Scott Dixon knew his season may be in trouble after he finished 15th in the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach in mid-April. The result was an uncharacteristic finish outside the top 10 for the second race in a row as the New Zealander opened defense of his IndyCar Series title.
“I was thinking, ‘It's going to be one of those years where nothing seems to go right,'” said Dixon, who kicked off his 2004 title defense with an 18th place in the season opener. “After the first couple of races where you're sitting 18th in points, you don't feel that good for sure and hope it's going to turn around.”
The results initially put a dent in Dixon's quest for a second consecutive championship, but he has surely righted the program as he enters the Firestone Indy 300 on Oct. 10 at Homestead-Miami Speedway with a five-point lead over teammate Dario Franchitti and an eight-point margin on Team Penske's Ryan Briscoe for the second-closest three-man battle with one race left in series history.
There are multitude of scenarios to determine the champion after 17 rounds of competition, but the 29-year-old New Zealander is focused on tying the series record for victories (six by Dixon in ‘08 and Dan Wheldon in '05). Accomplish that objective, and he'll join Sam Hornish Jr. as the only three-time series champion and only driver to win back-to-back titles.
“That quickly turned around,” Dixon said of the early season stretch in which he won half of the oval races and finished in the top six of the other three. “This year has been a strange one. I'm surprised we're even in the fight because we've had really no flow. We've had such terrible races and have had such good ones as well.
“The team's done great as far as winning nine races between the two of us, but we've been up and down. We've had some odd finishes and some that have really taken some points away, so definitely it's not been a remake of the '08 season where everything seemed to go right.”
Though Dixon won six races and posted 14 top-five finishes overall in 2008, the championship went down to the final race with Helio Castroneves. Castroneves won that race at Chicagoland Speedway, with Dixon's runner-up finish by 0.0033 of a second securing the title by 17 points.
Dixon also has been involved in final-race showdowns three other years since joining the IndyCar Series in 2003, which gives him a degree of insight in how to approach the remaining days until the green flag flies for the start of the 200-lap race on the 1.5-mile oval.
In 2007, it was more final-lap drama when Dixon and Franchitti – on rival teams at the time – were wheel to wheel through Turn 2 with the championship going to the car that crossed the finish line first. Franchitti, who had trailed the past six laps, overtook Dixon's fuel-starved car in Turn 4 at Chicagoland Speedway and went on to the race victory by 1.8 seconds and championship by 13 points.
In 2006, four drivers entered the season finale with a shot at winning the title, which wasn't decided until after the checkered flag fell. Castroneves led Team Penske teammate Hornish by one point, while Wheldon was 18 points back and Dixon was 21 behind. Wheldon finished 0.1897 of a second ahead of Dixon in the 200-lap race, followed by Hornish and Castroneves. Wheldon and Hornish tied in points, with Castroneves two back and Dixon 15 off the pace. Hornish claimed his third series title based on the first tiebreaker (four wins to Wheldon's two).
In 2003, Dixon clinched the title with a runner-up finish in the finale at Texas Motor Speedway.
“You're definitely more relaxed going into the final race,” Dixon said. “You're not over-thinking things too much; just trying to get into a rhythm. Especially when you have problems, you know how to deal with them a little better, rewrite them or get them fixed quicker.
“I'm happy we're in the chase and it's definitely different from years previous where we're chasing instead of being chased. Hopefully, there will be a lot of pressure on Ryan and we can keep that building. It's nice when you have a lot of points and you're leading and things keep going your way, but I think when you're being chased and it's really close as it was in ‘07 with Dario it's a lot of pressure and you really start to see things change in the last few races as we did last year.
“This year, it's Dario and I one-two in the championship going down to the last race. It's what we expect for IndyCar. It's going to be a crazy race. Obviously, the three of us are going to be pushing to the maximum. It's going to come down to the final lap, the final corner of Miami.”