Scott Dixon was still fast, he just didn’t experience the 2016 results expected for a four-time Verizon IndyCar Series champion.
An offseason of change will see team owner Chip Ganassi switching engine manufacturers to Honda from Chevrolet. Longtime sponsor Target will depart. But Dixon, who has a long-term contract, is confident he will return as one of the series contenders in 2017.
He’s been too good for too long to believe anything else.
“We only come here to do one thing,” Dixon said. “You’ve got to look at the big picture. We’re still doing what we love. It’s like family here. I love it. I enjoy it. It’s a great atmosphere. Chip likes to win.”
After winning his fourth series title in 2015, Dixon dropped to sixth in the points this season. He had finished no worse than third in the previous nine years. Accentuating the positives, race victories at Phoenix and Watkins Glen extended a streak of winning at least two races to 12 consecutive seasons – an Indy car record. The victory at Watkins Glen was the 40th of Dixon’s 16-year career, moving him alone into fourth on the all-time list.
But his No. 9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet began the season with an overheating problem in the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, the first of several setbacks that contributed to a frustrating year.
“I was happy with our overall pace this year,” said Dixon, 36. “At a good 80 to 90 percent of the tracks, we had really fast cars, which I think has been a better performance than some other years. We just didn’t capitalize on it. I hate saying bad luck, but we had some misfortunes. We’ve done some things that I think we’ve missed out on, too. Some have been self-inflicted but you learn from those.”
The Australian-born New Zealander starts listing those misfortunes. A champion sometimes remembers the disappointments more vividly than the successes.
“St. Pete was a major letdown with the overheating,” he said of a seventh-place finish, “then we had Toronto (eighth) and Road America (22nd). Indy (eighth in the Indianapolis 500) was pretty lackluster for us, which was really tough to swallow this year. We just really didn’t have a dog in the fight.”
The 2008 Indianapolis 500 winner, like everyone else, considers that race the most important, especially with May’s much-publicized event being the 100th running. He’s been a top-five Indy 500 finisher six times and won the pole twice.
But it got worse after Indy. Dixon qualified second for the KOHLER Grand Prix at Road America on June 26th, then a mechanical issue parked his car after just six laps.
“There were two or three other races we definitely missed out on winning,” he said. “Road America, I think we really had the car to win there, with how easy we were going in the early laps.”
Before the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio on July 31, eventual series champion Simon Pagenaud of Team Penske said he considered Dixon his most serious threat. But Dixon dropped out in last place again after having contact with Helio Castroneves, while Pagenaud prevailed over teammate Will Power.
“We obviously had some bad luck at certain times when we didn’t need it,” Ganassi said. “That probably hurt us the most. I think the pace was there. It was just one of those years where the bear gets you more than you get the bear, I guess.”
In addition to his four championships, Dixon has been a series runner-up twice and finished third in the points in four seasons – all since 2007.
“The closer ones hurt a lot more, like in 2007, running out of fuel in the last corner and losing to Dario (Franchitti),” he said of finishing second in that season’s finale at Chicagoland Speedway. “We’ve been in the top three for most of the last 10 years.”
That Dixon has, which is why he’s always considered a contender.
“I don’t think there’s a guy who is as unanimously respected as highly as Scott Dixon,” said James Hinchcliffe, the 2016 Indy 500 pole sitter for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports.
Ganassi echoed the sentiment.
“Scott hasn’t lost his drive or his will,” the team owner said. “He’s still the guy you’d like to have in the entire paddock.”