April 27, 2009
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Scott Dixon followed his first Indy Racing League championship by going into a funk, dropping to 10th the next season. Two middle-of-the-pack finishes to start this season had Dixon wondering if he was headed down the same road after his second series title last year.
All it took was one race to change his outlook.
Dixon took advantage of Ryan Briscoe’s tough-luck pit stop with 47 laps left, then held off Helio Castroneves down the stretch to win the Road Runner Turbo Indy 300 on Sunday.
“We needed something, even a sniff something because so far all we had was a sniff of the tail-end of the field,” Dixon said. “That’s frustrating and I was starting to look back on 2004 and how that was a dismal season after winning a championship. I know the team can do it; we just need to get everything right.”
They did on Sunday — and got a little help from Briscoe.
Dixon and Briscoe controlled the race from the start, holding the lead for 137 of the first 152 laps in difficult conditions. Briscoe had led for 54 laps when he decided to go into the pits for tires and fuel on lap 153. Just as he crossed into the pits, Dario Franchitti slammed into the wall, sending up the caution flag. Track officials didn’t allow Briscoe to stop and he circle back, returning to the track in fourth after pitting with the rest of the field.
Briscoe never improved and ended up fourth, behind Tony Kanaan.
“It’s bad timing and luck that Franchitti had to crash,” Briscoe said. “Otherwise, we’re looking golden.”
Team owner Roger Penske wasn’t so magnanimous.
“He went into the pits before it went yellow, then they said we couldn’t work on the car,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like it in my life. We were in the pits before it went yellow, so I think the officials really have to take a look at that. It may have cost us the race.”
Dixon was the beneficiary.
The New Zealander had a tough start to the season, finishing 16th and 15th on the road courses in St. Petersburg and Long Beach after decent qualifying runs in the IRL’s first two races. He was solid in qualifying at Kansas, starting fourth, and was steady all race day, leading 134 laps.
The Target Chip Ganassi Racing driver took advantage of Briscoe’s bad break on a difficult day of passing, using a quick stop to beat Castroneves out of the pits for the lead. He kept up the momentum, cruising to his 17th career IndyCar victory and first at the 1.5-mile oval at Kansas Speedway after several near-misses.
Just like that, Dixon turned around his season and became one of the favorites in next month’s Indianapolis 500.
“This is a big boost for my confidence, the team’s confidence and a lot of momentum going into the month of May, which is our biggest race,” he said.
The weather didn’t make it easy.
Strong winds hampered practice and qualifying, and a line of thunderstorms Saturday afternoon wiped out the NASCAR trucks race and produced a tornado a few miles from the track.
More big storms moved toward the track Sunday afternoon, but didn’t arrive until after the race. The wind was still a factor, steady at 25 mph, gusting to 35 to make the drivers feel like they were trying to maneuver big rigs around Kansas Speedway.
The wind was particularly tough on turns 3 and 4, and all but took away the high line on the track. Surprisingly, on a day the drivers expected multiple cautions because of the conditions, the yellow flag went up just three times.
“In situations like this, everyone’s so concerned that they don’t take a lot of risks and you don’t see as many yellows,” said Kanaan, who moved into the series points lead with his third straight top-5 finish. “As drivers, we get less greedy because we respect the track a lot more.”
Castroneves didn’t seem to be bothered by the wind, making the biggest move of the race.
The Team Penske driver had the third-fastest qualifying speed on Saturday, but was sent to the back of the field for dipping below the white line. Castroneves worked his way through the field early in the race, only to suffer front-end damage from slamming into the back of Vitor Meira, who had to lift off the gas to avoid another car.
The Brazilian needed two pit stops to fix the damage during the caution, then started back toward the front. Castroneves moved into second after Franchitti’s wreck, but couldn’t ever catch Dixon.
“Even starting in the back, I was trying to get the rhythm back, restarts, all these kind of little details that sometime you can’t see on TV,” said Castroneves, who was seventh at Long Beach last week, his first race of the season. “We did have a little incident there, but we were able to get back in the track, back in the game.”
So did Dixon.