FONTANA (AP) — Scott Dixon won his first championship at 23, too young to appreciate what he’d accomplished in his first full season with Chip Ganassi Racing and their first year competing in the IndyCar Series.
The next title five seasons later capped one of those years you only dream about: Dixon won six races, the Indianapolis 500, married his wife, Emma, and topped it all off with his second championship.
Then Dario Franchitti returned to IndyCar, as his teammate at Ganassi, and Dixon became an also-ran. He won 10 races over the next three years, but lost the championship every time to his new teammate. Franchitti won three consecutive titles from 2009 to 2011, and picked up two more Indy 500 wins in that span, beating Dixon in 2012 as the two swapped the lead with each other 11 times in the final 47 laps.
But Dixon, who will go down as one of the greatest drivers in American open-wheel history when his career comes to a close, was never out of the hunt. Not even this season, when he was not part of the championship picture at the halfway mark.
Dixon completed a remarkable rally Saturday night to win his third championship — five years after his last title, and 10 years after his first — and marveled at how different each journey had been.
“The first one, I think I was young, just didn’t really understand what I had won. My perspective when I was 22 or 23 of what I actually did to what I understand now is totally different,” he said. “And ‘08 was a dream year. Got married, won the Indy 500 and the championship. Pretty hard to beat that.
“This year I think has been far different, just in the fact midseason we didn’t think we had a shot at the championship.”
Winless after the 10th race of the season, Dixon’s 16th-place finish at Iowa had dropped him to seventh in the standings. He and Franchitti had both been written out of the championship picture, and an incident in the Iowa race with points leader Helio Castroneves had made Dixon furious.
“I remember having a conversation with Helio after Iowa, ‘I was like ‘Man, you need to watch out. I’m not in the championship, don’t do that again, because otherwise I can maybe hinder your championship,’” Dixon recalled Saturday night. “It’s funny how it turned out to be us fighting it out in the last few races.”
Two weeks after that Iowa race, Dixon broke through at Pocono for his first victory of the year. He then swept the doubleheader in Toronto for three wins in seven days, and Dixon was suddenly second in the standings and very much in the championship hunt.
But there was drama ahead.
Dixon dominated at Sonoma, but was taken out of contention for the victory when IndyCar ruled he was at fault for making contact with one of Will Power’s crew members during the final pit stop. Power, Castroneves’ teammate at Penske Racing, went on to win the race and Dixon finished 15th.
An incident with Power at Baltimore the next week left Dixon stuck on the race track, and IndyCar towed his car back to the garage instead of pit lane, effectively ending his day. Furious with the back-to-back decisions by race control, Dixon ranted about inconsistency and called for race director Beaux Barfield to be fired.
He was fined $30,000 by the series, by the real damage was in the standings: The two incidents had dropped him 49 points behind Castroneves with three races remaining.
But as team owner Ganassi noted, by winning championships every five years and not letting Franchitti’s takeover derail him, Dixon has proven “what a tenacious guy he is. He hangs in there.
“We had a tough, tough beginning of the season. We had a tough Indy 500. We had a tough midseason,” Ganassi said. “Then, of course, the Sonoma incident, the Baltimore incident. The guys on this team never, never, never gave up. These guys don’t know the word ‘give up.’ They don’t know how to give up. They hung in there, hung in there, hung in there.”
So Dixon was in position in Houston two weeks ago when Castroneves had his first mechanical issue of the season. Dixon won the first race in Houston and sliced 41 points off of Castroneves’ lead.
The next day, Castroneves made a mistake, driving wide over a bump in the track which caused his gearbox to break. Dixon finished second and now had a 25-point lead in the standings headed into the finale.
All he had to do Saturday night at Auto Club Speedway was be safe and smart as Castroneves tried to win the race.
“Having the big gain we saw in Houston, you understand you could be in that situation come Fontana as well. That’s why it’s so tough, these championships, because you have the highs and lows through the season,” Dixon said. “When it comes down to the last race, you know you have a real shot at winning it, do you have the mechanical problem, a silly spin you could have avoided, do you run something over on the pit stop, do something stupid?
“The biggest thing for me, and Chip says it in every race meeting, is ‘This race pays the same amount of points as the first race of the season.’ You can’t single out places. You can’t say, ‘That’s why I lost a championship.’ You’ve got to get it together for all of them.”
But Castroneves did think he could point to why he lost the championship. After leading the points for 14 races, he wound up second in the standings because of a three-race collapse at the end of the year. On Saturday night, team owner Roger Penske called him into the pits before pit lane was open, drawing a penalty, and contact with Dixon teammate Charlie Kimball led to a broken front wing that dropped him off the lead lap.
“I can’t take for granted the season we had. Yes, so close, but so far,” Castroneves said. “One weekend unfortunately for us cost a lot of points. Unfortunately it was nobody’s prediction. We did everything we could to avoid any kind of mechanical failure. The only time we had a mechanical failure in the whole season, that’s what cost the season.
“We can’t look back. We’ve just got to continue working hard. This is part of racing.”