While it hasn’t been a perfect start to the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series championship for Scott Dixon, with all things considered it has been good enough.
Following Dixon’s podium finish in the Indianapolis 500 this past weekend (and his 11th career top-10 at the Indy 500), the New Zealand native has kept himself firmly in the championship hunt despite the uphill climb Chip Ganassi Racing’s No. 9 PNC Bank team has faced.
Currently Dixon is 4th in the points battle, just 25 marks off of Indy 500 winner and new points leader Will Power.
Remarkably, Dixon has not lead a lap thus far in the 2018 IndyCar campaign. You would have to go all the way back to the 2005 season to find a start to the year where Dixon had yet to lead a lap though six races.
At the INDYCAR Grand Prix earlier this month, Dixon alluded to some of the struggles his team have endured thus far in 2018. A combination of INDYCAR’s radical aero kit change plus an engineering group that is maybe a little set in its ways are factors Dixon feels may have contributed to a slow start.
“It’s one of the biggest (car) changes we’ve seen in probably a five- or six-year cycle, so that might be a bit of our issue,” Dixon explained. “We (are) kind of stuck in our ways a little too much, and we have a very good engineering group, but it’s stayed the same for quite a long time, so we don’t think maybe outside the box as often as we should.
“Our car was very good last year. But yeah, I don’t know. In the off-season I think we’ve gone down a bit of a road that we shouldn’t have, and it’s affecting how the car feels. It’s very hard to feel what it’s going to do, and it’s not very consistent, and thirdly, the heat really affects us, so we need to get on top of that.”
During Sunday’s 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500, Dixon and his Ganassi crew were faced with their biggest nemesis when track temperatures soared above 125 degrees Fahrenheit at the second-hottest Indy 500 ever.
Starting 9th, Dixon’s No. 9 PNC Bank Honda lacked pace during most of the month despite a Firestone Fast Nine appearance. In the race he mingled with drivers near 10th place for much of the afternoon and restarts were a killer for the veteran driver as they missed the mark on gearing ratios.
An opportunity presented itself, though, when on lap 162 Dixon was called into the pits to top off his fuel tank in a last-gasp attempt to steal his second Indy 500 win.
Luck, a couple of cautions, and a bit more luck would have to fall his way before having a legitimate shot at the victory – though it nearly played out perfectly with Dixon’s superior fuel-saving aptitude.
While Power would slingshot past Dixon with 15 to go in what would eventually be a pass for the lead, a caution brought out by Tony Kanaan allowed Dixon to save just a bit more fuel under yellow to defend his position when the final restart ensued.
When the dust settled with Oriol Seriva, Stefan Wilson and Jack Harvey pitting late due to low fuel, Dixon had stretched his mileage enough to pick up a 3rd place finish and his 4th career podium finish at the ‘500.
“We were trying to save fuel at the end and we knew we had to take a gamble with the PNC Bank car,” Dixon said after the race. “We just didn’t have the top speed today and the restarts were tough. That was all due to my team though. They made that great strategy call and all I did was get the fuel number they gave me.”
On Sunday, Dixon was the only driver that placed within the top-10 finishers that did not lead a lap. He is also the only driver in the top-10 in points that has yet to lead a lap.
The 37-year-old will look to change that trend with a strong showing in this weekend’s Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix, where he and 22 other entrants will get their shot at two races in two days.
“Detroit is always a big challenge. It’s physical, it’s mentally tough on the drivers, and you have to get everything right to get your car handling correctly there,” Dixon notes. “You focus on the month of May for over three weeks in Indianapolis and then you have to get back to the championship mindset immediately facing you at Detroit. And on top of that, it’s the only doubleheader of the season.
“We’ll be ready to go in the PNC Bank car this weekend and hopefully have another good points weekend with the No. 9 team.”
This is the 13th time in the last 16 years that Dixon has been in the top five of the points standings after six rounds have been completed.
He is a four-time champion in IndyCar competition and has won titles with much bigger holes to dig out of than this. The entire paddock should be on high-alert for Dixon as the summer series progresses because it is only a matter of time before things start to click for The Iceman.
Image courtesy of James Black/INDYCAR Media.