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On Friendly Glen Ground, Dixon Drives Back To Top

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, September 2 2017

Scott Dixon was super fast at old friend Watkins Glen on Friday. (Photos courtesy of INDYCAR)

WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. – Scott Dixon returned to the top of the speed chart during the second Verizon IndyCar Series practice for Sunday’s INDYCAR Grand Prix at The Glen…meaning the normal order of open-wheel things has been restored at Watkins Glen International.

The defending event champion and winningest Indy car driver at WGI with four, Dixon clicked off a lap in 1-minute, 22.6187-seconds/146.843 mph around the 3.37-mile/11-turn natural terrain layout mid-Friday afternoon. That time was less than a tenth of a second off the track record “Dixie” set while securing pole position during qualifying last September.

“Just really enjoy it. It’s a fun place, man,” Dixon said in answer to an inquiry about his prowess around the historic layout that was the original home of Formula One’s U.S. Grand Prix. “It’s extremely fast. It’s definitely some pretty high-risk situations…when you’re looking at the Bus Stop, Turn 5, even going into Turn 6.

For me, the tracks of the current day are nothing like these. It’s a lot of fun to come here. I think it’s very fortunate for all INDYCAR and the competitors to come back to a circuit like this.”

Sunday’s race, scheduled for 60 laps/202.2-miles, will be the 11th Indy car event contested at WGI. Team Penske’s Bobby Unser won the first series race here in 1979. Since that first Indy car event, the winning driver has gone on to claim the championship only once _ Rick Mears of Team Penske in 1981.

Dixon dominated last September’s event on a freshly repaved surface, completing a sweep

Josef Newgarden got off to a slow start at Watkins Glen on Friday.

of all three practices, qualifying on-pole in record-setting fashion at 1:22.5259/147.008 mph and pacing Sunday morning’s warmup en route to a massive 16.5308-second victory over Penske’s latest prodigy, Josef Newgarden.

For the record, Dixon’s No. 9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Dallara was Chevrolet-powered last year; team-owner Ganassi switched to Honda during the offseason. Newgarden, who drove an Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet last year, is in his rookie season with Roger Penske’s four-car Chevy juggernaut.

Dixon stood fourth after an opening practice run in unseasonably cool ambient temperatures with a lap at 145.209 mph during a session led by Graham Rahal at 145.712 mph. Newgarden was ninth-fastest at 144.644 mph. At the close of the afternoon session, Will Power of Team Penske trailed Dixon in second at 146.676 mph while Rahal rounded-out the podium in third at 146.219 mph. Newgarden, meanwhile, had slipped to 10th despite raising his speed to 145.147 mph.

Dixon’s win last year at the Upstate New York facility was the fourth in seven series races for the Ganassi Racing ace during the current era of competition that began in 2005. Chasing his fifth series championship, Dixon trails Newgarden by 31 points with two races remaining. With 54 maximum points available at WGI, the championship lead could change for the fifth time in 2017.

“For us, the biggest thing we’ve got to do is just focus on our race, go out there, try and win,” said Dixon, driver of the No. 9 NTT Data Honda. “If we can win, that takes care of a lot of situations.”

Since 2008, the driver who has led the championship with two races remaining has failed to secure the title in five of the last nine seasons. Dixon (2008), Dario Franchitti (2011), Power (2014) and Penske’s Simon Pagenaud (2016) are the exceptions.

Newgarden _ who placed 11th on the combined speed chart _ took over the championship lead for the first time in his six-year career following a victory at Mid-Ohio Sports Car course on July 30. Newgarden said he is approaching the last two races _ and Dixon’s ever-looming presence in his rearview mirrors _ with Penske pragmatism.

“Thinking anything can happen,” said Newgarden, driver of the No. 2 DeVillbiss Team Penske Chevrolet. “It’s not a very big lead, in my opinion. Thirty-one points is not much when you look at the current format. Sonoma (Raceway), with double points (on Sept. 17), can make it swing any way really. There’s a lot of people in the fight. One mistake, one misfortune with reliability, it’s pretty much wide-open, in my opinion.

It’s the same thing here. The lead can slip away pretty easily. Scott is very capable of taking the lead out of this race (if) something happens with our car. So I don’t think we’re in a dominant position. I think we’re in a good position. I think you’d want 31 points in the lead whenever you can take it. It’s certainly far from over, in my opinion. There’s a long way to go.”

Indeed, the 31 points separating Newgarden and Dixon is the fourth-largest margin with two races remaining since 2010. Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay, who trailed Power by 36 points with two races remaining in 2012, and Dixon, who was 34 points behind Penske’s Juan Pablo Montoya in 2015, have overcome a larger deficit. The average deficit with two races to go since 2007 is 20.67 points.

Power, the 2010 Watkins Glen race-winner and Newgarden’s teammate, was mildly pleased with his afternoon effort of 1:22.7129/146.676 mph in the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet.

“We learned a lot today,” said Power, whose title hopes were dashed when he crashed-out of last Saturday night’s event at Gateway Motorsports Park in Madison, Ill., on Lap 5. Power is fifth in points, 83 behind Newgarden, but ready to resume the fight with The Glen’s changing grip level.

Yeah, we got a good taste of the (Firestone alternate) red tires to see how they were,” Power said. “Yeah, it’s a tough call when you see Dixon go as fast on his blacks as he did on his reds. Maybe we didn’t get a good read on the blacks. I feel like the course has changed a little over the last year, but it’s still super-fast.

“Yeah, he’s (Dixon) a great competitor. He’s very clean to race. We’ve been racing against each other for the last 10 years. Have a lot of respect there.”

Rounding out the combined top-five were Rahal in the No. 15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda (1:22.9716/146.219 mph); reigning series champion Pagenaud in the No. 1 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet (1:23.0915/146.008 mph) and Alexander Rossi in the No. 98 NAPA Auto Parts/Curb Honda (1:23.1124/145.971 mph). Earlier Friday, Andretti Autosport announced it had signed Rossi and sponsor NAPA Auto Parts to a multi-year contract extension for 2018 and beyond.

“Overall, it was a very good day,” Rahal said. “I feel like we made really good gains on the setup. The car rolled off the trailer extremely competitive and that’s what you need because you don’t want to have to re-invent the wheel during the weekend. The guys have done a great job. The car is close. Do we want to be a little bit better? Yes, but overall we’re pretty close. This is a phenomenal place. There’s a lot of grip, and the track is very smooth just as we left it last year. It should be a great race this weekend.”

Eight drivers _ Newgarden, Dixon, Penske’s Helio Castroneves, Pagenaud, Power, Rahal, Rossi and reigning Indy 500 champion Takuma Sato of Andretti Autosport _ remain mathematically eligible to win the 2017 championship. Of those, only Dixon (four times), Pagenaud (2016) and Power (2014) are past champions. Any driver trailing the leader by 104 or more points following this race will be eliminated from title contention.

A third practice is set for 10:30 a.m. (EDT) Saturday as a prelude to determining the Verizon P1 Award during knockout qualifying at 3 p.m. Both sessions will stream live on RaceControl.IndyCar.com, with NBC Sports Network airing a delayed qualifying telecast at 7 p.m. Live coverage of Sunday’s event will begin at 1 p.m. (EDT) on NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.

Dixon’s wins here in 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2016 are, surprisingly, the only Victory Lane visits by a Chip Ganassi Racing driver. Team Penske’s winning drivers here are Unser (1979 and 1980), Mears (1981) and Power (2010). Power (2010) and Dixon (2016) are the only drivers to win the race from pole.

“All in all, I think Chip Ganassi Racing, they brought some strong cars here and some cars that hopefully come tomorrow, Sunday, can be in contention fighting for the win,” Dixon said.But the tires are always changing. Everything is always evolving. The basic setup that the team brings here works well with my driving style and definitely well with the track.

Yeah, you know, I think it’s a track that enables a lot of maybe some differences in strategy, too. It’s a track you can save some fuel and maybe extend your window, jump someone in the pits. It’s a track that if you can trim-out to a pretty significant level, it can aid you in the race with being able to pass people on the straights. But I think our cars on the long runs here have always been strong.

“This weekend will be interesting, especially Sunday if we get bouts of weather, maybe a bit of rain. You want to start at the front. You want to start on the front row, if possible. We haven’t done that all the time, but last year was definitely much easier starting from the pole.”

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Friday’s combined practice results for the INDYCAR Grand Prix at The Glen Verizon IndyCar Series race on the 3.37-mile/11-turn Watkins Glen International road-course with rank, car number in parenthesis, driver, chassis/engine-aero kit, speed and total laps run:

  1. (9) Scott Dixon, Dallara/Honda, 146.843 mph, 29
  2. (12) Will Power, Dallara/Chevrolet, 146.676, 34
  3. (15) Graham Rahal, Dallara/Honda, 146.219, 41
  4. (1) Simon Pagenaud, Dallara/Chevrolet, 146.008, 33
  5. (98) Alexander Rossi, Dallara/Honda, 145.971, 35
  6. (3) Helio Castroneves, Dallara/Chevrolet, 145.684, 31
  7. (83) Charlie Kimball, Dallara/Honda, 145.490, 24
  8. (28) Ryan Hunter-Reay, Dallara/Honda, 145.349, 34
  9. (26) Takuma Sato, Dallara/Honda, 145.267, 35
  10. (8) Max Chilton, Dallara/Honda, 145.267, 26
  11. (2) Josef Newgarden, Dallara/Chevrolet, 145.147, 36
  12. (10) Tony Kanaan, Dallara/Honda, 144.830, 36
  13. (5) James Hinchcliffe, Dallara/Honda, 144.819, 29
  14. (18) Sebastien Bourdais, Dallara/Honda, 144.813, 35
  15. (4) Conor Daly, Dallara/Chevrolet, 144.746, 34
  16. (20) Spencer Pigot, Dallara/Chevrolet, 144.700, 39
  17. (27) Marco Andretti, Dallara/Honda, 144.645, 38
  18. (14) Carlos Munoz, Dallara/Chevrolet, 144.643, 34
  19. (7) Jack Harvey-(R), Dallara/Honda, 143.749, 44
  20. (19) Ed Jones-(R), Dallara/Honda, 143.732, 37
  21. (21) JR Hildebrand, Dallara/Chevrolet, 143.646, 40

Total Laps for Combined Sessions: 724

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, September 2 2017
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