Dixon goes into IndyCar season as 1 of all-time greats
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) Scott Dixon is fifth on IndyCar's wins list, with the likes of Foyt, Andretti and Unser the only drivers ahead of him.
A mediocre season by Dixon's standards should move him to at least fourth, probably third. Then the greatest open-wheel driver of this generation - Dixon has 38 career wins in 15 seasons - can set his sights on second place and Mario Andretti's mark of 52 victories.
Asked Tuesday if he can get to the top of the list and pass A.J. Foyt's record 67 wins, Dixon just laughed.
''I think A.J. is probably safe,'' the New Zealander said.
But catching Foyt isn't completely out of the realm of possibility for Dixon, who goes into Sunday's season opener on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida, with the same goals he starts with every year. He wants to win at St. Pete, where he has finished second three times. He wants to win the Indianapolis 500, which he won in 2008. And he wants to win another IndyCar title.
Dixon pulled off a slight upset last season when he won the finale at Sonoma to jump from third in the standings to a tie for first in points. Dixon was crowned champion based on a tiebreaker with Juan Pablo Montoya, and that fourth title tied him with Mario Andretti, Sebastien Bourdais and longtime teammate Dario Franchitti for second on the all-time IndyCar list. Only Dixon and Bourdais are still active, and they trail Foyt's record seven titles.
For Dixon, who won his first championship in 2003, the fourth title was ''the sweetest yet.''
His Chip Ganassi Racing team had lagged behind Team Penske most of the season, and Dixon really only hit his stride in the second part of the schedule. Montoya had led the standings since the season opener, and appeared to be in a two-man battle for the title with Graham Rahal.
At third in the standings, Dixon was an afterthought headed into the finale. Like the entire IndyCar Series, he was in the throes of an emotionally draining week following the death of driver Justin Wilson six days before the finale. When Dixon attended a title contender news conference at the start of the weekend, his mind appeared to be a million miles away.
Getting back into the race car was cathartic for Dixon, who had stayed in Pennsylvania to support Wilson's family after Wilson was struck in the head by a piece of debris during the previous week's race at Pocono. He was at the hospital when Wilson succumbed to his injuries a day later, and it was all too familiar for Dixon, who was also intensely involved in the healing process following Dan Wheldon's death in 2011.
After Wheldon died, Dixon uprooted his wife and two daughters and temporarily relocated to St. Pete to support Wheldon's widow and her two sons.
But Dixon is the Ice Man of IndyCar, and when it's time to go to work, nobody does it with more focus and determination. A subpar qualifying effort at Sonoma put him ninth on the starting grid, but he tuned out the long odds of snatching the title from Montoya and put his grieving of Wilson on temporary hold to lead a race-high 34 laps and steal his fourth crown.
''You know, until you are mathematically out of it, you don't stop believing you can win,'' Dixon said. ''You go to every race expecting to win. I know a lot of things had to fall in our favor that day, and they did. Part of it was that not being in the championship race for most of the season allowed me to just race with no pressure. There was nothing to lose and it makes last year the sweetest championship yet.''
Dixon takes nothing for granted, not even his cushy position as lead driver for the temperamental and demanding Ganassi. Entering his 15th season with the team, he's easily the longest tenured driver in Ganassi history and he takes little credit for maintaining his solid positioning in the organization. The fact is, Dixon is low-maintenance and he delivers on the race track with nary a bobble. He has won at least one race a year since 2005 and hasn't finished lower than third in the season standings since 2007.
He is an easygoing ambassador for the series and seems genuinely pleased for the success of others. He gives Ganassi no reason to make a driver change, and the team owner uses Dixon often in his sports car efforts. Dixon was recently added to Ganassi's Twelve Hours of Sebring lineup, and he's a shoo-in to be part of Ganassi's first appearance at Le Mans this summer.
Yet much like his NASCAR contemporary Jimmie Johnson, Dixon is often underappreciated when it comes to his resume. Johnson won six titles in eight years and two weeks ago tied the late Dale Earnhardt for seventh on the all-time wins list with 76 victories. But Johnson's accomplishments are quizzically underappreciated by the fan base, and Dixon may suffer similarly as the present-day motor sports fan fails to recognize the greatness they are witnessing.
Dixon doesn't care.
''I'm thrilled just to be recognized with some of the all-time greats. Where I rank or where I wind up, it's not so important to me,'' he said. ''I just go out and try to win and everything else takes care of itself.''