SALINAS, Calif. – Scott Dixon has been in nearly a dozen serious IndyCar title fights and up to the last minute, but for the six-time champion, they all feel unique. The resounding wins, the close calls, the Juan Pablo Montoya tiebreaker and the heartbreaking loss in 2007 when he ran out of gas with a championship on his hands and a half lap to go.
Regardless of how Sunday’s three-way race with Josef Newgarden and Will Power goes, the 42-year-old Dixon expects to navigate a new version of elation or disappointment.
Earlier this week, IndyStar motorsports insider Nathan Brown had an exclusive Q&A with the decorated champion. Below is that conversation, edited and condensed for greater clarity where necessary.
Nathan Brown: You said two years ago that after winning title No. 6, you would be able to think about the potential of tying AJ Foyt’s record 7 championships. How much does that historic mark weigh on you this week?
Scott Dixon: I think the best way to think about it is if you make it. I don’t like to think about possibilities. I think it’s easier to treat it like another race weekend. We know what we have to do, and we’ll know more once we get to race day about bonus points and stuff like that. Trust me, it’s amazing to be just one away, but just getting one is really, really hard. I think you look back and you’re happy and excited for all six, but I also think you think more about the ones that got away, maybe. It’s definitely a big deal, and trust me, it’s something I’d love to accomplish.
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NB: So many title fights in the final race come down to driver vs. driver, and here we have three within 20 points coming into Laguna. When you consider not just how many drivers are alive, but their pedigree, what do you make of the dynamics of this year’s battle?
SOUTH DAKOTA: I think it’s been fun watching Will. I think he’s made a big transformation this year in his consistency and the way he handled himself and composed is probably a slightly different Will than we’ve seen. I think it was Will who said, ‘Oh, it’s great to compete with Scott for the championship,’ and I feel like I’m always competing with Will for the championship. He is with one of the strongest teams and one of the best drivers I have ever raced against. He’s not new to me, that’s for sure.
With three living guys pretty close together, I guess it makes it harder for people further away, right? For Marcus and even McLaughlin, having four guys messing them up makes it nearly impossible to hit their shot. Anything is possible, and if someone has a DNF, he turns it around. It’s interesting when you go into this from a team standpoint as well with three Penskes and two Ganassis. I think the situation between Josef and Will becomes interesting.
I was surprised they didn’t trade McLaughlin and Power at Portland. I think it would have made his day so much easier. A 20-point (lead) is a bit frustrating, because it’s not very easy to defend, while a 30-point mark is much easier. Everything’s fine. Play for a great story and an exciting championship finish.
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NB: With you largely alone in terms of Ganassi drivers with a shot at the title, how does that change the dynamic for you, compared to Josef and Will, both of whom are in legitimate contention in the Penske camp?
SOUTH DAKOTA: I think Penske was interesting because it seemed like they (on purpose) traded (Scott McLaughlin to Josef Newgarden for the lead) in St. Louis. I think that’s why people were more confused about why it didn’t happen in Portland.
But looking back at the championships, it’s very rare to go into a scenario where a teammate has actually helped. He makes his way where everyone does what they can. We’ve seen the days of someone turning to create a warning for someone to do it with fuel, and I guess scenarios like that are still possible, but they’re definitely pretty rare. I think I’ve only seen it once and maybe twice, and those aren’t to decide championships, maybe just race wins. I think if there is a point where you can help your teammate, that is what you will do. I think the best way is to have your teammates take points off them, so that’s the best chance they can have to win the race or finish ahead of them, and if you’re on the last lap and I need to win, hopefully. they understand and can do it, but the probability is pretty slim with the competition we have.
NB: Where is the pressure in these championship weekends? Is it with the driver with a sizable lead or with those who likely have to win on Sunday to have a legitimate shot at a title?
SOUTH DAKOTA: I think the biggest pressure is always on the leader, without a doubt. I think Will’s situation, he’s just hoping that everything will work out, but you’re always in the back of your head, it’s like, ‘Oh, what if this happens? Or what if that happens? Or does a warning change the field?’ He’s still 20 points ahead of the rest of us, but it’s still an extremely attainable deficit. Even in 2020 with how the weekend went, you’re unfortunately still thinking of all the ways you can lose it. I’m sure that’s happening to him this week. Yeah, it would be a much bigger bummer for him, that’s for sure.
NB: When you beat Montoya in a playoff in 2015, you entered third on a 47-point hole in a double-point situation that, given their 20-point difference this year, looks a bit similar in terms of numbers. Can they take anything away from how that weekend went or how they planned or executed the game?
South Dakota: I feel like everyone is so different. Even from the start of this weekend to the first stop or the first caution or how the race unfolds, it’s constantly evolving so it’s always different from pulling from previous years. That was a bit of a shock. Long shots are always fun to win, man. Not so much being the underdog, but being the one who has had a remote chance, and especially with the way that one played to get all the bonus points and then win in a tiebreaker was pretty insane. Would I like to do it again? Hell yeah, let’s do it again this weekend.
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NB: We just saw Team Penske dominate an important race weekend in Portland after testing there recently. You guys opted to try Laguna Seca last week. Do you feel similar after your test?
SOUTH DAKOTA: I think our overall road course package needs some work, and that’s on all four cars. A lot of weekends we’re in the middle of the pack, all of us. At the moment, I would say that it is not our strongest point, but one that we have worked very hard on this week. I feel that our racing car is good. It’s just that we really struggled to extract speed from the car when it comes to qualifying. Sometimes that means a lot. As you get to the end of the season, there’s always the possibility of engine and mechanical failure on both sides, just with the mileage and stuff like that. The stakes are always high and you just hope that everything runs smoothly and stays under your control, but ultimately there are so many things that can be under your control and that can be frustrating.
NB: Even though this is a season where you again find yourself in serious contention for the title, it seems that you have often been somewhat dissatisfied with how things have gone. Has this been a particularly frustrating or rollercoaster year for you and the No. 9 team?
SOUTH DAKOTA: I think our road course program in general needs attention. Look at the reigning champion who hasn’t had a win or a pole. We definitely have a lot of room to improve as a team and as a group. That can be further dissected. Every year is tough, man. Some a little more than others. What we’ve done with strategy and racing, even on the side (tyre degradation) or overall speed in racing, has been great. I think we know the areas, not that it’s simple, but I think there are some pretty big highlights that would change a lot of things for us.
NB: After your big moments this year, like winning in Toronto and Nashville, a lot of people have asked you some versions of the question: ‘Can you imagine what things would be like if Indy…?’ And I’d like to spin that around. You suffered obvious frustration with that late-race pit speeding penalty with the 500 seemingly in control this year. Can you put into context what it would mean to you to win a championship despite that disappointment and the huge loss of points that came with it?
SOUTH DAKOTA: Winning that race would have made this championship pretty easy. Man, I can’t change it, so there’s no point in dwelling on it. Of course, if we could win this championship, that would certainly help a little bit. Indy of Indy. I think a lot of us see it as a totally different race throughout the season, but unfortunately it also has a big effect on the championship tally. Long story short, I can’t change it, so I don’t really dwell on it.