Scott Dixon on historic title No. 7 with 20-point gap: 'The longshots are always fun to win'

Nathan Brown
Indianapolis Star

SALINAS, Calif. – Scott Dixon's been in nearly a dozen serious, down-to-the-wire IndyCar title fights, but to the six-time champ, they all feel unique. The resounding victories, close calls, tiebreaker nail-biter with Juan Pablo Montoya and gut-wrenching loss in 2007 when he ran out of gas with a championship in his grasp and half a lap to go.

However Sunday's three-way race with Josef Newgarden and Will Power goes, Dixon, 42, is expecting to navigate some new version of elation or letdown.

Earlier this week, IndyStar motorsports insider Nathan Brown got an exclusive Q&A with the decorated champion. Below is that conversation, edited and condensed with added clarity when it's necessary.

Chip Ganassi Racing driver Scott Dixon (9) takes an interview in pit lane Sunday, May 22, 2022, during the second day of qualifying for the 106th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Nathan Brown: You said two years ago that after winning title No. 6, you would be able to think about the potential of tying A.J. Foyt's record 7 championships. How heavily is that historic mark weighing on you this week?

Scott Dixon: I think the best way to think about it is if you accomplish it. I don’t really like thinking about possibilities. I think it’s easier to treat it as just another race weekend. We know what we need to do, and we’ll know more once we get to race day about bonus points and things like that. Trust me, it’s amazing to be only one away, but just to get one is very, very tough. I think you look back and you’re happy and excited for the six, but I also think you think more about the ones that slipped 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 to Laguna. When you consider not just how many drivers who're alive, but their pedigree, what do you make of the dynamic of this year's battle?

SD: I think it’s been fun to watch Will. I think he’s made a pretty big transformation this year in his consistency and the way he’s handled himself and composed himself is probably a slightly different Will than we’ve seen. I think it was Will that said, ‘Oh, it’s cool to race Scott for the championship,’ and I feel like I’m always racing Will for the championship. He’s with one of the strongest teams and one of the best drivers I’ve ever raced against. It’s not new to me, that’s for sure.

With three guys alive fairly close, I guess it makes it more difficult for the people that are further out, right? For Marcus and even McLaughlin, to have four guys screw it up is almost impossible to make their shot. Anything is possible, and if someone has a DNF, it flips it on its head. It’s interesting when you come into this from a team standpoint as well with three Penskes and two Ganassis. The situation between Josef and Will gets kind of interesting I think.

I was surprised they didn’t flip McLaughlin and Power at Portland. I think it would’ve made his day a lot easier. A 20-point (lead) is a kind of frustrating, one, because it’s not super easy to defend, whereas a 30-point mark is much easier. All of it’s good. It plays for a great storyline and an exciting championship finale.

Insider:How Portland helped set the stage for Laguna Seca finale

Team Penske IndyCar driver Will Power (12) is congratulated by 2nd place finishes Scott Dixon (9) as he winning the IndyCar Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Saturday, May 12, 2018.

NB: With you largely alone in terms of Ganassi drivers with a shot at clinching the title, how does that change the dynamic for you, compared to Josef and Will both being in legitimate contention in the Penske camp?

SD: I think the Penske one was interesting because they sure looked like they (purposefully) flipped (Scott McLaughlin to Josef Newgarden for the lead) at St. Louis. I think that’s why people were more confused about why it didn’t happen at Portland.

But looking back at championships, it’s very rare to get into a scenario a teammate has really helped. It kinda plays its way out where everyone does whatever they can. We’ve seen the days of someone spinning to create a caution for someone to make it on fuel, and scenarios like that I guess 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’s a point where you can help your teammate, that’s what you’ll do. I think the best way is to have your teammates take points away from them, so the best opportunity they can have to win the race or finish in front of them, and if you’re on the last lap and I need to win, hopefully they understand and can do that, but the likelihood is pretty slim with the competition that we have.

NB: Where does the pressure lie in these championship weekends? Is it with the driver with the sizable lead or those who likely have to win Sunday to give themselves a legitimate chance at a title?

SD: I think the most pressure is always on the leader, without a doubt. I think Will’s situation, he’s just hoping everything runs smoothly, but you’re always in the back of your head, it’s like, ‘Oh, what if this happens? Or what if that happens? Or a caution flips the field?’ He’s still 20 points up on the rest of us, but it’s still an extremely achievable deficit. Even in 2020 with how the weekend went, you’re still, unfortunately, thinking about all the ways you can lose it. I’m sure that’s happening this week for him. Yeah, it would be a much bigger bummer for him, that’s for sure.

Scott Dixon wins the GoPro Grand Prix at Sonoma and claims the IndyCar series title in a tiebreaker with Juan Pablo Montoya.

NB: When you overcame Montoya on a tiebreaker in 2015, you entered in 3rd-place in a 47-point hole in a double-points situation that, given your 20-point gap this year, in terms of the numbers seems a bit similar. Can you take anything away from how that weekend went or how you guys game-planned or executed?

SD: I feel like they’re all so different. Even from the start of this weekend to the first stop or first caution or how the race plays, it’s constantly evolving, so it’s always different to pull from previous years. That one was a little bit of a shock. The longshots are always fun to win, man. Not so much being the underdog but being the one that’s gone an outside chance, and especially with how that one played with getting all the bonus points and then winning on 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 at Portland having tested there recently. You guys opted to test at Laguna Seca last week. Do you feel similarly coming off your test?

SD: I think our road course package in general needs some work – and that’s across all four cars. A lot of the weekends we’re kinda mid-pack – all of us. At the moment, I’d say it’s not our strongest point but one that we’ve worked on really hard this week. I feel like our race car is good. It’s just that we really struggle to extract the speed out of the car when it comes to qualifying. Sometimes that means quite a bit. As you get to the end of the season there’s always the possibilities of the mechanicals and engine failures on either side, just with mileage and things like that. There’s always a lot on the line and you’re just hoping that everything runs smoothly and stays within your control, but ultimately there’s only so many things that can be in your control, and that can be frustrating.

NB: Despite this being a season where you've again found yourself in serious title contention, it seems like you've often been somewhat unsatisfied with how things have gone. Has this been a particularly frustrating or roller-coaster-like year for you and the No. 9 crew?

SD: I think our road course program in general is needing attention. Look at the current champion that 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 dissected even more. Every year’s tough, man. Some a little more than others. What we’ve done with strategy and race runs, even on the (tire degradation) side or with general speed in races has been great. I think we know the areas, not that it will be simple, but I think there’s some pretty big highlights that would change a lot of things for us.

Chip Ganassi Racing driver Scott Dixon (9) sits his his pit box Saturday, May 14, 2022, during practice for the GMR Grand Prix at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

NB: After your big moments this year, like winning at Toronto and Nashville, so many folks have asked you some versions of the question, 'Can you imagine what things would be like if at 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 contextualize what winning a championship would mean to you in spite of that letdown and the big points loss that came with it?

SD: Winning that race would’ve made this championship pretty easy. Man, I can’t change it so there’s no point dwelling on it. Of course, if we could win this championship, that would certainly help a little bit. Indy’s Indy. I think a lot of us see it as a totally different race throughout the season, but unfortunately it has such an effect on the championship tally as well. The short of it is I can’t change it so I don’t really dwell on it.