In America last week NASCAR Nation was all atwitter with excitement over Dale Earnhardt Jr scoring his third win of the year and establishing himself as a serious championship contender. At 39 Dale Jr has been NASCAR’s most popular driver for 12 consecutive years but he’s never won a championship and it would be manna from heaven for NASCAR’s slumping crowds and TV ratings if Earnhardt came through to win this year’s Sprint Cup title.
Meanwhile, very much in the shadow of Earnhardt’s glow, defending IndyCar champion Scott Dixon demonstrated sublime brilliance to win at Mid-Ohio the same day that Dale Jr won at Pocono. Dixon turned in a masterful show at Mid-Ohio but like most IndyCar races it drew very little mainstream media coverage and was swamped in the social media world by endless chatter about Dale Jr.
Nevertheless, Dixon’s last-to-first performance at Mid-Ohio was a superb piece of driving as he outpaced everyone once he got into clean air and blew them all away when it came to saving fuel. Until Mid-Ohio, Scott and Chip Ganassi’s team had endured a barren season devoid of wins, but driver and team now believe they have a remote hope of beating Penske team-mates Will Power and Hélio Castroneves to this year’s IndyCar title.
Dixon came from behind to take last year’s championship, winning four races in the season’s second half, but faces an even steeper uphill climb this year. He trails Power by 108 points and Castroneves by 104 with three races remaining on successive weekends at the Milwaukee Mile, Sonoma and the California Speedway. The season closer on August 30 is a 500-mile night race worth double points.
These days, Dixon, Castroneves and Tony Kanaan are the grand old men of IndyCar racing. Dixon won the Indy Lights championship in 2000 when he was 20 and has been racing Indycars for 14 years since ’01. He joined Ganassi’s team in the middle of 2002 and won his first IRL championship the following year. Dixon didn’t win any races in 2004 but he’s won at least once every year since, taking his second title and winning the Indy 500 in 2008, and adding a third championship last year.
Mid-Ohio was Dixon’s 34th IndyCar win, moving him into a tie with Al Unser Jr for sixth on IndyCar’s all-time winners list behind AJ Foyt, Mario Andretti, Michael Andretti, Al Unser Sr and his brother Bobby. Pretty good company.
Scott is a quiet, retiring fellow, a private man who’s not about to become a star of social media. But when you consider he’s only 34 and hopes to continue racing for many years to come he’s capable of catching and passing the Unsers and Michael Andretti in statistical lore and is sure to go down in history as one of IndyCar racing’s greatest drivers.
Legendary crew chief/team manager Jim McGee retired a few years ago but was hired this year by Chip Ganassi to fly in for race weekends to help run Ganassi’s fleet of four Indycars with specific responsibility for overseeing Ryan Briscoe’s car. McGee is very impressed with Dixon.
“He’s a really nice guy, completely unchanged by all his success,” McGee says. “He sits in the engineering meetings and he just grins and keeps things simple. He’s incredible at Mid-Ohio. We compare the traces of the steering and throttle inputs and so forth for all four drivers of course, and really, there was no difference. They were all doing the same thing everywhere around the race course, but he was three laps better on fuel! Pretty amazing.”
Many fans seem not to appreciate the skills of the driver who can save fuel while running as quickly, or even quicker, than everyone else. It requires a subtle, soft touch and a silky smooth technique in the style of Juan Manuel Fangio, Stirling Moss and Jim Clark.
In fact, I’d wager if Dixon was let loose in a Formula 1 car he would go as fast and do just as good a job of racing and testing as any of F1’s current superstars. Scott tested a Williams-BMW F1 car back in 2004 and still rates it as his favourite, but he’s sure he would do a much better job if he drove that car today with all the experience he’s gained over the past 10 years.
Of course, Dixon is too old to get another F1 chance but two rapidly emerging IndyCar stars – Simon Pagenaud and Josef Newgarden – deserve shots at F1. In fact there’s talk that Pagenaud will get an F1 test later this year courtesy Honda whose engines he races in IndyCar. Driving for Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson’s small team Pagenaud won two races last year and has won again this year.
A smooth, intelligent driver, Pagenaud also showed his ability a few years ago with Peugeot’s WEC team at Le Mans and elsewhere. He’s currently ranked fourth in IndyCar points behind Ryan Hunter-Reay and ahead of Juan Pablo Montoya and Dixon. Pagenaud is 30, a little old for F1 tastes, but if he’s given a proper test and opportunity by Honda I have no doubt he will show he’s totally capable of making the jump to F1.
Dixon in the Williams FW26 in 2004
And then there’s Newgarden who’s shown tremendous ability with Sarah Fisher’s little one-car team. Newgarden led at Long Beach earlier this year, finished second on the Iowa oval last month and chased hard after Dixon at Mid-Ohio before his team made a pitstop gaffe, leaving an air hose in Newgarden’s path resulting in a botched stop and a drive-through pit penalty.
Newgarden is, as they say, the real deal. He’s very fast and smart with a quiet confidence that’s getting even stronger as he performs well in race after race on all types of tracks. Josef spent two years in England and Europe in 2009 and ’10 racing well in Formula Ford and GP3 before dominating the 2011 Indy Lights championship. With Fisher’s team he immediately made his mark in IndyCar and is knocking on the door of scoring his first win.
Both Pagenaud and Newgarden are at the end of three-year contracts with their respective teams so the coming months will be critical in determining their futures. Will the likes of Penske and Ganassi hire either of these talented young drivers to replace at least one of their current collection of aging superstars, or will some sagacious F1 team take the chance to tap into their obvious potential?
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