Dixon will battle “usual suspects” in attempt to repeat title
Scott Dixon will attempt to become the second driver in IndyCar Series history to follow up one championship season with another. To do so, he’ll have to battle what most fellow drivers refer to as “the usual suspects.”
Those usual suspects include Dixon’s Target Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Dario Franchitti, Team Penske’s Ryan Briscoe, Andretti Green Racing’s Tony Kanaan and Panther Racing’s Dan Wheldon. Of those five drivers, four have won the IndyCar Series title in the past, accounting for five of the last six titles. Only Briscoe, who will be in his second season with Team Penske has yet to hoist the trophy.
A strong case can be made for any of the drivers considered contenders.
Dixon put together a record-tying six race victories in 2008 en route to becoming only the second driver to win multiple championships in the IndyCar Series. The New Zealand native also won the title as a rookie in 2003.
“The only way that you can try and do better than last year is to try and repeat.” Dixon said. “To try and repeat 2008 is going to be very tough. It was definitely a stellar season for myself and the team. I think (Target Chip Ganassi Racing) has a fantastic lineup if you just look at it as we’ve got the last two (Indianapolis) 500 champions, last two series champions.
“We definitely are going to have the target on our backs. It’s going to be a hard season, with a lot of the new people as such from last year, have had a lot of time in the cars now, and the teams have been able to prepare the cars maybe a little bit better, the competition level is going to be a lot tougher. 2009 is going to be an exciting season. I see a lot of different winners.”
2007 champion Franchitti, who joins TCGR after a year away from the IndyCar Series, will provide much of the competition. Franchitti has eight victories in his IndyCar Series career, including four in 2007.
“I think having Scott and I on the same team is good,” Franchitti said. “Scott is a great competitor, and he’s going to push me on. We’re going to push each other, for sure. We both believe we can do the job, Chip (Ganassi) believes we can do the job, the guys on the team believe we can do the job.”
Briscoe will attempt to bring Team Penske its second IndyCar Series title, although the team has had three runner-up finishes, including last year with driver Helio Castroneves. After getting acclimated to the team early in 2008, Briscoe finished the season with six consecutive top-10 finishes and recorded his first two series victories, finishing fifth overall. He started the offseason with a victory in the non-points race in Australia.
“I’m sure it’s going to be very tough this year, at least as tough as last year, and I think we’re all pretty sure it’s going to be more competitive. All of the equipment is exactly the same. We had a lot of new teams last year that all have a lot more experience, along with the drivers, so it’s going to be challenging. Team Penske has been working hard over the offseason, and I’ve been working hard and know where I need to improve on last year’s performances. Hopefully we can go out and be one of the guys running for the title.
“I think Scott’s going to be no different than how he’s been in previous years. He’s definitely excellent on any track we go to. I certainly look up to that, and it’s where I’m trying to get to. Hopefully, throughout the year I can keep improving and be right there with him.”
Kanaan seeks to return to the championship stage for the first time since 2004 when he dominated the series by completing every lap of every race, winning three times. Last year, Kanaan finished third overall with two race victories and 11 top-five finishes.
“I think more than ever this year it will be about winning races,” Kanaan said. “(Last year) Helio showed how consistent you can be and still not win a championship, and Dixon showed that winning races is the best way. It’s a combination, but winning races this year is going to be more important.”
Wheldon also promises to be in contention throughout the season. The 2005 champion migrates from Target Chip Ganassi Racing, where he won two races last season en route to fourth in the championship, to two-time championship-winning team Panther Racing.
“I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think we could win it,” Wheldon said. “It’s going to take some hard work. I think the team finished 13th in the championship last year, so it seems like a big jump, but it’s not somewhere that is certainly out of the realm of possibilities. The team has shown that they can win championships before, and so have I, and I think with the combination and hard work and determination we can definitely do it.”
Despite the stiff competition, the edge heading into 2009 may have to go to Dixon, who has guided the No. 9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing machine to Victory Lane in 10 of the last 26 races. If he can maintain that pace, a second consecutive title would be within reach.