Amidst all the changes for 2018, the results have a familiar feeling after 16 of 17 races.
Headed to Sonoma Raceway for the finale, Scott Dixon leads the Verizon IndyCar Series points standings.
The four-time champion holds a 29-point advantage over Alexander Rossi with double points available at Sonoma Raceway on Sunday.
Despite his incredible pedigree, the season started on a relatively quiet note.
Through four races, the Chip Ganassi Racing driver had started and finished in the Top 10 three times. Surprisingly, had yet to lead a lap in any of those events. Although the laps led drought continued into May, Dixon would post finishes of second and third at the IndyCar Grand Prix and Indianapolis 500.
The stretch at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway appeared to be the jumpstart Dixon needed.
A week after the Indianapolis 500, he earned his first front row start of the season at Race 1 of the Detroit Grand Prix. From second on the grid, the 2012 Belle Isle winner found his way to the front after the first set of pit stops.
After the exchange, the New Zealander led 39 of the final 48 laps en route to his first victory of the season. With the victory, Dixon extended his series record to 14 straight seasons with at least one victory.
In the process, he also tied Michael Andretti for third all-time on the IndyCar win list with 42. The next day, Dixon started fifth and finished fourth in the second race.
Less than a week later, the hot streak continued.
After qualifying seventh and leading final practice at Texas Motor Speedway, the No. 9 Dallara-Honda team found their way to the front as night set in at the 1.44-mile oval. Dixon led the final 119 laps in the 248-lap and earned his second win of 2018.
Not only did the win give Dixon a 23-point lead over Rossi, he also surpassed Andretti for sole possession of third place on the all-time win list.
The next two races saw Dixon face less than ideal circumstances. In typical “IceMan” fashion, the points leader would fight through the adversity.
He qualified eighth at Road America but worked his way up to a third-place finish. With Rossi having issues and finishing 16th, the points lead was extended to 45.
Two weeks later, Dixon had his worst result of the season. Despite qualifying sixth, the team fell back to 12th by the end of the 300-lap race.
By finishing four laps down, it marked the only time he has failed to finish on the lead lap in 2018. It would end a streak of 20 consecutive races he had finished on the lead lap dating back to 2017.
Following another week off, the series headed to their last street course race of 2018. The Honda Indy Toronto had been a proverbial feast-or-famine race for Dixon.
He did earn two poles and two victories in his nine prior starts at the famed Exhibition Place circuit. Although he finished outside the Top 10 just twice in those nine starts, he failed to lead a lap in the seven races he did not reach victory lane.
The 2018 edition of the 85-lap race would prove to be another successful one. Dixon took the lead on Lap 33 after starting the race in the second position.
After a four-lap pit stop cycle, Dixon inherited the lead again on Lap 59 and never looked back. By netting his third victory of the season, Dixon extended his points lead over Rossi to 62, the biggest lead at any point this year.
Rossi dominated the following two races at Mid-Ohio and Pocono.
He qualified outside the Top Eight in both races. Although he earned Top Five finishes at the two races, his championship lead shrunk by more than half.
Leaving Pocono Raceway, Dixon was just 29 points ahead of Rossi.
When Rossi paced the two practice sessions at Gateway Motorsports Park the following week, Dixon’s points lead appeared to be in even further jeopardy.
The weather provided a slight reprieve for him, however. After qualifying was canceled, Dixon started first due entrant points, his first time starting on pole in 2018.
The early portion of the race belonged to Dixon, as he led 138 of the first 149 laps on the 1.25-mile oval. When Team Penske’s Will Power dominated the second half of the race and won, it left Dixon and Rossi to fight for second. Rossi won that fight, with Dixon slotting in third.
With the two contenders running 2-3, the points gap from Dixon to Rossi was reduced to just 26.
A multi-car crash at the start the following Sunday at Portland International Raceway marred Dixon in the back of the pack. As he has done so well throughout his career, he battled through the adversity and reversed his fortune.
By the end of the 105-lap race, Dixon climbed from his 11th place starting spot to finish fifth. Rossi, who started third and led 32 laps, settled for eighth.
With just Sonoma remaining, the gap between the two main championship contenders stands at 29 points. The Team Penske duo of Will Power and Josef Newgarden are also in the hunt, albeit a distant 87 points back.
For Dixon, the task this Sunday remains simple. As long as he finishes in the Top Two, he will clinch his fifth IndyCar championship in the last 16 years.
Although he is the only championship contender not to earn a victory or pole on a natural terrain road course, Sonoma Raceway has been kind to Dixon.
In 13 previous starts at the now 2.385-mile road course, Dixon has eight Top Tens, including one pole (2006) and three victories (2007, 2014 and 2015). The most recent of his Sonoma victories is perhaps the most impressive.
In 2015, Dixon entered the season finale 47 points back of Juan Pablo Montoya. After leading 34 laps, he scored the victory and earned the tiebreaker over Montoya to win the title.
Dixon does have a history of coming through in the clutch. However, it is also important to note his record in championship-deciding races is not perfect.
At the 2007 Chicagoland Speedway finale, Dixon watched Andretti Green Racing’s Dario Franchitti speed past to win.
Dixon ran out of fuel in Turn 3 on the final lap He would fall 1.844 seconds and 13 points winning the race and championship.
Sunday could mean history for Dixon. A fifth championship puts him alone at second all-time, behind only A.J. Foyt. As he has proven throughout his career, he is more than ready for the challenge.
Header Image by Shawn Gritzmacher/INDYCAR Media