Scott Dixon did everything right in the INDYCAR Grand Prix at The Glen presented by Hitachi on Sept. 4, but even a completely dominant flag-to-flag victory in the Verizon IndyCar Series' penultimate stop of 2016 wasn't enough to keep him in the hunt for his fifth series championship.
The No. 9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing driver and six others were eliminated from title contention two weeks ago, leaving Team Penske teammates Simon Pagenaud and 2014 champion Will Power to battle for the 2016 crown in Sunday’s double-points GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma season finale.
Dixon offered some advice to both contenders.
“It's definitely a very emotional ride,” said the four-time champion. “I think all of us fall victim to falling into a championship battle and racing for a championship as opposed to just doing what we need to do.”
“I think the biggest advice I could give those two — not that they really need it — is just race it like any other race.”
Dixon knows lots about high-pressure championship showdowns after winning three of his four titles in the final tilt of the season, including at last year's Sonoma Raceway finale. He also saw two more titles slip through his fingers in the final stop of the year, both times to former teammate and four-time champion Dario Franchitti.
With only Sunday's grand prix to go, Pagenaud leads Power by 43 points with a maximum of 104 markers up for grabs. Power has been there before — he won the title in 2014 in the season's last race and also ended up a bridesmaid three times after a final-race nail-biter — so Dixon thinks that may help him, especially since it is Pagenaud’s first title battle.
“Will has been in a lot more battles for the championship than I think Simon has, but then also Will took a pretty big hit (at The Glen) as far as points,” Dixon said.
“We'll have to see how that team handles it.”
One time that Power came out on the short end of the points stick was four years ago, The feat Power is attempting to accomplish in 2016 played out with Andretti Autosport driver Ryan Hunter-Reay overcoming a 36-point deficit to the Australian with two races to go to take the 2012 title.
Ironically, excluding bonus points, all Power needed to do to clinch the title that year was finish fourth in the finale. It’s the exact same scenario facing Pagenaud this weekend.
“I always like being the hunter and not the hunted,” said Hunter-Reay. “It should be an interesting fight especially with double points because that's a huge swing — if either of them have a bad race or fall into bad luck, the championship can go one way or another.”
Although Hunter-Reay's 2012 title went down to the final weekend, he felt the key to the championship was his victory in the penultimate race at Baltimore, which put him only 17 markers back going into the deciding weekend.
This year, that key race may have been the Firestone 600 completion Aug. 27 at Texas Motor Speedway, where Pagenaud got back on the lead lap late in the race to finish fourth and extended the gap to Power, who appeared to have the upper hand for most of the race but wound up eighth. The move increased Pagenaud's advantage over Power by nine points.
“That was a big performance from Simon,” Hunter-Reay said. “It didn't seem like Will or Simon were overly thrilled with their cars but Simon made the most of it and had a good night.”
Power saw the hole increase to 43 points a week later when an accident relegated him to a 20th-place finish at Watkins Glen.
No matter what happens Sunday, Team Penske is guaranteed the champion. That fact makes Dixon pretty sure there will be a big smile on the face of team owner Roger Penske.
“I think Roger will be very happy that the championship lies with that team and they can fight it out,” Dixon said. “He's going to be a happy man either way.”