dixon and you're telling him he needs to finish eighth, what do you think is going to happen? That's like putting red in front of a bull."
-- Target/Chip Ganassi Managing Director Mike Hull on telling Scott Dixon that he "only needed to finish eighth" to win the IndyCar Series title.
When Milka Duno led lap 141, it was the first time in her IndyCar career that the female driver from Venezuela has led a lap in the series. By leading five laps, Duno led more laps this season than Danica Patrick, who entered the race with four laps led.
Talk about a wet towel in the face, Duno has done it again. She threw her sweat-soaked towel in Patrick's face in a confrontation between the two at Mid-Ohio in July and now she has one-upped Patrick in the season-ending laps led category.
The start of the Chase, of course, because it means finally we don't have to hear about who is going to make it or who isn't going to be in the Chase. This is the time to get down to it and start the 10-week segment that is going to determine who wins the Sprint Cup title.