Who is the favorite to win the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series championship?
It seems to depend on what week it is.
After taking his first win of 2017 and widening his points lead to 34 from 13 going into the KOHLER Grand Prix, the latest nominee is No. 9 Chip Ganassi Racing Honda driver Scott Dixon.
The four-time Verizon IndyCar Series champion has been lurking all year in search of victory, but it took 10 races for it to happen. Now that he's pulled the biggest points gap so far this year, it appears Dixon is the driver.
“You know, these championships are never easy to win,” Dixon said.
“They're always extremely tough. The competition is through the roof. You’ve just got to keep knocking on the door and hopefully it's going to open.”
Dixon tops the standings with 379 points, 34 ahead of Team Penske driver Simon Pagenaud (345). Team Penske’s Helio Castroneves is third (342), followed by Indianapolis 500 winner Takuma Sato of Andretti Autosport (323) and Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden (318) and Will Power (316).
Dixon knows that, with eight different winners in nine Verizon IndyCar Series weekends this year, picking a clear favorite seems to be a “what have you done for me lately” proposition.
“Yes, we've had good speed, we've had some good results. but then we've let two or three or four races get away as well,” Dixon said. “Then (there was) the massive loss of points at Indianapolis with almost finishing last on double points (for the Indy 500 race).”
The close quarters mean there have been four points leaders in 2017, as momentum continues to shift and the drivers in the top five have changed from weekend to weekend – depending on who's hot and who's not.
Any slip and a tumble down the standings is sure to follow.
Early in the season, it was Sebastian Bourdais holding the points lead on the strength of a win in the opener at St. Petersburg and runner-up finish in the second race at Long Beach. It marked the first time in Verizon IndyCar Series history that a Dale Coyne Racing driver led the point standings.
Bourdais kept the lead until the fourth race of 2017, at Phoenix Raceway, where Pagenaud took over top spot with a win on the short oval. Unfortunately, Bourdais' amazing run ended with an accident in qualifying for the Indianapolis 500 and injuries that will keep out of his car for months.
It looked like Pagenaud, the reigning champion, had found his stride and would be a candidate to repeat. But a rough ride at the Indianapolis 500 combined with a second-place finish by Castroneves pushed the veteran Brazilian into the points lead.
From there, it looked like Graham Rahal would be a force to be reckoned with after he swept both ends of the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix presented by Lear doubleheader to jump to fifth in points. All the while, though, Dixon lurked in the shadows despite not winning before Sunday. His 32nd-place finish at the Indy 500 is his only result outside the top 10 this season.
Including Sunday’s victory, Dixon has finished in the top five seven times in 2017. When he ran second to Rahal in the first of the Detroit races, Dixon became the fourth driver to lead the points this season. He’s held that top spot for four races now.
Dixon knows his strength in 2017 has been his ability to post strong finishes even on days when he can’t win.
“This year has been good speed and good consistency for us, outside of a couple races,” Dixon said.
“But, you know, I think we should have probably won a couple races earlier on in the season that didn't work out our way. I think we could have won Barber. We could have won Long Beach. We could have won St. Pete. Texas, how it had been playing out, I think we would have either finished first or second.”
At four races, Dixon has held the championship lead longer than any driver this year. Will he be able to maintain it and collect a fifth season title – something no one other than the great A.J. Foyt (seven times) has done?
The way things have constantly changed this year, it’s way too soon to tell.