Scott Dixon finished NTT P1 Award qualifying Saturday and promptly pulled on a statement-making hat.
As the hat read, Dixon and his No. 9 PNC Bank Grow Up Great Honda crew from Chip Ganassi Racing are series champions until proven otherwise.
Of course, Dixon has a difficult road ahead of him to achieve a record-tying seventh NTT INDYCAR SERIES championship, but there are enough points available over the next two races to suggest the veteran trailing series leader and teammate Alex Palou by 49 points is not out of contention yet.
Obviously, it will take work – and some good fortune – but Dixon might have tipped his team’s race plans for Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey during his post-qualifying television interview.
“From (the eighth starting position) we’ll probably … go off strategy a little bit,” he said. “We’ll have to see how that plays (out).
“It’s so easy to flip these races by just one caution, and with so many cars going off (track) this weekend, there’s definitely a chance of that. If you can catch it right, it’s going to bolt you straight to the lead.”
That’s sort of what happened last weekend at Portland International Raceway. Dixon and Palou (No. 10 NTT Data Honda) had to take evasive action in the opening corner and as a result were sent deep in the field on the restart for shortcutting the corner. They made the most of the situation by pitting just before the race went back green, and the flow of the race later put them back at the front. Palou won, with Dixon third.
To Dixon’s point about flipping “these races,” Palou was able to gain 35 points on Pato O’Ward, the driver of the No. 5 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet who entered the Portland weekend with a 10-point lead. Now, Palou leads by 25.
After Sunday’s race at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, the series heads down the California coast for next weekend’s season-ending Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach, a race Dixon has scored four podium finishes, including a win in 2015.
History suggests Dixon will have difficulty winning Sunday at Laguna Seca as 21 of the 23 INDYCAR race winners at this venue have come from the first three starting positions. That’s 91.3 percent.
“It is what it is,” Dixon said of the odds stacked against him. “As we saw in St. Louis (at World Wide Technology Raceway) and also at Portland, it can flip pretty quickly. We’ll keep our heads down and keep pushing.”
The good news for Dixon: Almost every driver has mentioned the likelihood of high tire degradation during the race. That increases the possibility of the field getting shuffled, and Dixon has shown a propensity over the years for being on the right side of the strategy.
Ericsson Still Has Goal To Achieve
Marcus Ericsson (No. 8 Huski Chocolate Honda of Chip Ganassi Racing) faces even longer odds than Dixon, as he enters Sunday’s race 75 points behind Palou in fifth place. But he said his focus is on winning at least one more time this season, which would give him three wins.
“I think seventh is pretty good qualifying,” he said. “Obviously when you’re one spot from the (Firestone Fast Six) you want to be in it, no doubt about that. But I think we have had a good car all weekend, and we can definitely play from there in the race.”
Only Palou has won more races this season than Ericsson.
“To win the championship for us now is a bit too far away, but we said we want to win one more race before the end of the season and we can win from seventh, so that’s what we’re going for,” he said.
Odds and Ends
- NTT P1 Award winner Colton Herta (No. 26 Gainbridge Honda of Andretti Autosport w/ Curb-Agajanian) had the quote of the day: “I know Mario Andretti was sitting on the pit stand,” he said. “I’m sure he’s really happy about me taking a pole away from Will Power.” Andretti’s advantage over Power in career poles is just five (67-62).
- O’Ward is driving with his big boss on site. Zak Brown, the CEO of McLaren Racing, became even more prominent with the INDYCAR team when McLaren acquired 75 percent of the Indianapolis-based operation earlier this year.
- Max Chilton (No. 59 Carlin Chevrolet) qualified 10th, earning his best start of the season. He qualified 11th in last week’s race at Portland International Raceway. “Really, really great for us as a single-car team,” he said. “We’re one of the few teams that (didn’t) test here, as well.”
- Graham Rahal (No. 15 United Rentals Honda of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing) will start 12th, but he probably should be starting higher. He was penalized for causing a caution when he bounced off a Turn 6 curb and spun into the gravel. Photographs showed his right rear tire getting off the ground as the car bottomed out. “It’s on me,” he said. “I was pushing too hard.”
- In the battle for Rookie of the Year honors, Romain Grosjean (No. 51 Nurtec ODT Honda of Dale Coyne Racing with RWR) will start 13th with Scott McLaughlin (No. 3 PPG Team Penske Chevrolet) 16th. McLaughlin leads Grosjean by 38 points.
- Helio Castroneves (No. 06 Meyer Shank Racing Honda) continues to go to “new” tracks. Yes, he has raced at Laguna Seca, but it has been 20 years. In 2000, he won from the pole for Team Penske. He will start Sunday’s race from the 22nd position (of 27 car-and-driver combinations).
- Longtime Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing crew member Larry Faust is too tough for a flying air gun. Faust proved that Saturday when he got struck in the head while behind the pit wall during qualifying, but he was wearing a helmet and was back to work shortly after the incident.
- Kyle Kirkwood took a big jump toward winning the Indy Lights championship by winning Saturday’s race and winning the pole for Sunday’s race. He leads David Malukas, who finished fourth in Saturday’s race, by eight points. Malukas finished 9.7 seconds behind Kirkwood, who won for the eighth time this season. The two title contenders will start on the front row together for Sunday’s 60-lap race (1 p.m. ET).