Honda Racing / IZOD IndyCar Series / RacingLine
Scott Dixon's Journey
You could have labeled Scott Dixon many things when he began his Indy Car career in 2001: Promising, focused, quick and quiet all come readily to mind.
But nobody would have used the term "oval meister."
When informed of his new moniker, Dixon grinned and said: "Yeah, that would have been hard to imagine even a couple years ago.
"But I guess you could say I'm feeling pretty comfortable on them [oval tracks] anymore."
Think so? Consider this: Through July, there had been 14 races, nine of them on ovals. Four of Dixon's five wins to date have come on the circle circuits: The season opener at Homestead, the 92nd Indianapolis 500, Texas and Nashville.
More impressive, he's been on the pole five times and led an impressive 1,282 laps. Had it not been for a couple of untimely yellow flags, it's real easy to see the 27-year-old Kiwi having as many as seven wins on the allleft- turn tracks this season.
"Since we've been teammates, I've really seen his confidence grow on ovals and he knows what he wants in the car and it shows," said Dan Wheldon, the other half of the formidable two-car lineup at Target Chip Ganassi Racing.
"He's much more comfortable now."
Team manager Mike Hull noticed the difference in 2007.
"It started to happen right after Indy. Scott dedicated himself to making himself a better driver on ovals," said Hull. "He started working on the exit of Turns One and Three instead of Turns Two and Four, and just trying to improve his overall craft.
"He's done a terrific job and he's raised the bar for himself and our team." Even though his initial CART victory came on an oval (Nazareth) as a rookie, the 2000 Indy Lights champ was more of a road racer and that showed during his first few years in the Indy Racing League.
True, he did win three times on ovals during his run to the 2003 IRL title, but he really struggled in 2004 and 2005, at least partially hampered by a down-on-power Toyota engine, winning only once (at Watkins Glen in 2005). He also pounded the wall so hard at Milwaukee during qualifying in 2006 that he missed the race.
"I did OK on ovals when I first started, but it wasn't something I enjoyed all that much," continued Dixon. "Then, I really struggled in 2004 and 2005 before things started getting better last year.
"It's pretty straightforward. On the mile-and-a-half tracks, it's all about having the right package and my guys have given me great cars the past couple years. At places like Milwaukee, a driver can make more of a difference but obviously, you still need a good-handling chassis.
"I think we've found a nice balance."
Which is why Hull rates Dixon so highly.
"There's a fine line between confidence and intimidation on ovals and I think Scott is right in the middle. It's fun to run with him and he's a very bright guy. And I'm real glad he's decided he likes ovals."
Wheldon knows the feeling.
"Scott is having a season like I did in 2005," said the man who won the Indy 500 and IRL crown that year. "He's on top of his game and everything is clicking. Right now, he's a tough guy to beat.
" 'Dixie' is on a roll."
Typical of the soft-spoken New Zealand native, Dixon doesn't get too high or too low despite his success.
"We're running real well and leading the standings, but there are a lot of races left in 2008," he cautioned.
That's probably bad news for his competitors.