Dixon Has Eye On A Sweep In Houston, Points Lead

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, October 6 2013

Chip Ganassi Racing's Scott Dixon is closing in on IndyCar points lead. (File photo courtesy of the IZOD IndyCar Series)

Scott Dixon hacked into Helio Castroneves’ IZOD IndyCar Series point-lead big-time Saturday afternoon with a victory in Race 1 of the Shell Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston. And as he did at the doubleheader on the Streets of Toronto in mid-July, Dixie now is whistling…sweep!

Dixon’s fourth win of 2013, and third on a street circuit, earned him the maximum of 53 points and trimmed Castroneves’ championship lead from 49 points to eight (513-505) and likely left the popular Brazilian and his Team Penske crew with a sleepless night.

“I hope they’re worried, man. It’s a 41-point turnaround today,” said Dixon, driver of the No. 9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Dallara/Honda. “Hopefully we can have another good race (Sunday). It would be nice to be in the lead going into Fontana. We know the Chevys are strong. Honda is definitely strong at the 500-milers. To have a little bit of buffer would be really nice.”

The weekend’s second 90-lap race on the 1.683-mile, 10-turn MD Anderson Cancer Center Speedway at Reliant Park is scheduled for 1 p.m. (EDT) Sunday. The 2-mile Auto Club Speedway oval in Fontana, Calif., will play host to the season-finale on Oct. 19, marking the eighth consecutive year in which the series title will be decided in the last event.

Dixon, who started third, pitted on Lap 64 just before a full-course caution for the disabled No. 4 National Guard Panther Racing Dallara/Chevrolet driven by Oriol Servia. Team Penske’s Will Power, driver of the No. 12 Verizon Dallara/Chevrolet, regained the point on the exchange but was forced to pit for the final time on Lap 73 for fuel. That stop put Dixon back at the front of the field for the duration of an event won under caution. Dixon was working on a 1.3786-second lead over Simona De Silvestro when Mike Conway hit the barriers in Turn 9 with the right front wheel of the No. 18 Sonny’s BBQ Dallara/Honda to bring out a caution on Lap 88.

“I’ve been in Helio’s position before, where you’ve got to try and keep it simple and get the points that you need,” said Dixon, a two-time series champion who prevailed in his first career start at Reliant Park. “But it’s very hard to dial it back and not get caught-up in mistakes or problems with the car.” Dixon finished 18th in his only previous start on the downtown Houston street circuit while competing in the Champ Car World Series in 2001.

Dixon led a race-high 44 laps, four more than road-and-street course ace Power. Pole-sitter Takuma Sato of A.J. Foyt Racing led the other six laps.

“We didn’t dominate the race,” said Mike Hull, managing director of Target Chip Ganassi Racing. “We had to race hard with Will Power all day long, and it’s not an easy task. Someone asked me the other day, what was the greatest win that we ever had at Chip Ganassi Racing? I said, ‘The next one.’ Today certainly fits that.”

Dixon has an average finish of 2.2 through five of six races that constitute IndyCar Series doubleheaders and 7.1 on street circuits. He can earn another SONAX Perfect Finish Award, adding $50,000 to the $100,000 he earned by sweeping the races at Exhibition Place in Toronto in July, with a victory in Race 2. Also, Dixon’s next victory will tie Al Unser Jr. for sixth on the all-time Indy car list with 34.

Castroneves, meanwhile, started a season-worst 21st and finished a season-worst 18th in the No. 3 Shell Pennzoil Team Penske Dallara/Chevy. Castroneves’ previous low this season was 13th on the Streets of Sao Paulo, Brazil in May. Castroneves had to deal with a shifter issue early and dropped nine laps behind during repairs on pit lane. Castroneves had been the only driver to have completed all 2,003 laps this season entering the race.

“I am starting with the good news that we are still leading (the championship), and I didn’t know that,” said Castroneves, who finished 10 laps behind Dixon. “Second, we did have a much better car in the start of the race than in qualifying, and we are still leading. The team did a helluva job and I guess it’s just more excitement.

“Obviously, that was a tough finish for the Shell Pennzoil team. Early in the race, the car was bottoming- out in a couple of places, and then I just couldn’t shift. It was a helluva job by the guys to figure out the problem and get me back on-track. It’s tough, but it’s something that’s out of our control. I tried to earn as many points as I could and really just focus on making the car better so we can be ready for (Sunday).

“On the positive side, we still have the lead in the championship and I think we’ll be in good shape for Sunday. We need to have a good qualifying and bounce back with a strong race.”

De Silvestro finished a career-best second in the No. 78 Nuclear Entergy Areva KVRT Dallara/Chevrolet, while Justin Wilson earned his fourth podium finish of the season.

“Finally. We’ve been waiting for this for a long time,” De Silvestro said after her first series career podium. “It seemed like a pretty good car the whole weekend. I qualified up there (fifth), and then the race went actually pretty good. I really have to thank everybody at KV Racing and also everybody from the Nuclear Clean Energy camp for sticking with me. Finally we have our podium. Hopefully (Sunday) we can even better it. I think to finish P2, I think you want to do it again anytime.”

Wilson, driver of the No. 19 Boy Scouts of America Dallara/Honda, posted his career-best result at Reliant Park for Dale Coyne Racing. The Englishman’s previous best finishes in two Houston starts in the Champ Car World Series was fifth in 2006.

“It was not a bad day today,” Wilson said. “We tried to move up at the start but about 15 laps in I felt the tire going down, and we had to come in a bit early. We knew the fuel window was going to be tight, but we just had to go for it. We had to conserve fuel a little bit but I was just pushing the whole way.”

Simon Pagenaud, third in the championship with 463 points, placed fourth while Josef Newgarden ran fifth, his fourth top-five finish this season.

“It was a great day for us,” said Pagenaud, driver of the No. 77 Schmidt Hamilton HP Motorsports Dallara/Honda. “The HP car is flying when everything is up to temperature, so we know that we’re not far off. We just need to understand how to make it work a little better on restarts because that’s where we struggled. Once we figure that out, we’ll have a great shot at the win (Sunday).

“We’re still in it for the championship and are only 50 points out now. The past four races have been really interesting, and today was a good points day for us.”

INDYCAR officials opted to remove the chicane in Turn 1 prior to Saturday’s practice and qualifying for IndyCar and Firestone Indy Lights competition. The chicane was installed Friday due to a surface issue in Turn 1 that was repaired Friday night and Saturday morning.

During qualifying, Sato drove to his third career Verizon P1 Award in the No. 14 ABC Supply Co. Dallara/Honda fielded by open-wheel icon A.J. Foyt Jr. Sato’s previous pole came in 2011 on the airport circuit at Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. He also won the pole in 2011 on the Iowa Speedway oval. Both of those poles came while Sato drove for KV Racing Technology.

Sato scored the first IndyCar Series pole for Houston resident Foyt, the weekend’s grand marshal, since Billy Boat earned P1 in July 1999 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. It was the 42nd pole for A.J. Foyt Racing in Indy car competition.

Newgarden, driver of the No. 67 Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing/Strike Dallara/Honda, spoke of the degree of difficulty presented by the mean streets of Houston.

“I think I need a minimum of 10 hours of sleep before (Sunday’s race),” said Newgarden, who scored his fourth top-five result of the season. “I thought Baltimore was a hard race _ this is twice as hard. It’s just so physical, a very demanding track. It’s just very hard to pass and difficult on drivers. You have to have a lot of mental concentration, but it’s really hard when you get fatigued out there. It was a race of attrition for us. It’s going to be so hard again (Sunday).”

Additionally, rookie Luca Filippi finished 10th _ his first top-10 result in three IndyCar Series starts this season in the No. 98 Barracuda Racing Dallara/Honda. His previous best was 16th in his series debut at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

Also on Saturday, rookie and series point-leader Sage Karam held off Schmidt Peterson with Curb-Agajanian teammate Gabby Chaves to win the Firestone Indy Lights Grand Prix of Houston. Karam’s first road/street circuit victory and third of the season_ as three-of-four fellow title contenders faltered in the penultimate race of the season _ set up a winner-take-all scenario with Chaves at Auto Club Speedway on Oct. 19. Karam leads by 16 points.

Karam, who started on-pole in the No. 8 Schmidt Peterson with Curb Agajanian entry after the lineup was set by entrant points, led every lap in the timed race. Carlos Munoz, who began the race two points behind Karam, finished a season-low 12th and was eliminated from title contention. So was Jack Hawksworth, who was 11 points behind but finished sixth. Peter Dempsey also was eliminated.

Results Saturday of the Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston – Race 1 IZOD IndyCar Series event on the 1.634-mile MD Anderson Cancer Center Speedway at Reliant Park, with order of finish, starting position in parentheses, driver, chassis/engine, laps completed and reason out (if any):

1. (3) Scott Dixon, Dallara/Honda, 90, Running

2. (5) Simona De Silvestro, Dallara/Chevy, 90, Running

3. (12) Justin Wilson, Dallara/Honda, 90, Running

4. (4) Simon Pagenaud, Dallara/Honda, 90, Running

5. (18) Josef Newgarden, Dallara/Honda, 90, Running

6. (9) James Jakes, Dallara/Honda, 90, Running

7. (24) Graham Rahal, Dallara/Honda, 90, Running

8. (14) Sebastien Bourdais, Dallara/Chevy, 90, Running

9. (8) EJ Viso, Dallara/Chevy, 90, Running

10. (7) Luca Filippi, Dallara/Honda, 90, Running

11. (16) Charlie Kimball, Dallara/Honda, 90, Running

12. (2) Will Power, Dallara/Chevy, 90, Running

13. (10) Marco Andretti, Dallara/Chevy, 90, Running

14. (19) Sebastian Saavedra, Dallara/Chevy, 89, Running

15. (20) Dario Franchitti, Dallara/Honda, 89, Running

16. (11) Mike Conway, Dallara/Honda, 85, Contact

17. (1) Takuma Sato, Dallara/Honda, 82, Handling

18. (21) Helio Castroneves, Dallara/Chevy, 80, Running

19. (17) Oriol Servia, Dallara/Chevy, 63, Mechanical

20. (15) Ryan Hunter-Reay, Dallara/Chevy, 57, Electrical

21. (13) Tony Kanaan, Dallara/Chevy, 34, Running

22. (23) Tristan Vautier, Dallara/Honda, 32, Running

23. (22) Ed Carpenter, Dallara/Chevy, 30, Running

24. (6) James Hinchcliffe, Dallara/Chevy, 1, Contact

Race Statistics

Winner’s average speed: 76.856 mph

Time of Race: 1:54:48.3924

Margin of victory: Under caution

Cautions: 7 for 27 laps

Lead changes: 4 among 3 drivers

Lap Leaders: Sato 1-6, Power 7-31, Dixon 38-63, Power 64-72, Dixon 73-90

Point Standings: Castroneves 513, Dixon 505, Pagenaud 463, Andretti 447, Hunter-Reay 437, Wilson 428, Franchitti 403, Power 391, Hinchcliffe 382, Kimball 382.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, October 6 2013
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