Three races, three very different outcomes, and a quite a jumble of feelings. At the end of the Indy 500, I was happy for the team that it got a 1-2, happy for Dario and pissed for myself, if I'm totally honest. In Detroit, things couldn't have been better; we got the No. 9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing car into Victory Lane after leading from start to finish; in Texas, I crashed after leading the most laps but I had huge fun driving the best formula for oval cars that IndyCar has had in over a decade.
The feeling after Indy is easily explained: if you drive for a team like Ganassi and go in expecting to win, it's pretty much a downer if you finish anywhere except Victory Lane. Sometimes it's easier to have just a really bad day because then your expectations aren't shattered at the end. In my opinion, we did everything right that day – a fast car, great pit stops, great strategy and when we were leading we slowed the field down to make sure we covered our backsides from the fuel mileage point of view. As a team, we had meetings about the fact that this car punches such a huge hole in the air, there was no point in leading at the start of the last lap because you'd be a sitting duck for getting passed before the checkers. Dario and I did the back-and-forth exchanges for a while in the closing stages and the only thing that messed it up was Takuma Sato joining the battle! But fair enough: he was just racing hard, and trying to win the biggest race in the world.
I still think I could have got both of them on the last lap had it not gone yellow. Both Target cars were extremely good through Turns 2 and 4. Earlier in the race, getting a run on someone out of Turn 4, you wouldn't have got the pass done until after the start/finish line, but once the track gripped up toward the end of the race that had changed. I was making passes out of Turn 4 so quick that I was almost clear of the guy I was overtaking before the start/finish line. So that's why I'm certain that whoever was ahead exiting Turn 4 on the last lap was going to lose the race, so we could have won if lap 200 hadn't been under caution.
Why were the Ganassi cars only mid-grid in qualifying and then so fast on Carb Day and race day? Well, 1) Our engines were nearing the end of their maximum mileage in qualifying. 2) Honda had concentrated on getting race pace and fuel economy right, so although Chevrolet looked strong when the boost levels went up for Fast Friday and Pole Day, Honda had the edge as soon as we returned to regular boost. 3) Although the Andretti Autosport cars looked really fast on the cool parts of the days leading up to qualifying and in qualifying itself, from the Sunday after Pole Day, they looked nothing special. 4) We had focused our running – solo and in a pack – for whenever each day was at its hottest, so when the temperatures really went up from Carb Day onward, we had a stronger setup than anyone else. So we had the best setup, the best engine (thank you, Honda!) and also fresh engines. If we stayed out of trouble, on race day, I had no doubts we were going to be able to move forward, car by car.
And that's basically what we did. Seriously, I think we had everything right, and I don't think we can look back and say this or that is the reason we missed out. It was just the circumstances. But there's no doubt that immediately afterward, I was frustrated. To have the Target No. 9 crew give me a car that was so fast and also strong in lots of different conditions and situations and then come up short was one of those things that bugs you until next year when you get the chance to go for it again.
Detroit helped though: our first win of the year. And although we went on to lead every lap from pole position – the first time I've done that since Richmond in 2003, by the way – I wouldn't have predicted that dominance after the first dry practice session on Friday, when we were only sixth or seventh fastest. Saturday morning wasn't a lot better. But then we made a big leap forward with mechanical grip in time for qualifying, and although we had overboost penalties in the first two rounds of the session, once we were into the Firestone Fast Six, we went back to an engine map that gave us less boost and that was what we needed and we put a really strong lap together.
Detroit's probably the toughest street course we go to, because it's so bumpy and mentally it's quite draining because there's no real place to relax and not much run-off. I do wish it had gone full distance after the stoppage, but in hindsight I think Bud Denker and everyone else who helped put on the event did a great job to get the circuit back to a race-worthy condition for us to have a 15-lap shootout.
I wasn't happy that the distance left to run was decided according to how much fuel people had in their tanks before they'd have to stop again, and that we were then allowed new tires but they had to be the same compound we were on when the race stopped. I mean, the difference between brand-new reds and brand-new blacks was huge, so I knew Dario on reds was going to carve through. Everyone else was on the defensive, whereas he was a man on a mission; credit to him for coming up to second place from mid-grid.
The Texas race could have brought us another win; we led the most laps by far, but a crash ended that dream. But the important thing for the IZOD IndyCar series as a whole was that we had an oval race that put the drivers' destinies back in their hands. The only disappointing thing is that it took us so long to find this solution.
We had been complaining about it for years and this time the drivers requested it and IndyCar agreed to it. Some of the drivers were bitching about it, but of course they were: they were the ones struggling the most. The fact is, you're supposed to drive an IndyCar: it's not meant to be easy while also being faster and more dangerous! To me, the race at Texas was 10 times safer and 10 times more exciting. Even though I crashed and had a bad night, I still went away thinking, “Man, that was a good race that showed off the talents of the driver to not only drive his car but also tune it and adapt it at 200mph.”
The cars were so loose by the end of a stint – and loose was fast throughout the stint, so I felt that was the way to go. As a result, I honestly think I only turned left three times the whole night (LOL!). The rest of the time was spent gassing it and catching it.
Mike Hull was on my radio saying, “What's it like?” and I'm saying, “It's loose and getting looser.” About two laps before I spun, I decided I needed tires, and Mike said, “You need to do another 10 laps to keep with the fuel strategy.” I thought, “No freakin' way can I do 10 more laps!” Then I got carved up by a backmarker while I was lapping him in Turn 2, and I had to check up a lot and had a big moment, and that allowed Will Power to get past me. Then I started chasing him and going into Turn 3, the cars ahead checked up a bit, I got on the brakes just as I was turning in and that was enough to get the rear sideways.
I thought I'd saved it, but the front wheels went onto the apron and at that point the car spun and we backed into the outside wall. With the weight distribution being so rearward in the DW12, you can catch most stuff at seven or eight degrees of yaw, but past that, nine times out of ten, it's going to keep on spinning.
I was mad at myself, but man, it was a great race and if we can keep this balance and formula, I'd love to go to more than five ovals in a season. They're an important part of IndyCar's heritage and now they've become dependent on driver talent once again, I love them. But there needs to be some compromising by the venues when we have issues with the fences and other safety stuff. If we can find promoters that are willing to work with us, I don't see there's any downside to going back to ovals now that the racing is better and safer. But I think there are still key safety areas that need to be fixed and people shouldn't try to sweep those under the carpet.
Now we have a couple of short ovals coming up, and in testing at Milwaukee it was very slippery and I think the downforce package and the tires we have here this weekend should help create a good race for the fans. One of the cool things about the Texas race was that you had drivers stopping not because they were almost running out of fuel, but because they simply needed fresh tires. In the Milwaukee test the teams that were doing long runs had quite a major drop-off in times between the start and the end of a stint, so as long as the track doesn't get too rubbered and slows that process down, I think we should have another really good race.
Iowa is a very different short oval: it's banked and with this car producing more than 5000lbs of downforce compared with the old car's 4400lbs, I think it will be too easy to drive. Without the bump on the exit of Turn 2, it would be flat all the way around, so next year I think we should go back there with speedway wings instead, so that even in qualifying you're having to lift off the gas, and you're actually driving it. Like I say, this job shouldn't be easy and I'll stand by that viewpoint even if we win the Iowa race!
Here's hoping. Thanks for reading.
• You can follow Scott on Twitter at @ScottDixon9 and Target Chip Ganassi Racing at @TCGRteams