BIRMINGHAM, Alabama – For the seventh time in eight career races at Barber Motorsports Park, Scott Dixon reached the podium.
But still not the top step.
The 36-year-old New Zealander started the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama presented by America’s First from fourth in the 21-car grid and looked to play spoiler when dominant race leader Will Power was forced to pit with a tire puncture with 13 laps to go. However, Power’s Team Penske teammate and eventual race winner, Josef Newgarden, stood in the way of what would have been Dixon’s first win at the 2.3-mile, 17-turn permanent road course.
The pass that ultimately dictated the four-time Verizon IndyCar Series champion’s day came when Newgarden pulled the surprise move heading into Turn 16 with 22 laps to go on a restart.
“I think we struggled at the wrong time,” said Dixon, who led three laps on the day and finished second for the fifth time at Barber. Newgarden won by 1.0495 seconds.
“Once Josef jumped us, it was very hard to jump him back. You know, we got him on the pit stop, the guys did a great job there, but just left the door open a little bit in (Turn) 16 and he just drove it in there and didn’t give me any room to try and turn it back (under him). That’s exactly what you do (in his position), so I don’t blame him for doing that. I think with Will also having a flat tire issue, I feel bad for him.
“All in all, the car was good and I think if we could have got out front, we would have checked out.”
On the wrong end of ill-timed cautions and strategy in the opening two rounds of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series, the 2008 Indianapolis 500 champion was just glad to have a more straightforward race.
“You take them as they are, man,” said Dixon, driver of the No. 9 NTT Data Chip Ganassi Racing Honda.
“You just hope that they don’t fall funny or at least fall your way. It was nice to have a pretty simple race, but ultimately the result … we still want to do better.
“Probably would have kept the door closed on Josef and we maybe should have pitted earlier on that first pit sequence.”
Having scored his best finish of the season thus far at the majestic Alabama circuit, Dixon jumped to second in the championship standings, six points behind leader Sebastien Bourdais.
The threat of the unknown with weather heading into the weekend was answered with overnight rain Saturday. Though it ceased for the most part, ever-changing conditions posed one of the biggest tests for the drivers in today’s 90-lap race.
“I think (the weather) makes it pretty tough for the engineers and tire choice,” said Dixon. “You know, as we came to that last pit stop with the caution, it started to drizzle. I think the (Firestone alternate) red tire option might have been the best one at that point if it had picked up and started raining a bit more.
“Obviously, I think a (Firestone primary) black tire was the right choice, but condition-wise, it didn't change too much. I found our biggest struggle throughout the day was trying to pick the right tire and maintain the tire.
“In the past, the red tire has been very good here, but the black just seemed to be a lot better (today). I wish we had saved a lot more black tires throughout the weekend from practice and qualifying. I think if we had run three (sets) of those, it would have been a better race for us.”
As Dixon pursues a fifth Astor Cup, the 40-time Indy car race winner (fourth all-time) understands how important every opportunity to win is.
“The Verizon IndyCar Series is the toughest competition in the world right now,” he said. “If you give an inch, someone's going to take it, you're going to come up short.”
Dixon can look forward to returning next week to the site of a 2016 win, Phoenix Raceway. The Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix weekend is April 28-29. Dixon won the 250-lap race last year in the Verizon IndyCar Series’ return to the iconic mile oval for the first time since 2005.
This year’s race airs live at 9 p.m. ET April 29 on NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.