By DALE BOSOWSKI
SONOMA — Scott Dixon started Sunday’s GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma, the season finale for the Verizon IndyCar series, third place in the season standings, 10 points behind Graham Rahal and a whopping 47 points behind season long leader Juan Pablo Montoya.
But when the 85-lap race through the rolling hills of Sonoma Raceway was concluded Dixon had captured the 2015 IndyCar Series title in the closest finish in IndyCar history.
Before the race Dixon was cautiously optimistic despite starting from the ninth position on the grid.
“Strategy is going to be key today and I hope we are on the right one today,” said Dixon. “I think there are quite a few unknowns and our car seemed pretty quick in morning practice. Hopefully we get some breaks.”
Dixon not only won the race, worth double-points as the finale, he also captured three bonus points for leading a lap and leading the most laps (34).
And he needed every single one of those points from the race to win the championship. In fact, the title was not even decided until well after Dixon (#9 Target/Ganassi) took the checkered flag ahead of Ryan Hunter-Reay (#28 DHL/Andretti Autosports) and his Ganassi teammate Charlie Kimball.
Montoya (#2 Verizon/Penske) sat in eighth place following a yellow-caution with 13 laps to go in the race. He needed to climb to up to fifth to clinch the championship regardless of Dixon’s result.
He was able to move into sixth and was closing in on the fourth and fifth place cars of Tony Kanaan or Ryan Briscoe when the laps ran out, finishing just 1.3 seconds behind Briscoe and the championship.
Montoya, the series leader from the first race of the season at St Petersburg, and Dixon finished tied with 556 points, but Dixon earned the title with the most victories on the season, taking the tie-breaker three wins to two.
Montoya’s downfall could ultimately be traced back to a lap 34 caution brought out when Luca Filippi’s throttle stuck.
Dixon was able to pick up several spots thanks to a brilliant pit stop during the caution while Montoya came out of the pits three cars behind him.
On the restart, Montoya clipped his Team Penske teammate Will Power in the rear end after Power went wide in turn #3. Both cars were able to continue, but only after they dashed into the pits to repair damage from the incident.
When the race resumed on lap 43, Montoya found himself in the 22nd spot of the 25 car starting grid from which he spent the rest of the race trying to claw his way back through the pack.
It was the fourth IndyCar series championship for Dixon and the 100th win for Team Ganassi.
“There was still a chance, and that’s what we were hoping for,” said an elated Dixon in victory lane. “This is fantastic. I still can’t believe it because we were such a long shot. I really don’t know what to say.”
Polar opposite was Montoya, who was dejected after the race.
“It doesn’t matter what happened,” said Montoya said. “We had a few ways to win the championship and we just threw it away. We had a good car today, but we didn’t close it.”
Montoya was also displeased with the format that awarded double points for the final race.
“When you do this and you put double points on the last race, it doesn’t matter what you’ve done all year,” commented Montoya, who ironically won the Indy 500 in May, the only other race that was worth double points this season.
Power, the reigning IndyCar champion, was also upset following the race. He also entered Sunday’s race with a shot at the championship and was unhappy with the need for a yellow caution that would result in the devastating restart mishap with Montoya.
“I feel horrible for Juan. I tried to avoid the car ahead of me and I came back into him,” said Power, who finished third in the championship. “The yellow started it all. We have to decide if we are a sport or a casino because it’s the luck of the draw. A race should be decided by the drivers not race control throwing cautions.”